Businesses find giving ex-offenders a chance creates loyal employees

One of first things Brian Stirling did as the director of the S.C. Department of Corrections is watch how people are released from prison.

He noticed that they are dropped off at the bus station that was formerly at the corner of Gervais and Harden streets in Columbia. Many of the newly released offenders were enticed by drugs and prostitution before they could leave town.

“Some people didn’t have a chance,” he said during a panel discussion at the 2017 Workforce Development Symposium hosted by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW) and the State Workforce Development Board (SWDB).

He first instituted a plan to where if an inmate has a family member pick them up, they could leave prison at the beginning of the month. Next he focused on getting them a job even before they leave prison.

“My goal is to have a job for them to have a job before they leave,” he said. Having a job reduces the recidivism rate by 10 percent, he said. The recidivism rate for ex-offenders without a job is around 24 percent but only 14 percent among ex-offenders who are working.

With approximately 900 people are released from South Carolina prisons every month, former Gov. Nikki Haley urged the Corrections and DEW to partner in helping returning citizens find employment.

The Second Chance program began as a pilot program at the Manning Correctional Facility in Columbia. Through this initiative, DEW provides a full-time employee, coaching and materials to assist returning citizens in work-skills training.

Ninety days prior to release, ex-offenders are taught employment and soft skills in class for one hour each day. During the last 30 days, participants work directly with a DEW counselor to become registered in the SC Works system, craft a resume and apply for jobs online once released.The skills they learn through the Second Chance Initiative help leverage the skills they’ve acquired through the work programs.

Participants in the Second Chance Initiative receive a folder at the time of release that includes a Federal Bonding letter, several copies of their resume, a letter of explanation that outlines their personal situation, information on the SC Works centers across the state and contact information for a case manager in their local SC Works center, and any other information or available resources relevant to that individual.

“We want to make it hard for people to fail,” Stirling said.

Cheryl Stanton, DEW’s executive director, said as the unemployment rate falls to near record lows, the agency and employers start focusing people with barriers to employment, such as ex-offenders.

To encourage businesses to take a chance, DEW can help employers access tax credits through the federally funded Work Opportunity Tax Credit program. Employers can also receive protection through the Federal Bonding program to insure them when hiring a high-risk applicant, Stanton said.

“People in prison are not lazy, they made wrong decisions,” Stirling said.

Ken Ellington, director of Engineered Wood at Shaw Industries Group Inc. which has a manufacturing plant inside the Tyger River Correctional Facility in Enoree, S.C., and several plants outside the prison system, said about 50 percent of its South Carolina workforce are ex-offenders.

“We have a ton of skilled people,” he said. “They will become life-long, loyal employees.”

For more information about the Second Chance program click here, or contact Grey Parks at bparks@dew.sc.gov.