Jamaal Smith only had $137 and the clothes on his back when he walked out of the gates of the Oklahoma State Reformatory in mid-2013. After 10 years behind bars on drug charges, he felt like he had very few resources to get his life back on track.
“It's too much,” said Smith, 33. “When you've got too much time on your hands in there, no skills to brush up on to at least be somewhat prepared, it's a crippling effect to a lot of men and women.”
Thursday, the Center for Employment Opportunities, a national organization that helps people with criminal records find jobs, announced the opening of an office in Oklahoma City to help former inmates like Smith find and maintain employment.
Newly released offenders are allowed to walk away from prison with any money they had saved from performing a job while incarcerated, but many leave their institution with the minimum $50 provided by the state Corrections Department and a bus ticket to the county of their conviction.
Smith said he received little to no counsel on how to reintegrate into society. Skills like creating a resume and how to properly interview for a job seemed well out of his reach.
Smith now works as a prep cook and baker at an Oklahoma City cafeteria.
Former inmates don't just need help with these kinds of skills, they need help getting their foot in the door in the first place, said Kelly Doyle, state director of the Center for Employment Opportunities in Oklahoma.
“Third-party background checks have become pretty much the staple. Even fast food restaurants like McDonalds are doing background checks,” Doyle said.
“People with convictions aren't often even given the opportunity to explain what happens and how their mindset has changed and what they now want their life to be like. They're often automatically weeded out of the pool.”
The Center for Employment Opportunities builds relationships with parole officers to identify former inmates with the highest level of need and partners with local businesses to help place those individuals in jobs suited to their skill set, Doyle said.
The company is currently under contract with the city of Moore to assist with the clean up of last year's tornadoes. Former prisoners have cleared ditches, removed debris, and mowed and cleared devastated areas.
“It's just been very good for us in terms of the storm area, clean up and recovery,” said Stephen Eddy, city manager.
“It's been very beneficial for us and hopefully for these participants, as well.”
According to Doyle, a recent study showed participants in the program had a 20 percent lower recidivism rate than their counterparts and 60 percent find job placement.
Doyle said former inmates still have something to offer society and giving them a hand reintegrating benefits their communities.
“We're excluding an entire population who need work to ‘rehabilitate themselves,'” Doyle said. “Helping them find jobs is really pertinent to us all.”