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In the week ending May 30, more than 60,000 Oklahomans filed new unemployment claims, making Oklahoma one of three states with the largest increases in initial claims. As job growth from the last five years has essentially been lost, those Oklahomans who have been arrested or incarcerated will be hit especially hard by these changes. Before the added impacts of COVID-19, justice-involved individuals already faced substantial barriers to finding gainful employment after incarceration. A lack of stable employment is one of the most common reasons that people return to prison, and individuals with a year of employment were significantly less likely to return to prison than those who were unable to find a job. The current economic crisis is exacerbating these existing issues, and Oklahoma must act to ensure that this population is as prepared as possible to enter the workforce.
In recent years, Oklahoma has taken meaningful steps towards reducing our high incarceration rate. Last November, 572 Oklahomans were released in the largest single-day commutation in national history, and 111 more were released in April of this year. Large scale commutations are being used nationwide to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. Organizations across the state have joined OK Policy in calling for the release of individuals who are elderly, immunocompromised, eligible for compassionate or early release, or within six months of release, as this could give facilities a legitimate chance to mitigate the spread whether in the virus’ current wave or in future outbreaks. In addition to these steps, Oklahoma must also introduce innovative ways to prepare people for release and keep them from returning to prison. One way to do this is by investing in a streamlined path from prison to work that provides training in a specific vocation, interviews with employers, and the chance for a guaranteed job after release, in order to provide adequate opportunities for our neighbors to find consistent, high-wage employment.
Job training in prisons is more important than ever.
Justice-involved Oklahomans have an unemployment rate five times higher than the statewide average. Ensuring access to guaranteed jobs or apprenticeships upon release would go a long way towards reducing the unemployment rate among the formerly incarcerated. Corrections agencies in Michigan and California have formed partnerships with local unions and private businesses in an effort to provide streamlined and accessible ways for those leaving prison to succeed on day one. These programs create a pathway for high-quality workers to obtain high-quality jobs as soon as they are released.
In Michigan, participants in one training program meet real employers before they are released, and about two-thirds of graduates have a job waiting the day they leave. Michigan also partners with a local union to train and place people in the tree-trimming trade, with jobs starting at $17 per hour. In California, the Prison to Employment Connection allows participants to network with employers, often resulting in post-release employment. Recidivism for program participants is remarkably low at one percent. Instituting a similar program in Oklahoma wouldn’t just benefit participants; the effects would be felt statewide. Before the pandemic, 48 percent of new jobs in Oklahoma were projected to require an associate’s degree or similar credential by 2028, and only 31 percent of Oklahomans have attained that qualification. High-paying jobs requiring these certifications will likely be in high demand. Tailoring employment efforts within correctional facilities to critical jobs provides an ideal opportunity to begin to fill the skills gap.
Oklahoma’s prison to work path could guarantee high-wage employment, qualified and dedicated employees, an ability to fill needs in the job market, and most importantly, a legitimate second chance with the tools to make it work.
Oklahoma has taken good first steps, but we must do more.
Career training and preparation is not new to Oklahoma’s prisons, but it is often inaccessible. Last November’s mass commutation led to the creation of transition fairs that introduced incarcerated individuals to community resources. However, no employers were present, and these transition fairs were only available to those who were eligible to be commuted.
Some organizations have already brought training to Oklahoma’s prison. For example, The Last Mile provides business and technology training at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center. Oklahoma’s CareerTech program brings training in a broad range of vocations to prisons, and tailors their trainings to market demands. Research proves that this type of investment in job training reduces crime. To create this new path to work, the state could increase CareerTech’s budget by just one percent and designate this almost $2 million for implementation of the path to work program. While the state is facing a revenue shortfall and many agencies will see budget cuts this year, investments in job training combined with compassionate release of at-risk individuals could generate millions in savings by helping to break cycles of incarceration.
A path to work can reduce our prison population and give our neighbors the resources they need.
In the midst of crisis, Oklahoma can and should better equip returning citizens to succeed. An accessible path from prison to employment can help those with felony convictions find high-wage employment immediately following incarceration. This can be achieved by investing in public-private partnerships and facilitating organized interviews with real employers. Training programs in prisons have always been important. Expanding these programs to ensure employment will help justice-involved individuals avoid the compounding impacts of a criminal record and the unemployment crisis. This won’t completely solve the problems that Oklahoma is facing, but it could go a long way towards reducing our prison population and helping those with felony convictions find high-wage, life-changing employment after incarceration.
About the Author
Emma Morris serves as the Public Policy Intern. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma in fall 2019 with dual degrees in Women’s and Gender Studies, and Public and Nonprofit Administration. She is an alumnus of OK Policy’s Oklahoma Summer Policy Institute.