Pilot project helps formerly imprisoned people find employment
From THE OKLAHOMAN
by Josh Dulaney
Most people wouldn’t look forward to a shift in a drainage ditch, with crisp winds whipping into the thick brush and making the work even tougher.
But on a gray Tuesday morning in Edgemere Park, Kevin Fletcher of Oklahoma City set about with a line trimmer and a lopper, content to be far away from a Lexington prison.
“It’s pretty hard being a felon and looking for work,” said Fletcher, 26. “Most people, when they see you’re a felon, they don’t want to give you a chance.”
Fletcher worked in a crew of five people, each of them an ex-prisoner earning their keep and seeking to build resumes under a pilot program funded by Oklahoma City and overseen by the nonprofit Center for Employment Opportunities.
On Sept. 1, the City Council approved a $62,500 contract with CEO. Under the six-month agreement, the Public Works and Utilities departments share the crew for grounds maintenance needs, channel cleaning and mowing.
The contract also allows for the General Services Department to share the crew for work such as removal of decals and obsolete communication equipment and preparing vehicles to be auctioned for sale.
A probation officer connected Fletcher with CEO. He was sent to prison in early 2016 on a probation violation stemming from a burglary five years earlier. Fletcher was released to probation again last December.
Fletcher says his violations were the result of a lack of money and unsteady housing.
“A lot of times, people are forced to do things they shouldn’t be doing,” he said.
CEO pays its participants daily. The practice helped convince Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer of the program’s merits.
“It’s a real lifeline coming out of the justice system and being able to get a check on the first day of work,” she said.
Hundreds of area Sooners have received the lifeline from CEO, a group based in New York that has opened offices in different cities across the country in recent years, including Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Since 2013, 864 people with recent criminal convictions have gained work experience through the nonprofit group. CEO-OKC has made 467 full-time job placements. About 35 percent of program participants are between the ages of 18 and 25. More than half are parents with children under the age of 18.
“When individuals are returning to the community from prison or jail, they’re facing significant barriers to being successful in their re-entry process,” said Pat Viklund, CEO’s Oklahoma City metro area director. “The key for us is employment. If they are able to find employment and pay their bills on top of all their court costs, they are much more likely to be successful in their community and not be back in jail.”
Orientation and work boots
Referrals come from probation and parole officers. Sometimes, through word-of-mouth, ex-prisoners will walk through the doors at 228 Robert S. Kerr Ave., Suite 600. They receive a one-week orientation on work readiness, start building a resume, practice interview skills and role-play workplace situations.
After orientation, they receive steel-toe boots.
“They’ve got that immediate incentive,” Viklund said. “It’s a crucial income for them. If they’re looking for a job on their own, after a couple months of failure, chances are they might do something that gets them into trouble again.”
Participants may work for CEO for 75 days. During the week, they visit the office and receive help finding full-time work, while also brushing up on the soft skills employers expect.
As an added incentive, once a participant finds a job, they might earn a $500 bonus if they bring in a pay stub each month for a year, and demonstrate that they’ve been a good employee.
“It’s like a working laboratory,” Viklund said.
The laboratory will end Feb. 28, but it might be extended.
“I took a little bit of coordination,” said Dennis Clowers, assistant city manager. “We know it’s a good program and so we’ll see how it goes this first contract term.”
Salyer, the Ward 6 councilwoman, said the program is well-rounded because it provides ex-prisoners a chance to impact the city.
“It is really important to me and important to them, because these folks are working now in their own communities,” she said. “It means a lot when you can make difference in their community and in their families.”
CEO provided Fletcher structure and a newfound sense of worth, he said. He was excited about getting a second interview with a national restaurant chain.
“This time I was more comfortable than I ever was,” Fletcher said. “More confident. I was on point.”
Now living with an uncle, Fletcher, who has some training in culinary arts, wants to someday run a restaurant, or open a food truck.
“I was tired of going to jail,” he said. “I hate the food. If I want to change, it starts with me.”