Ex-cons literally work to stay out of prison

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Every day as Homer Eugene Hill spends eight hours assembling filters inside the giant blue Goodwill Industries building in Haughville, he recalls all the days he missed of his family growing up while he served time in Indiana prisons.

“The day I woke up in jail, the last time I woke up in jail, I was ready to get out and change my life. I was sick and tired of doing the same old stuff. It was getting too old for me,” said Hill, a seven-time felon with a history of gun and drug convictions. “I ain’t never had a job before in my life so when I come down here to New Beginnings and they help me out like that, I really appreciate it.”

New Beginnings is the six-hour long life skills class Hill attends one day a week when he’s not out on the floor doing the light industrial, assembly and packaging work that keeps 265 people employed at Goodwill’s warehouse size building, three out of four of them ex-offenders.

“They got school so if you ain’t really brushed up on your school skills, or you ain’t been in school in a minute, they brush you up on your skills get you back to where you need to be,” said Hill as the noise of the factory drowned out his words. “They help you with everything. If you ask, they got it. They gonna help you with it.”

The Marion County Reentry Coalition reports that without a job, there’s a nearly 50/50 chance an ex-offender will be back behind bars within three years after committing more crimes in the community and costing taxpayers more money.

A one percent drop in the recidivism rate, reports the IU Public Policy Institute, saves taxpayers $1.55 million over three years.

Last week was National Reentry Week.

“They’ve already served their time. They’ve already paid their dues,” said Trelles Evans, Goodwill’s director of re-entry and disability services.  “We put that behind them and our process here is to move forward, and so we look at the things that they can do positive and move forward with their lives.”

Evans said ex-offenders also receive help in the vocational training and attaining the professional certifications that help 75% of them move on to better paying jobs within six months.

“Employment is one of the biggest factors in recidivism. So not having a steady job is going to be a huge factor in whether or not they return to jail or prison,” said April Angermeier of Community Solutions, a   consulting firm focusing on public health and criminal justice issues. “It’s about public safety, too. It helps the community when people can successfully reintegrate. It decreases the risk for people to reoffend and therefore makes our community safer. It also gets them back to being a taxpayer which helps build our community.”

Goodwill Industries hires just one-third of the ex-offenders who apply for jobs and only two percent of its employees return to jail.

“A lot of it has to do with supports,” said Angermeier. “A lot of people that come back, they may not have family support systems anymore. They may not have friends that are a support system anymore. They may have burned some bridges that will make it hard for them to come back and reintegrate. A huge part of it is they may have a hard time finding a job. Finding housing. There are lots of restrictions on housing.

“Having gainful employment is a huge factor in whether or not you’re going to go back,” said Angermeier. “I think it’s about 63% of people that reoffend are unemployed at the time of re-offense.”

After wasting his adulthood behind bars, Hill is ready to leave life out on the streets behind.

“Actually this is my ‘hood,” he said. “I’m from Haughville. Every time…I turn around and look at that big blue building and I keep on pushing.

“This is my team,” said Hill, gesturing toward his co-workers. “It’s called Team Homer right here.

“A lot of us in here is ex-offenders. A lot of people that you see in here right now that aint going…they want to be here.”

Hill said his example has convinced a couple friends to seek employment.

“The odds of you going back to jail in the ‘hood without something keeping you occupied…the odds are pretty steep you going back in the joint,” said Hill. “I know almost all my buddies like that.”

Looking back, Hill said he wished he would’ve been employed during his teens and learned the value of a hard-earned dollar as opposed to pursuit of an illegal fast buck.

“I was just too hard headed,” said Hill. “There was definitely jobs out there.”

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