Letters to the Editor

Job skills help keep ex-offenders from returning to prison

By Bryan Stirling and Cheryl Stanton

Each year, approximately 10,000 people are released from South Carolina prisons. Far too often, however, ex-offenders are released into the same environment from which they came.

They return to the same neighborhood and interact with the same acquaintances, lacking the education or skills needed to succeed outside of prison. This can lead to individuals landing back in prison either by violating parole or on new convictions.

This week, April 24-30, is National Re-entry Week, where we bring focus to the issues of returning ex-offenders into our communities and to the steps we’ve taken to reduce the rate of people returning to prison. An important part of the release process is preparing individuals to re-enter society and reducing the likelihood that they will return.

Here’s what we know: individuals with criminal records, particularly recently incarcerated individuals, face serious and complex obstacles to successful re-entry. The long-term impact of a criminal record prevents many people from obtaining employment, housing, higher education and credit.

In South Carolina, nearly 90 percent of offenders are released from prison in five years or less. The state has a choice to make: prepare offenders for successful re-entry or continue the generational cycle of incarceration.

We have chosen to provide inmates with opportunities for education, skills training and work experience as part of a pre-release program, a leading factor in reducing the recidivism rate, which is nearly 25 percent in South Carolina.

Gov. Nikki Haley urged the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) and the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW) to partner and find a solution to reducing this rate.

One effective effort in achieving this is the Work Ready Initiative, which is a partnership between the SCDC and the DEW. The program began in November 2014 as a “One Stop Shop” for employment services within prison walls.

Under this program, DEW provides a full-time employee, laptops and materials to assist qualified returning citizens with work-skills training at the Manning Correctional facility in Columbia. Specific requirements must be met by the participant, including a disciplinary-free record, non-violent offenses for incarceration and a GED or high school diploma, to be eligible to participate in the Work Ready Initiative.

Ninety days prior to release, offenders are taught employment and soft skills for one hour each day. During the last 30 days, offenders work directly with a DEW counselor to become registered in the SC Works system, craft a resume and apply for jobs online. Contacts are made with employers and if employment is not secured prior to release, returning citizens are transitioned to a representative at their local SC Works office for additional services, post release.

The skills they learn through Work Ready Initiative helps the critical skills they’ve acquired through the many work programs, including carpentry, welding and agriculture.

Today, 98 individuals have successfully completed the Work Ready Initiative and are currently employed, while 466 offenders are currently enrolled, learning the skills necessary to find employment after they are released.

SCDC and DEW also are registering returning citizens into the SC Works system. Once they have an account, they can start the process of finding work by searching the job database, uploading their resumes and accessing other services provided to jobseekers.

We provide programs and services, like the Work Ready Initiative, in hopes that our inmates will take advantage of them in order to better their lives after leaving prison.

We are seeing results from these programs with a lower recidivism rate. While the current rate for the entire S.C. prison population is 24.9 percent, the recidivism rate for people involved in the pre-release program is 22.6 percent; in the work program 18 percent; and the prison industry program is 15.3 percent.

SCDC and DEW have a duty to South Carolinians to help individuals become productive members of society and make SC a safer, more prosperous place. Education, training, and employment play an integral part in safer communities, lower recidivism, and fewer tax dollars being spent on offenders.  

We are proud of the progress we’ve made and thankful to the businesses who are giving these individuals a chance, but there is still work to be done. Through collaboration, we can change more lives, reduce crime and protect our communities by giving these individuals the opportunity they deserve to succeed as they re-enter our labor force and rejoin our communities.

Stirling is director of the S.C. Department of Corrections; Stanton is executive director of the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.