On Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
Judith is a newly-minted head chef. She had previously been a line cook, and was nervous about interviewing for a job running her own kitchen, but decided to take the plunge after some convincing. When it came time to speak to the hiring manager, Judith, in her own self-assessment, “killed it.”
Before Judith was head chef, before she was a line cook, before she knew kitchen skills, she was incarcerated. But it was her time in “Rosie,” the Rose M. Singer women’s jail on Rikers Island, that placed her on her trajectory to becoming a chef.
In April 2017, four months before her release from Rikers, Judith began participating in the workforce development programming offered onsite by the Osborne Association, a New York-based nonprofit that provides social services for the currently and formerly incarcerated. Osborne offers a number of professional education workshops and certification programs on Rikers, and Judith began training intensely with the group.
“I took advantage of...everything I could get my hands on,” she told Gotham Gazette, and ended up leaving Rikers with certificates in food handling, culinary arts, building maintenance, and job safety.
Upon her release, Osborne’s housing staff helped her secure a home, and its employment team reviewed her resume, coached her on interview skills, organized her paperwork, and placed her in an apprenticeship in a kitchen. When the apprenticeship ended, Osborne helped Judith find permanent employment and supported her emotionally as she progressed professionally.
“They kept encouraging me that it’d be okay, that I need to keep pushing forward. It wouldn’t have happened without them,” she said.
The Osborne Association is one of several organizations in New York City providing services to those incarcerated in city jails, both during their confinement and after their release. Most have been operating for decades — Osborne was founded in 1933, and its peer group, the Fortune Society, has operated since 1967 — and receive city funding. But it’s only been within the past year that the city government has mobilized the Osborne Association, the Fortune Society, and six other incarceration-services organizations — Samaritan Daytop Village, Fedcap, Housing Works, Friends of Island Academy, the Women’s Prison Association, and the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College — to provide short-term transitional employment to every individual leaving a city jail after serving a sentence.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that lofty goal, which he promised to actualize through the new “Jails to Jobs Initiative,” in March 2017. Jails to Jobs is now a component of the mayor’s ten-year plan to shutter the city jails on Rikers Island by reducing the jail population, combating recidivism, and opening or expanding modern borough-based facilities. The mayor’s announcement was scant on details on the program, simply promising that “everyone leaving city jails after serving a sentence will be offered paid, short-term transitional employment to help with securing a long-term job.”
Employment after incarceration has been shown to reduce recidivism by 22%, and de Blasio says that the city needs to reduce its jail population to 5,000 — almost a 50% drop from figures at the time of his announcement — in order to make feasible the closure of Rikers. In 2017, the average total population of those incarcerated on Rikers or the city’s other jail facilities stood at 9,148. On Monday, July 2, the total city jail population was 8,208, including 6,138 on Rikers, down from 9,206 one year prior.
Roughly 8,500 people leave city jails each year after serving a sentence (many more are incarcerated after an arrest but do not necessarily serve a sentence in a city or any jail or prison). It is not clear what capacity the city needs to ensure through provider agencies to make sure that each of those individuals has access to a “paid, short-term” job. The program is in its infancy. There is no set duration for “short-term,” a mayor’s office spokesperson said, indicating that it depends on the needs of the client and the service-provider.
Employment is, by most empirical measures, both crucial to successful post-incarceration reentry and disproportionately difficult to attain for the formerly incarcerated. In 2017, 80% of those who served a sentence in a New York City jail had been unemployed at the time of their arraignment, and the National Institute of Justice estimates that between 60 and 75 percent of formerly-incarcerated individuals are jobless up to a year after their release.
This joblessness does not seem to be for lack of effort. A survey conducted by the Urban Institute reported that 79% of formerly-incarcerated individuals sought employment once out of jail, but data show that justice-involved individuals consistently face legal, perceptive, and racialized barriers to employment. More than 80% of employers in the United States perform criminal background checks on potential employees, and a government-published study conducted in New York City found that a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a job callback by almost 50%.
Still, white justice-involved applicants were twice as likely to hear back from a potential employer than black justice-involved applicants were. In a city that jails black and Latino people almost exclusively, this racial disparity has far-reaching effects.
Guaranteed employment for the formerly-incarcerated, then, would radically alter the conditions of thousands of New Yorkers leaving a city jail, and Jails to Jobs seems to be the first initiative of its kind in the United States. It may prove to be a massively complex undertaking.
The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) is spearheading the initiative in collaboration with eight criminal justice nonprofits. “The bulk of the initiative,” said Patrick Gallahue, MOCJ’s senior press director, “includes paid transitional employment and supportive services in the community.”
The city works with groups that provide an array of services. For instance, the Friends of Island Academy holistically focuses on the needs of formerly-incarcerated youths while the Women’s Prison Association offers gender-specific services, and Housing Works helps the formerly-incarcerated secure stable housing, a well-documented struggle for justice-involved individuals.
Several leaders of the city’s partner organizations spoke to Gotham Gazette of Jails to Jobs’ collaborative nature, whereby affiliated groups freely refer individuals to other organizations that may be better suited to their needs. For instance, if a Brooklyn resident sought assistance from the Fortune Society, based in Long Island City, Queens, staff there said they might refer them to the Osborne Association, which runs a center in Brooklyn Heights.
The Jails to Jobs initiative officially commenced on January 1 of this year, but most organizations began providing services under the program’s auspices in the spring, meaning the program has only recently launched in earnest.
The network of groups finding employment for formerly-incarcerated people is labyrinthine, and Jails to Jobs runs slightly differently between organizations. When MOCJ solicited programming proposals for Jails to Jobs, it wrote that the city would “strongly favor proposals that demonstrate partnerships through subcontracting or formal cost-sharing arrangements.” As a result, most Jails to Jobs participants are placed into internships through subsidiary organizations.
As of mid-June, the Osborne Association had employed 30 formerly-incarcerated individuals via three different, smaller groups — the Center for Employment Opportunity, Exponent, and the Hope Program — though it hopes to reach 150 people by the end of this year and 200 by the next.
The Center for Employment Opportunity primarily provides day labor cleanup crews and employs Jails to Jobs participants for four to five hours a day at $13 an hour. Exponent, a substance-use program, provides services and certifies in counseling. Programs have not yet begun at the Hope Program.
The Fortune Society, for its part, hopes to place 300 individuals in employment by the end of the year, and had enrolled 128 as of mid-June, 2018. That enrollment figure, as with all similar statistics from service providers, includes more than just the individuals who are currently employed in a paid, temporary internship — Jails to Jobs also funds hard skills training, including culinary, construction, and CDL driving certification.
“It’s going to look different for each person,” said Katharine Samberg, the Fortune Society’s Manager of Trainings and Transitional Programs. “Some don’t have job experience, and the transitional work program is for people who need to get a footing and realize they can be a beneficial employee.”
Experiences vary along lines of gender, as well. In 2015, women comprised roughly 6% of the city jail population, and their experiences before, during, and after incarceration differ from those of men, said Nyasha Rivera, who oversees the Jails to Jobs program at the Women’s Prison Association.
“We are not using tools that were created for men or are gender-neutral,” Rivera told Gotham Gazette. Since they are often the primary caregivers of children, meaning they must live in bigger homes, be nearer to sources of support, and are often more undesirable to landlords, women typically face less housing stability post-release than men do, which depresses their ability to find employment. And gender-specific “trauma that women experience prior to incarceration, during incarceration, and in the reentry process...serves as a barrier,” Rivera said.
The Women’s Prison Association offers, through various partnerships, employment tracks in culinary arts, building maintenance, and front-of-house restaurant work. As part of Jails to Jobs, the Association offers eight paid weeks of job training followed by a two-week paid internship, a different program than those run by other service providers.
Still, explained Jim Hollywood of Daytop Samaritan Village, “all Jails to Jobs contracts across the city have a similar construction to the programs.” Job training services begun during incarceration place individuals in contact with service providers, who continue employment support after release, which comes, in part, in the form of a city-subsidized temporary internship.
MOCJ allocated almost $9 million -- $8,885,492 -- to the Jails to Jobs program in its first year, which it’s spent mainly in the form of grants to service providers. That money pays for the minimum wage salaries of program participants for up to 21 hours a week, assuaging, the hope is, any sense among employers that to employ a formerly-incarcerated person is to undertake a risk.
Employers can choose to supplement the schedules and salaries of their formerly-incarcerated employees beyond what the city guarantees. Such is the case of Alexandra, who spent 18 months on Rikers Island and a little over a year in state prisons. She connected with the Fortune Society while on Rikers through taking its anger management, family safety, and job training workshops. Upon release, Alexandra entered into an internship at a home health services facility that employs her for over 40 hours a week, paying the half of her full-time salary that the city, through the Fortune Society, does not cover.
Like Judith, Alexandra (Gotham Gazette agreed to withhold last names) credits her connection with an incarceration-services group for her stable re-entry process. Immediately following her release from the Taconic State Prison, where she was sent after time on Rikers, staff at the Fortune Society helped Alexandra open a Medicaid account, apply for food stamps, and begin learning skills necessary for re-integration. She called it a “one-stop shop” in an interview with Gotham Gazette, and is now poised to be hired full-time as a coordinator at the home health services facility once her internship ends this month.
It is difficult to ascertain whether the successes of Judith and Alexandra are representative of most participants’ experiences with Jails to Jobs; most organizations only began running the program two or three months ago. But each service provider, as per the terms of MOCJ’s solicitation for proposals, already has extensive experience in reentry programming in New York City.
Data points for the program are tricky to come by. For example, Gallahue, the MOCJ press director, told Gotham Gazette that the city does “not have a precise number” regarding the expected demand for jobs among recently-released individuals. Though at this time it is known that approximately 8,500 people leave city jails after serving a sentence each year, MOCJ could not say how many individuals who had served a sentence could be expected to be looking for a job at any given time.
No organization told Gotham Gazette of having to turn away an individual for lack of space in an employment program; if anything, most are eager to grow. But, in the words of City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Committee on the Justice System, without a figure from the city, it is nearly impossible to assure that “every person serving a city sentence would have access to this job training, job placement program...it’s incumbent on the city to explain how it’s going to meet its commitment of serving every person serving a city sentence.”
Anecdotally, a minority of those released from city jails, even those who’d been involved with a service provider while incarcerated, seek post-release services. Judith said that she is the only one of her roughly 20 peers who’d been enrolled in Osborne’s classes on Rikers to seek out the organization’s help once off the island.
Her two closest friends from Rosie “have every excuse [to not go to Osborne]...For one, it’s easier for her to sell drugs on the street, and, for the other one, it’s her boyfriend.”
Improved outreach would help, she said — for some, organizations should “take them by the hand.”
The employment services Jails to Jobs has added resources to have changed Judith’s life, she said.
“I’m so grateful to that program. They did a wonder job on me. A wonder job.”