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Felons reentering society have it even tougher in down economy

Thomas Hawk
Getting out of jail in a tough economy can make reentry into society that much harder for people already hard to employ.

VANCOUVER, Wash. — It can be hard to find a job these days – especially with a felony conviction on your record.

That's the position offenders in the Clark County work release program have found themselves in. The inmates, who are serving the last few months of their sentence, are tasked with finding work to help them build up savings and gain work experience to help them reenter society.

It's become even more difficult now, with high unemployment rates and experienced workers (many without criminal records) snatching up jobs they traditionally wouldn't pursue in a better economy, said Chad Lewis, Department of Corrections spokesman.

"It's the unemployment story you don't really think of," Lewis said. "The reason we're paying attention to it is because of public safety. Work release is predicated on them, of course, working."

Stakes are high

Although there is no deadline for offenders to find work, they could be sent back to prison if their search takes too long. That never really came up in the past.

A few years ago, people were able to find work in a few weeks, said Jason Dewey, one of two corrections officers who work with the local program.

Now, offenders may be given more time to find work because of the economy, he said.

"We know it's hard to find a job and understand it's a longer process," Dewey said.

Better than $40 and out

Debra Lepak of Vancouver is one of the offenders who is looking for work. She's still optimistic after two weeks in the program.

At first, it was intimidating to be back in public looking for work. But being in work release is better than the alternative: being released with $40 and nowhere to go.

"I didn't want to get out on the street and look for housing," she said. "I don't want to trip up. I want to get all my ducks in a row."

The idea is, if offenders have a plan and routine for life outside of custody, it can help prevent them from falling back into their old lifestyle, Dewey said.

"They need to find structure in their lives," he said.

Up to them, in the end

Lepak is spending the last six months of her 17-month sentence for possession of heroin in the work release program.

Lepak and other inmates in the Clark County program live in a facility at the Clark County Jail Work Center west of the Fruit Valley neighborhood. They are supervised on-site and must report their job search or work activities to corrections officers. They pay $13.50 per day to stay there.

Lepak is keeping her employment options open. In the past week, she visited pizza parlors, stores, burger joints, restaurants and a telemarketing firm.

On Thursday afternoon, she went to a few places on Mill Plain Boulevard. Her first stop: Ming's Restaurant and Lounge.

The bartender and hostess, Lindy Walstead, told Lepak the restaurant wasn't hiring but that applications are always welcome. Walstead gave her a few promising leads, including the name of the manager at the Elmer's restaurant down the street.

Lepak would have to wait to visit Elmer's.

Tight, controlled schedule

Offenders tell their supervising officers where they are going before they head out. They have to keep track of when they arrived, with whom they spoke, what they did and what time they left. Diverting from their plan isn't allowed, even if they have spare time.

After Ming's, Lepak stopped by Dairy Queen, Kaady Car Wash and Baskin-Robbins. None of the places were hiring, but Lapak left an application or résumé whenever possible.

If she was in the program a few years back, she would probably have multiple employment choices even before she arrived in the program, corrections officer Dewey said.

Looking hard, finding less

In the past, about 99 percent of offenders were employed after their first week in the program. Employment rates now hover around 75 percent, though many people cannot find work for several weeks, he said.

Tyler Ashton, 19, couldn't find work immediately. It wasn't because he was taking it easy.

"I gave it 110 percent," Ashton said. He visited at least 300 places on his six-week search. Many of them weren't hiring or wanted applications online.

That's another problem: Inmates aren't allowed to have access to computers except during once-a-week Work Source visits.

Ashton just started a part-time telemarketing job to stay in work release. He would have preferred to take a job offer he had at Papa Murphy's, but he had to turn it down because the manager couldn't give him a set schedule, which is required by the program.

Resume still important

Other inmates are struggling because of outdated résumés or a lack of work experience.

In some cases, an unimpressive résumé can be more of a deterrent than a felony charge, Dewey said.

"The big problem we have is the 40- or 50 year-olds that come in have no work history," he said. "It's obviously hard to find work in this economy without work history."

That leads many people in the program to accept entry level positions in any field just to have a job.

'Not looking for pot of gold'

Lepak is a power sewing machine operator by trade, she said. Her most recent job before her conviction was being an in-home care provider for an elderly man, she said.

Ideally, she would like to open her own travel agency and work with her sisters. She's willing to put that dream on hold to get back on track.

"I'm not looking for a mansion in the sky or a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow," she said.

Lepak visited Elmer's since we last checked in with her, but missed the manager she was referred to.

She hasn't made a second visit but did accept a part-time telemarketing job at Cascade Callworks in the Van Mall neighborhood, Dewey said Tuesday.

She is still pursuing other leads to find another part-time job, he said.


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