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Ending Mass Incarceration One Good Job at a Time

Nationwide, more than four out of ten adult American offenders return to prison within three years of their release. Too often, they return to a life of crime because they can't get a job, yet they can't get a job because of their prison record.
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Tristain Frye's success in life is important not just to her -- it's important to all of us.

Frye's road was not easy to become a carpenter's apprentice, working recently on a new building at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA.

When she was 22, she was sentenced to 12 years in state prison. At that point, the odds were solidly against her.

Nationwide, more than four out of ten adult American offenders return to prison within three years of their release. Too often, they return to a life of crime because they can't get a job, yet they can't get a job because of their prison record.

With 70 million people having an arrest or conviction record, often for drug problems or other nonviolent crimes, many Americans face an insurmountable barrier to finding work so they can support themselves and their families. That undermines public safety, and deprives employers of capable and often highly motivated workers.

In Tristain Frye's case, the cycle of crime was broken by an innovative partnership involving three construction trades unions -- the Laborers, Carpenters, and Ironworkers -- and the state women's prison in Gig Harbor, Washington.

They collaborate on a program called "Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching" (TRAC) that provides inmates the opportunity, while in prison, to learn building and construction trade skills. Upon release, they have a leg up to earn entry into a union apprenticeship program that leads to a career as a construction worker with good wages and benefits.

Frye was accepted into the 16-week program based on interviews and demonstration of basic math skills. She came with a reputation of not taking direction well and being easily distracted, but Steve Petermann, a retired carpenters union member who teaches in the TRAC program, was determined to give her a chance.

Frye and other women spent up to six hours a day learning the tools and techniques necessary for each specific trade, from hanging drywall to cutting lumber. They also were assigned homework from textbooks and worksheets and worked out in the prison gym to build up their physical strength.

In addition, they learned so-called "soft skills" needed for any job, such as showing up on time and working efficiently. The course of study also included basic financial management tools -- especially important for participants who may not have been employed before and who, like many construction workers, could expect to face downtime between projects.

"Before the TRAC program, I never really had any idea of what success was," said Frye. "But after completing the program and getting top scores for carpentry and ironwork, I realized I could get out of prison and establish a new life for myself."

Self-confidence is an important byproduct of the pre-apprenticeship program.

"It's important for these women to feel the satisfaction of doing a good job and being part of the community," Petermann said.

To instill leadership skills, he hires graduates from the program who have not yet been released to serve as teaching assistants and encourage other women in their development.

Union partnerships with prison authorities to prepare inmates for productive lives after being released have spread to other states as well. California, for example, has a pre-apprenticeship program in collaboration with the Carpenters, Laborers, and Iron Workers unions. Unions representing carpenters, roofers, electricians, painters and laborers are working with Jen Netherwood, a Journeyman carpenter, and local community colleges to help launch the Construction Related Employment for Women (CREW) program at a state prison in Oregon.

Some construction unions are taking other steps to open opportunities for former inmates who have served their time and need access to jobs that help them lead productive lives. The Iron Workers local union that covers Silicon Valley recently joined with allies to challenge Apple's policy barring ex-felons from thousands of construction jobs building the company an additional "campus."

Across the country, unions have often supported "Fair Chance" or "Ban the Box" proposals that remove from job applications the box to check concerning past arrests or convictions. Target, Walmart, and other major companies have already responded to Ban the Box pressure, as have 15 states and more than a hundred cities and counties.

The national federation of unions, the AFL-CIO, has called for a shift in America "from mass incarceration to mass employment." The unions point out that the number of people behind bars in America has tripled since 1980, to a rate five times greater than the world average. Approximately 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal jail prisoners, and 64% of local jail inmates have mental health or drug problems.

The union federation seeks to end the privatization of correctional facilities and services, reform sentencing policies for nonviolent crimes, provide effective alternatives to incarceration where appropriate, and expand proven strategies for reintegrating into society those who have served their time.

"The reports I get are that the apprentices we graduate from our program are the most motivated workers you could find anywhere, " said Steve Petermann, Tristain Frye's instructor. "They've been given a second chance in life, and they are determined to make the most of it."

Frye says that she feels "totally blessed and grateful to everyone who has helped me become the union carpenter I am today." The rest of us can be grateful, too. Success for former inmates like her means safer and more productive communities for all of us.

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