Here's How We Turn Mass Incarceration Into Mass Employment

When Grammy Award-winning singer John Legend covered "Redemption Song" last week, his sound filled an unlikely venue. But his audience--hundreds of prisoners at the women's prison in Washington State--may have the most grateful ears for such a liberating song.

He was visiting the prison, the Washington Corrections Center for Women, along with leaders of the AFL-CIO to highlight an innovative labor union partnership that's been preparing prisoners there for return to society.

"The overarching story is [the criminal justice system] is not healthy right now," he said, introducing the song. "We need to focus more on fairness, compassion, mercy, and restoring people so they can be whole and go back into the community and live productive, compassionate, healthy lives."

Before Legend's visit, we joined with the National Employment Law Project (NELP) to release a new report to bring attention to how unions are creating job training programs nationwide to help people coming out of prison. Programs like Washington's own "Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching" (TRAC) program prepare prisoners and the formerly incarcerated for one of the most difficult parts of reentering society, finding work.

One the most effective ways to reduce prison populations is to help the formerly incarcerated get good jobs that pay living wages and provide decent benefits. Today, more than four out of ten adult American offenders return to prison within three years of their release. Finding work can limit this recidivism, but all too often, people are released without the skills needed in growing industries or the professional networks to access good jobs.

Washington Corrections Center for Women's TRAC program trains incarcerated women in building and construction work, providing a leg up in earning entry into a union apprenticeship program that leads to a career with good wages and benefits. I was lucky enough to meet some of the women in the program several years ago, and their stories are inspiring.

Ending mass incarceration will succeed only if the formerly incarcerated have skills and, ultimately, good jobs.