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United Way of Lancaster County


Exiting prison, entering the workforce: Panelists make the case for hiring reentrants

Jeffrey Abramowitz, inset, leads a panel discussion on reentry at the Lancaster Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 offices at Burle Business Center on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. Panelists are, from left, Dorenda Hamarlund, Carrie Kurtz, Dave Russ and Calvin Twyman. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

In 2013, Calvin Twyman needed an employer willing to take a chance on him.

He had been in and out of prison since high school and had just been released after serving 5 1/2 years on a drug charge. He wanted to turn his life around.

Calvin Twyman

“I was fed up,” he said.

Today, he’s coming up on a decade as an employee with Flagger Force, a Hummelstown-based company that provides traffic control services all along the East Coast from Pennsylvania through Florida. Twyman has been a model employee, “one of our best,” said Dave Russ, a Flagger Force field manager.

Twyman and Russ were part of a Lancaster Chamber panel discussion Tuesday on employing reentrants — individuals returning to the community after time in jail or prison. Done right, it’s a win for everyone, the panelists said: Companies get employees who are dedicated and eager to prove themselves, reentrants get the income and stability they need to rebuild their lives, and society at large sees reduced recidivism.

If you’re willing to open up your recruiting to the reentrant population, “you will be amazed at what will come to you,” said Dorenda Hamarlund, a workforce development specialist with the state Department of Corrections’ Office of Reentry.

First of several

Tuesday’s event was the first in a series being planned by the chamber and the Lancaster County Reentry Coalition.

Tim Shenk

Tim Shenk of Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 chairs the coalition’s “impact group” on education, employment and training. It determined there was a need to increase local employers’ awareness and understanding around reentry, he said, and was able to secure funding for targeted forums through the Lancaster County Community Foundation’s “Community Bridge Builders” program.

Upcoming forums will be industry-specific. The tentative lineup includes construction, manufacturing, hospitality, live entertainment and temp staffing, said chamber President Heather Valudes.

A perpetual Great Depression

The U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate among developed countries, exceeding 650 per 100,000 population. A 2018 study found that 113 million American adults have a family member who has spent at least one night in jail.

The unemployment rate among former prison inmates is around 27% — higher than the rate during the Great Depression, moderator Jeffrey Abramowitz noted.

Lack of employment opportunities is one of the main factors that drives people to re-offend, researchers and advocates say.

Dorenda Hamarlund

It costs taxpayers $42,000 to imprison someone for a year, Hamarlund said, even before you consider all the effects on that person’s family, including children, and the broader community. Keeping people out of prison has huge payoffs, she and Abramowitz said. (Update, Feb. 21: In a follow-up email to One United Lancaster, Hamarlund said she had quoted a figure that was several years old; currently, Pennsylvania spends around $63,800 per inmate per year.)

Dave Russ

Anytime you hire someone, there’s a risk, Russ said. In his experience, hiring reentrants isn’t any riskier, and they tend to be more loyal and stay longer with the company.

Flagger Force is a “Second Chance” partner with the Department of Corrections, and probably employs around 150 reentrants companywide, Russ said. Its total workforce is around 1,900.

Other employees are usually understanding, but not always, he said. Flagger Force conducts training and enforces a strict policy against harassment or discrimination against co-workers based on criminal history or any other reason.

Abramowitz, a former trial lawyer, is a reentrant himself, having been released in 2015 after serving a federal prison sentence for embezzlement. Upon release, he lived in a shelter for a year, he said. Today he is the CEO of the Petey Greene Program, a tutoring program for inmates and reentrants.

Carrie Kurtz

Reentrants face numerous barriers, and the majority relate to employment, Abramowitz said. You can’t count on a reentrant having access to the things most of us take for granted. Many lack a driver’s license a vehicle or a fixed address. They may not have a bank account or enough money to buy work supplies until they get their first paycheck.

“Don’t assume anything,” he said.

A background check should be a starting point, not an automatic disqualifier, he said. Reentrants are acutely aware of how their bad choices worked out for them, and most are eager to do differently.

Almost all inmates will be released sooner or later. At Lancaster County Prison, most individuals stay less than 90 days; the average is 74 days, according to the prison needs assessment released late last year.

It says the facility processed 3,677 releases in the 12 months ending in mid-September, representing 3,172 unique individuals. (One in five individuals accounted for multiple releases.) Those numbers are down by 30% or more compared with before the pandemic.

Sentences of two years and up are served in state prison. About 500 individuals a year return to Lancaster County from state facilities, said Carrie Kurtz, the Reentry Coalition’s director of reentry planning and coordination.

Parole and probation officers are eager to see their parolees succeed and are a valuable resource for ironing out difficulties. Parole Officer Tammy Harris said she’s personally driven parolees to their jobs when necessary.

“We go above and beyond,” she said.

State prison inmates can earn national certification in 28 different vocational programs, Hamarlund said. Workforce training is harder to implement at county facilities, because turnover is much more rapid, but the County Prison makes opportunities available, Kurtz said, and coalition partners and prison staff work to connect people with programs they can continue with once they’re out.

Employers who hire reentrants may be eligible for Work Opportunity Tax Credits, Hamarlund said. Additionally, there is a free federal program that provides $5,000 surety bonds on reentrants for the first six months of employment.

Even if an employer hires just one reentrant, it makes a difference, she said.

“All we ever ask is one person,” she said. “Just do one and see what happens.”