WASHINGTON, D.C.-Washington, D.C., native Michael Pinckney, 52, has a diverse resumé: supervisor of computer technologies, paralegal, waiter, chef, and federal prisoner.
It's not one that lands him many jobs-or even many interviews. Since he was released from jail in February, after serving 22 months for violating his probation, he hasn't found a single employer willing to give him a second look.
"It's a difficult transition when you go fill out an application and the potential employer sees that you have what they're looking for until you get to the point about your criminal activity and past," Pinckney told WORLD.
Pinckney is just one of the more than 700,000 men and women who are released from prison every year and face the challenge of reentering society. With 2.3 million in U.S. prisons-the highest number of incarcerated in the world-the challenge to reintegrate ex-prisoners is higher than ever. It's a challenge that Congress took on when it recently passed the Second Chance Act of 2007, a bill that will allocate $362 million to prisoner reentry initiatives over the next two years.
Congress put a four-year struggle to rest by unanimously passing the bill in March with rare, widespread bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate led by sponsors such as Joseph Biden, D-Del., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Danny Davis, D-Ill. President Bush signed the law last month, after urging Congress since 2004 to pass an earlier version.
The bipartisan success came because of "a broad-based coalition of religious, political, law enforcement, and criminal justice groups that span the ideological spectrum," said Pat Nolan, a vice president of Prison Fellowship who has been a key advocate for the bill since its inception. "In the midst of this year's fierce political battles, Congress set aside its differences and united behind this historic legislation."
It not only unified lawmakers across party lines, but also rallied support from a broad spectrum of faith-based and secular groups, from the evangelical Prison Fellowship, to the Jewish Aleph Institute, to the Volunteers of America.
According to a study released in February by the Pew Center on the States, one in 100 American adults is behind bars. Ninety-five percent will be released at some point in their lives. Of that number, 50 percent will re-offend within three years, and 66 percent will re-offend overall. For U.S. taxpayers, the federal prison bill translates into $49 billion a year.
Second Chance attempts to lower these towering recidivism rates while giving prisoners a boost back into society, offering grants to faith-based and community programs that provide educational services, job training, mentoring, drug treatment, and housing assistance.
"People come out of prison scared, very, very humiliated, very, very fragile, and they may do dumb things just because they are scared, or they don't have anybody to talk to about it," Gail Arnall, executive director of Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR) in Arlington, Va., told WORLD.
Pinckney, who visits OAR frequently to use its computers to search for jobs online and to make calls to prospective employers, said he knows what that feels like.
"It gets a little depressing for me," he admitted, pressing day after day without a job. "The biggest obstacle is waking up every day and wanting to work [when you] just can't."
OAR has been helping ex-offenders since 1968. Aside from allowing Pinckney to use its computers, OAR staff teach him how to talk to potential employers about his criminal record and give him bus tokens to travel to interviews. If he sticks with the program long enough, there's a good chance he'll find something. Since July 2007, OAR has helped 202 people successfully find a job.
Housing is also a challenge. Arnall explained that many ex-prisoners have spouses, parents, and family members who live in Section 8 housing, but Section 8 regulations restrict ex-prisoners from returning to these areas. She said that OAR would use the grant money to provide subsidized housing and, perhaps, purchase rental property that the organization could offer to clients with an affordable payment plan so they could begin to save for their own homes.
The Second Chance program, an organization in San Diego that has no connection to the bill, is another program that will be vying for the new federal money. Over 15 years, Second Chance, in partnership with the New York--based STRIVE, has helped more than 33,000 hard-to-employ people, including many ex-prisoners, find jobs. They've also guided many ex-prisoners down the road to sobriety.
Like Regina Nolte-Ware, 45, whose early life was a series of flirtations with cocaine that played out in four prison sentences over seven years. After her fourth stint behind bars in 2004, Nolte-Ware decided she was ready for something new. While finishing her sentence at the California Institution for Women, she signed up for Second Chance's Prisoner Reentry Employment Program (PREP). When she got out, she had food, a place to live-a sober-living house with 17 others-job training, and professional drug counseling. Nolte-Ware said that Second Chance showed her that sobriety was within reach, but she had to do the reaching.
"You have to have willpower," Nolte-Ware told WORLD. "If you don't, you won't last. It's kind of like boot camp. They make you search yourself."
Three years later, Nolte-Ware works for the Downtown San Diego Partnership and serves on Second Chance's board of directors. And the other 17 who went through the program with her-they're all still out as well.
"You learn to get rid of some of your old behaviors," Nolte-Ware said. She added, "You learn that no matter what you've done, you are useful to somebody, somewhere, somehow."
Scott Silverman, the program's executive director, said he hopes that California will receive a larger allotment of money since the state houses the second-largest prison population, next to Texas. Overall, he sees the bill as a significant step in the right direction.
"The exciting part is that the federal government is going to take a position that prison reentry is important," Silverman said. "It's going to send a federal message."
But Arnall said she worries that many organizations will abuse the opportunity to have a little extra cash. The government, she said, should create a litmus test to weed out organizations that may not have the best intentions, such as eliminating those whose executive director makes more than $100,000. "Anywhere that there's a lot of money," she said, "you're going to have people sniffing around."
Douglas Haynes, a contractor with Arlington County's Department of Technology, recently convinced his office to donate its Christmas charity money to OAR.
"As a citizen, I don't really want criminals running out there on the street," Haynes told WORLD. "But, obviously, we do have a serious prison problem."
Haynes said he has never had to think about checking off the "felony" box on a job application, but feels sorry for those who do. "For people who have to click 'yes,' that closes a lot of doors very, very quickly."
OAR is helping the people who are "really, really trying," he added. "I definitely believe in people who are helping other people help themselves, even if they've made mistakes."
If anyone is trying, it's Pinckney. He has considered going back to school to make himself more marketable to employers, but he worries about how he will put food on the table. "Bills come first these days," he admitted.