As JaVonn Bruce's five-year prison sentence neared its end, anxious thoughts raced through his mind about how he was going to make it on the outside, how he was going to find a job.
At an age when many are finishing college or launching careers, Bruce was returning to society as an ex-con with little education and no track record of work.
"You have a lot of negative thoughts running through your head when you're in there," said Bruce, who entered prison as an 18-year-old after breaking into an elderly South Toledo couple's home, tying them up at gunpoint, and stealing from them. "You get into this mode where you think you're not going to be accepted in society, and you're definitely not going to be accepted in someone's workplace."
When Bruce, 25, was released two years ago, he knew he needed help with his transition back to the outside world. He credits a program run by the Economic Opportunity Planning Association for not just finding him a job, but for helping him address issues that contributed to getting him into trouble in the first place.
EOPA is one of a few organizations in town that run programs to help former prisoners find work and change their lives. Others programs are run by UrbaneKnights and Greater Toledo Urban League.
About 1 1/2 years ago, Bernard Williams founded UrbaneKnights to address the job-hunting and transitional needs of former prisoners.
Having served prison time himself, Williams said he hopes more money will become available locally to help ex-inmates make the transition.
"It behooves our community to get behind the ex-offender re-entry process," he said.
Reginald Wilkinson, director of Ohio's prison system, calls it a pay-now or pay-later proposition for society. He said he thinks the state has enacted too many laws that restrict where former prisoners can work, and he'd like to see more done to help people find jobs after they're released from prison.
He said a direct correlation exists between the recidivism rate, which is 38 percent for a three-year period in Ohio, and the ability of former inmates to find jobs. "The more meaningful work a person has once released from prison, the less likely that person is to return to prison," Mr. Wilkinson said. "That means there will be fewer victimizations, there will be less drug abuse, there will be less crime, there will be less need for police calls."
Stephanie Bays, a job coach at EOPA's "economic triage center," agrees that jobs are important, but said they can't be the sole focus. She said housing, education, and transportation needs also are crucial, but delving into character issues can be a key to keeping people out of prison.
"We focus on what is hindering you from holding that job," said Ms. Bays, who is preparing to self-publish a book geared to former prisoners. "We deal with the inner issues such as fear, anxiety, rejection, relationships, and finances."
LaShanna Townsend, 32, went through Ms. Bays' program a few years ago after spending 2 1/2 years in a prison in Trinidad for drug trafficking. She said the program was good for her self-esteem, which can be bruised after a lot of job rejections.
She said if you don't disclose that you have a felony on a job application, you can be fired after your boss learns of your record, or you can disclose it and never get a call for an interview.
"One of the things I know it did was to help me be determined and not allow my history to determine where I was going," Ms. Townsend said of the EOPA program. "It motivated me to press and push through the rejection."
Like Bruce, Townsend works as a mentor at Fresh Attitude, a drug and alcohol treatment agency.
Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the board of Lucas County commissioners, said helping people like Bruce and Townsend find work makes good financial sense for the county. The county, after all, will spend about half of its $135.5 million general fund budget on the criminal justice system, county Administrator Michael Beazley said.
Lucas County Job and Family Services provided $61,000 last year for re-entry programs and next month will make more money available for the next fiscal year. The county's Workforce Development agency will award $50,000 around June to help former prisoners find work.
"I see a growing willingness to collaborate on re-entry services," Ms. Wozniak said. "Everyone recognizes these are citizens who live in our community. It's a better use of funds to help them with re-entry and become better citizens than just to abandon them."
Johnny Mickler, executive director for the Greater Toledo Urban League, said his agency has a program designed to help former inmates focus on their responsibilities to their families. He said helping former prisoners helps communities.
"Many of the folks who've gone into institutions and have come out have been stigmatized," he said. "We think that, as an agency, we need to help those who are the most needy in the community. This is a great need right now."
Bruce said his time in prison helped foster a sense of responsibility that made him want to take care of his family obligations when he got out.
Still, it was tough to make the transition. He said he was apprehensive about going on job interviews because he knew his criminal background would be an issue and because his use of street slang was deeply ingrained. The class he took at EOPA with Ms. Bays helped him deal with both issues, he said.
"I think it was the best thing I ever did," Bruce said. "She taught me the type of things I needed to do to keep a job. She really gave me a lot of tools I needed to get through a lot of negative thinking."
Contact Dale Emch at: email@example.com or 419-724-6061.