Why shouldn’t felons be allowed to work? A practical lesson on grace

Why shouldn’t felons be allowed to work? A practical lesson on grace May 25, 2016

Last weekend I worked in the yard, cutting trees and turning over soil. I bagged leaves, weary from the winter decay.

At the end of the day, I lined the bags along the curb and dragged my body into the shower, washing away the earthy soil that were marks of my labor.  Finally, I  sat down on the couch.

I felt good. Satisfied.

That’s what work does. It refreshes the soul, it rejuvenates the spirit and charges the body.

It’s the same feeling I get when I’m able to produce at my place of employment.

The pride of a job well done

At the core, capitalism is about work. You roll up your sleeves, produce and get paid.  Work brings pride, as I can be satisfied in my labor.

If this is true for you and me, why is it any different for ex-prisoners who have served their time and are now expected to be productive members of society?

Last month, I sat at the annual fundraiser for Inside/Out, which is a Denver-based organization that helps female prisoners reintegrate with society after their release.IMG_20151021_132201529

Woman after woman testified to the organization’s successful focus on faith, dignity and preparation inside the Denver Women’s Prison for their next phase of life.

There are currently 21,000 people in Colorado prisons. Almost 800 are released monthly. The hope is that they don’t return.

But the numbers show that more than 62 percent of all Colorado prisoners return to their cells within three years. This is a colossal failure. Recidivism hurts the bottom line for the taxpayer as both the courts and the prison budgets are directly impacted.  It also hurts families that were looking forward to new beginnings, only to take huge steps back. It’s destructive to the individual, driving home the message “failure.”

However, the The Inside/Out program, founded by Debbie Winans, has a recidivism rate of just 9.9 percent.

Training for the outside

So what’s different?

According to one of the women who served time at Denver Correctional Facility, it was the combination of faith and work.

Denise describes her life as “ a tornado” before prison. She was using drugs, living on the street and a frequent resident to local jails and prison. Over a 15-year period, she was released four times from prison, and every time reentered the program.

She finally had enough.

“I told God, ‘don’t let me out until I’m fixed.’”

She threw herself into self-help, counseling, church and job training.

Denise received training and tested for her cosmetology license while in prison, a student of the Colorado Industries program, which helps prisoners find meaningful work while inside prison.

The program has its eye on the outside, preparing men and women in the system for life outside.

Colorado Industries helps prisoners train in dog handling, wildfire control, agriculture, furniture construction, printing, construction and more.

Denise enrolled in the cosmetology program, earning her license and valuable experience all while incarcerated. Today she is a Master Stylist and Nail Designer at a major salon.

“I’m grateful for my prison time, because it saved my life,” said Denise.

Work was a ticket to independence

She admits that life outside, especially for newly released prisoners, is hard.

“I found out the world is fast. It’s different. I didn’t know how to answer a phone because technology had changed since I had been incarcerated,” she said. “I had no money, no transportation, no food.”

Inside/Out helped provide some basics with their transitional program.

“Someone picked me up, gave me a place to stay,” she said. “They supported me, loved me and then gave me responsibility. But then they said, ‘you are going to get a job.”

For Denise, work was the real ticket to independence.

The box that never lets you go

Several states are debating “ban the box” legislation. The “box” is the job application stigma that trips many former prisoners, keeping them out of valuable employment opportunities.

By law, former felons have to indicate on a job application if they have ever been convicted of a felony. Checking the box is often an immediate disqualifier, especially when checked without any room for narrative.

More than 52 U.S. municipalities and 18 states have in place legislation that bans the box for government job applications and contractors. There are exceptions, naturally.

Certainly there are jobs that wouldn’t be good matches for certain criminals. But employers should consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, and then delve into the nuances of the criminal record.

A church I know of has a very active prison ministry and after-care program. However, they will not allow these same prisoners to serve in volunteer positions. It takes a thorough change in our mindsets to understand grace in action – and an unshackling from the legal system that is quick to sue and keeps potential employers wary.

If we want to break the cycle of dysfunction in our current criminal class, we will need to realize that work brings dignity. And it’s dignity that helps erase the scars of shame and can transform a human.

To hire someone who has been reeducated by Colorado Industries, reformed by Colorado Corrections, and renewed by God can help change our society as a whole.

Thank goodness God has already “banned the box.”

Justice. Mercy. Grace. Somewhere, there’s an answer.


If we want to break the cycle of dysfunction in our current criminal class, we will need to realize that work brings dignity. This erases the scars of shame and can transform people.

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