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Ex-Offenders Get Job-Ready At DOC Opportunity Expo

Hannah Meisel/WUIS

  In Illinois, 25,000 men and women are released from state prisons each year. Ideally, that means 25,000 people entering the job market. But Illinois already has higher-than-average unemployment, and a criminal record can make it even harder to find work. That's why the Illinois Department of Corrections is trying to lend a hand to ex-offenders through a series of specialized events.

The Orr Building on the Illinois State Fairgrounds is buzzing with activity as volunteers shepherd 300 ex-offenders around to dozens of booths, all of which are here to help them get to their ultimate goal: employment.

This event is known as the "Summit of Hope," one of eight such events around the state planned for this year.

Among the crowd is Daniel Gordon, a clean-cut kid of guy in a hand-me-down fleece pullover, a gift from his girlfriend. He says she's taken good care of him in the wardrobe department since he got out of prison last fall, outfitting him with khaki pants for any potential interviews. He skips over the free clothing and goes right for the sunscreen.

Gordon is working odd jobs for his landlord right now, which includes a lot of mowing grass. But the 49-year-old isn't counting on his maintenance job lasting forever. He doesn't want it to. That's why he's here at the expo, supplementing his the door-to-door campaign he says he's run all over Springfield.

"'Could I fill out an application? Could I speak to a manager? Can I get a phone number? Can I get a business card?'" Gordon explains. "Probably five or six a day, five days a week, making personal contacts with these business owners. I'm not having a lot of luck. I've had two sit-down interviews. As soon as IDOC calls and verifies employment, they drop me like a bad habit."

Gordon served 17 months in the Jacksonville Correctional Center, the consequence of his third DUI. Here at the fair, he not only receives sunscreen and career advice, but he also gets a new state I.D. card, for free.

As Gordon sits for his I.D. picture, other men are getting their hair cut in the next area over. Some get tested for HIV. Parolees are pitched low-cost mobile phones, while twenty feet away, others chat with recruiters from a temp agency.

Credit Hannah Meisel/WUIS
An expo-goer peruses a pile of clothing in the Orr Building on Tuesday. Ex-offenders and parolees were encouraged to attend the Summit of Hope in order to pick up essential items and help them get back on their feet.

One such agency, Labor Ready, has signed up at least 20 parolees on this rainy Tuesday. Mary Johnson, Labor Ready's branch manager in Springfield, says ex-offenders have a pretty high success rate with companies they're contracted to.

"If they have skills that meet our customers' needs, and, of course, it's not a customer that requires a clear background, then we will take their application and try to match them up with a job on any given day," Johnson said. "We've found that actually probably a good 75 percent of them do real well for us."

Johnson says the temp jobs can often turn into full-time gigs, often in the construction industry. But those jobs usually require skills. For the unskilled, there's a chance for coveted spots in trade apprenticeships with HIREEducation, based out of Lincoln Land Community College. This year that class is only open to 12, and more than twice that number have requested information at this expo alone.

But sometimes, just the prospect of a new beginning can be enough to start parolees down a new path. That's what Marcus King, with the Department of Corrections, says he keeps in mind when organizing these fairs.

"They're going to get their general education, or they found a job or they're able to take care of their kid, or maybe they just didn't have anything to eat," he said. "When I can just start seeing people's needs being fulfilled, it makes me happy."

King says outreach events like this are meant to chip away at Illinois' 47 percent recidivism rate — the number of people who re-offend and wind up back in prison. He says the more needs that are fulfilled, the lower that rate will be.

Daniel Gordon receives his fresh state I.D. His picture makes him look healthy, he says, smiling. Now that his need for a new I.D. is fulfilled, he might be on his way to getting some help with pain medication. Gordon walks with a pronounced limp, but he says it reminds him of what he used to be, and what he never wants to return to.

"My hip's bad because I fell off a flight of stairs drunk," he said, pausing. "I'm just an old tore-up drunk that's, you know, finally got a clue."

Gordon says he found God through his time in prison, and through his alcohol abuse treatment, which is ongoing. What he really needs to find now is a job.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.
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