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In Tarrant County, Program Helps Turn Former Prisoners Into Eager Employees

In Tarrant County, some employers are choosing to hire workers who’ve just gotten out of prison.  They’re taking part in a program that gives ex-offenders a second chance at life, while businesses get eager employees.

In the tight, bustling kitchen of Brewed, a Fort Worth coffee house,40-year-old Yoshio Williams’ biceps tighten as he stirs a thick batter for donuts.

“(I’m) mixing all the ingredients with flour, sugar, backing powder,” he explains as he lifts the gooey mixture with a large spoon.

Just steps away, 49-year-old Gloria Hulsey gives a "thank you, honey" to the cook who adds garlic toast to the order of steaming cheddar soup. She delivers it to a table.

Less than a year ago, Hulsey and Williams were in prison. Williams was serving two years for violating probation after several assault convictions. Hulsey was doing five years after a second conviction for selling methamphetamines.

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Yoshio Williams stirs batter for doughnuts.

“I just got into meth and everything went downhill from there,” she says.

When Hulsey was released in April, she expected employers to slam their doors in her face, like they did the last time she looked for a job after prison. She believes job rejections often result in ex-offenders offending again.

“I’m a single mom and you just look for any way to feed your kids or just pay the bills,” she says. “And if you can’t get a job, that makes it very difficult. So a lot of people go back to being reoffenders.”     

Credit Shelley Kofler / KERA News
Gloria Hulsey says her restaurant job has given her a second chance after prison.

Hulsey and Williams believe what’s kept them straight this time is a five-year pilot program called Next Step. Workforce Solutions for Tarrant County launched it in 2011 with a $5.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

For Williams, Hulsey and some 500 Next Step workers, being trained and placed in a steady job means a productive life in the community, instead of a higher probability they’d spend more of their life behind bars.

Learning to write resumes, interview for jobs

Debby Kratky with Workforce Solutions says the first two years have been successful.  She says just 4 percent of the inmates going through the program have committed another crime -- that's compared to the national recidivism rate of 44 percent. Area employers have hired 70 percent of the participants for permanent jobs.

Kratky says the grant enables her team to identify newly-released inmates eager to work and begin training them before they return to their old neighborhoods and habits. 

Volunteers are given a battery of tests before about half of them are accepted.

“We assess everything from their vocational skills to their cognitive thinking to their criminal thinking and their recidivism rate," Kratky said. "But the main thing we stress is not only their interests but their strengths."

While counselors help the former prisoners write resumes and practice interviewing, job developers talk to employers about hiring their workers.

Next Step will pay 100 percent of the new employees’ salaries for 60 days, and half their salaries for an additional 60 days.

Many employers don’t accept the subsidy, but Kratky said it’s important to them that it’s offered.

“If we’re willing to put our money behind this person then maybe they need to look at this person,” Kratky said. 

An "on-ramp" back into society

Joey Turner, the coffeehouse owner who hired Hulsey and Williams, says his business got involved in the program because it wanted to give back to the community. He says the Next Step employees turned out to be some of the best he’s ever hired.

“It’s not just a job for them -- it’s their life,” Turner said. “It’s the on-ramp for them to get back into society. They have inspired our staff because they are so serious.”

The program accepts people convicted of anything other than a sex offense. Kratky says the former inmates have gotten jobs as welders and machinists, as well as positions in the culinary arts and the oil industry.

Right now, Williams is earning just $8 an hour. But he may soon get a raise, and in a couple of months Next Step will help him enter a training program for chefs.

“My goal is to be able to get my certification in cooking school and be able to own a restaurant someday and grow from there,” Williams said.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.