The Long Road Home

Why so many parolees go back to prison, and how a new approach could help turn them around.

The center continues to help him in various ways, including occasionally bankrolling a trip to the grocery store. "Money is tight," he says. "They've helped a lot. It's been overwhelming at times. There were times I wanted to give up. But my goal was to get back with my kids, and I couldn't give up on that."

Many of the center's clients come out of prison estranged from their families. In some cases, they may owe thousands of dollars in back child support and not know it, having never received the support orders or discovered that the meter kept running while they were inside. Valerie Zamora, who directs the center's programs for non-custodial parents, tries to mediate the situation, working out reasonable payment plans with the agencies charged with collecting child support. Last year, she says, the center's approach more than doubled the number of clients making payments; most of those who aren't paying child support have already gone back to prison for other reasons.

According to Zamora, the majority of parolees she deals with are interested in meeting their parental obligations, but it takes a steady paycheck to make it happen. Issues of work and family are so deeply intertwined that center staff tend to see the job quest as a drama affecting many lives, not just the hapless parolee.

Ray Maestes builds relationships with "felon-friendly" 
employers, continuing the work of John Inmann, who's 
remembered in a plaque at the center named after 
John Johnston
Ray Maestes builds relationships with "felon-friendly" employers, continuing the work of John Inmann, who's remembered in a plaque at the center named after him.

Ray Maestes, the center's bustling employer-relations specialist, is constantly on the lookout for new leads, always "planting seeds," as he puts it. It's not unusual for him to ask, in casual conversation with new acquaintances, "Have you ever thought about hiring an ex-offender? Would you think about it?"

A few large companies, such as Coors or Aramark, the sporting-event concessionaire, have well-lauded policies of hiring ex-offenders. Other employers in the metro area are willing to hire them but don't want to be known as "felon-friendly" because of possible backlash from customers. Maestes generally has more luck with mom-and-pop operations than big, impersonal corporations. "A lot of our success comes from small companies that we can cultivate a relationship with," he says.

Maestes tells employers that, depending on the kind of work involved, parolees can make excellent hires. They're often more motivated than the average employee because losing their job could result in revocation. They are more closely monitored for drug and alcohol use, too. Worried about theft? Maestes tells employers how they can qualify for a $5,000 federal bond, without charge, if they hire an ex-offender -- while pointing out that the actual rate of claims filed under the program is surprisingly low, around 1 percent. There are also tax credits available.

Some employers perk up at the mention of tax incentives. With others, Maestes talks about civic duty and making the neighborhood a safer place -- idle hands and all that. Some just want willing, trainable hires who can do the job. ("Everybody deserves a second chance," says Mark Kelly, owner of the Hoffbrau Tavern on Santa Fe. "I love to teach people this business, and the guys they've sent me have been hard workers.") Once he's got someone in the door, Maestes makes sure to follow up and see if things are working out -- and if there might be any other openings. Successful hires are hauled back to the center and paraded before other job-seekers, like astronauts returning from a dangerous mission: See, it is possible to land a felon on the moon.

"We share our successes," Salinas says. "We celebrate every time someone gets an $18-an-hour job."

There's no absence of success stories. Center staffers talk about the man who killed a clerk during a liquor-store robbery, served 22 years for murder and came out an articulate, remorseful paralegal. He would get halfway through the hiring process, only to be turned down once his offense became known. (Murderers are tough hires, second only to sex offenders.) Finally, he landed an entry-level telemarketing job. He's now the director of human resources for the company that hired him.

There's the billing analyst with a bachelor's degree who landed a $50,000 job with a major corporation. The guy who had no experience as a diesel mechanic but took an aptitude test and is now earning a decent salary fixing big rigs for a major chain of truck stops. And people like Gilbert, who's learning a trade and keeping his family together.

Maestes's favorite story concerns a woman who came out of prison with a drug record and, with the center's help, landed a job with a construction company. Eventually she became an administrative assistant in the human-resources department at a much larger company.

"She started calling us for painters, framers, construction workers," he says. "We got one guy a job at $22 an hour, one of our all-time highs."

Six years ago, Rich Utech embarked on a modest experiment. Convinced that his efforts to assist inmates preparing for parole could benefit from some practical experience, the DOC employee boarded a bus to Denver. He brought with him a few phone numbers and $100, the same amount of money the DOC issues to parolees on their first trip back to the streets.

Utech checked into a shelter and went to work moving furniture through a day-labor service. That he had no trouble finding a job surprised him; the company never inquired about his background. But then, the work wasn't all that lucrative, either. After three days, he'd covered his expenses and still had the hundred bucks, but it didn't look like he'd be moving out of the shelter in the near future.

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