How do Detroit's parolees fit into the city's revitalization?
Last year, more than 10,000 people came out of prison in Michigan. Of those, about a third live in metro Detroit.
And as the city attempts a comeback, more jobs will open up and need to be filled.
One of the programs that's trying to give Detroit's parolees a fighting chance at employment is Green Works.
When I met Tyrone Powe, he was busy loading and unloading old DTE transformers in a noisy warehouse.
Before doing this type of work, Powe was an addict living on the street. He went to prison. When he did get clean, it was time to look for a job. He was lucky enough to get sent to Goodwill for a job training program that led him to Green Works.
“Oh, I feel good. I feel good, yeah,” he told me.“To been out in the streets like I had and to come here and work now like I am at 67, it’s a blessing.”
Green Works is a subsidiary of the larger nonprofit, Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit. Their goal is to help people with employment challenges, by teaching them specific skills and then helping them find jobs. It's the "teach a man to fish" approach.
Jay Wilber is the president of Green Works. He took me around the warehouse and introduced me to his staff.
“A lot of companies have policies against hiring people with a criminal record,” he said. “That creates a barrier for a lot of these men and women and that needs to change.”
The nonprofit trains people how to prepare materials for recycling. Right now Wilber has 75 employees and another 29 trainees – some will be hired permanently by Green Works and others will look for jobs elsewhere.
“Detroit needs to have more Green Works-type success stories, so that the men and women who are out there struggling have hope and they know there is a way, there is a path and all they have to do is seek out the help and there are people ready to help them,” said Wilber.
Two years ago, Green Works moved into a 94,000-square-foot warehouse. The company sells recycled metals and other materials, bringing in about $6 million in revenue a year. Almost all of it goes back into training and hiring Detroiters, some of whom may have been through the prison system.
Wilber asked me this question at one point during our conversation:
“When someone is paroled, generally the conclusion is that they’ve paid their debt to society based on the crime they committed, right?”
Sofia Nelson agrees. She is an attorney at the ACLU of Michigan, specializing in issues of re-entry and mass incarceration.
She said programs like Green Works are what the city needs right now.
“Detroit cannot experience the resurgence we are all hoping for without returning citizens. People with criminal records are heavily represented in Detroit’s population and unless we as a community take seriously assisting these people and successfully reentering the workforce, the city will not be able to soar,” she said.
And Nelson said people who work and have stable housing are much less likely to commit new crimes.
“So this is not just an issue of forgiveness and second chances, this is also an issue of public safety," she said. "We incarcerate in this state nearly 40,000 people in any given year, 95 percent of those people are going to return home. So just brushing this aside and not caring about it, that’s not going to solve the problem.”
One high-profile client of Green Works is in Ypsilanti at a former General Motors plant called Willow Run. It has been vacant since the company stopped producing transmissions here in 2010.
About four or five Green Works employees and trainees come here every day to gather material and take it back to the warehouse for recycling.
Cliff Lewis is with the Racer Trust, the organization overseeing the cleanup of GM’s abandoned plants. He hired Green Works to help remove and recycle demolished metals from the site.
“This is their second chance,” he told me. “And that’s probably why they are so enthusiastic about any job that they are given.”
So far two of the trainees were employed full time by one of the contractors working on the demolition.
And Lewis is expecting more companies will want to give others a second chance, too.