Maine employment agency gives convicted felons a second start: NPR

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A private employment agency in Maine helps convicted felons find jobs as laborers. MaineWorks employees are much less likely to reoffend than other people with criminal records.



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For convicted felons, it can be difficult to land a job, regardless of salary. But there is an employment agency in Maine that focuses on getting felons into the job market. Give an ex-con a job, according to the idea, and it could prevent him from returning to prison.

Tom Porter introduces us to the founder of Maine Works.

TOM PORTER, BYLINE: For Margo Walsh, a typical day starts well before dawn.

Hello, Margo.

MARGO WALSH: How are you?

DOORMAN: Alright.

On a recent wet and windy morning, we met in a parking lot near downtown Portland, Maine. From there we drive in her van to pick up two of her guys, as she calls them.

Walsh: Hello.

LARRY TURNER: Hello.

Walsh: How are you?

TURNER: Okay.

WALSH: Thank you for waiting for us.

PORTER: She takes them to a nearby construction site, where they’ll spend the day installing drywall. Both are convicted felons but have been out of jail for over six months. Larry Turner was hired by Maine Works a few days after his release.

TURNER: I can’t imagine what my situation would be like right now if I hadn’t met her.

PORTER: Turner, 39, has a long criminal history. He has spent 12 of the last 20 years behind bars, including 11 years in federal prison.

TURNER: I was incarcerated the first time for armed bank robbery.

PORTER: With the convicted felon’s stamp on his job application, he says finding a job was a challenge.

TURNER: I would fill out an application with a work history and they were impressed, but the background came in and they weren’t impressed anymore.

PORTER: Margo Walsh used to recruit employees for the investment banking industry. She admits there were a few raised eyebrows when she set up a private employment agency three years ago and started recruiting criminals. But it didn’t take long, she says, to establish a good reputation.

Walsh is careful to employ only people who are hardworking, reliable and above all sober. It’s a policy her employees help enforce, she says, because their livelihoods depend on Maine Works’ good reputation.

In return, they get steady work during the construction season, earning at least $10 an hour.

WALSH: My main line is not: Hey, I’m Margo and I’ve got a bunch of felons for hire – not at all. It has to do with the fact that I have a fantastic product and they are extremely skilled and sober workers.

(SOUND EXTRACTION FROM MACHINES)

PORTER: Jake Hall is a field engineer on a transportation project that employs several guys from Maine Works.

JAKE HALL: They’re very capable. They are hard working guys.

PORTER: So regardless of what’s happened in the past, as far as you’re concerned, they’re good workers.

HALL: It looks like that. They are somehow due to a second start and make a good impression.

PORTER: Margo Walsh says perhaps the most important thing about Maine Works, however, is its success in keeping people out of jail.

WALSH: So I’ve had 250 guys working for me over the last three years.

PORTER: And of those 250, she says only about 20% were reincarcerated; quite a contrast to national recidivism rates, which indicate that more than half of all offenders are back behind bars within three years of release.

STEVE DANIELS: My name is Steve Daniels. I live in Portland. Addiction kind of got me to where I am now. He took me on a road where I lost everything. It tore my life apart.

PORTER: Daniels, who is 37, is a former crack addict who turned his life around. He served a five-year sentence for robbery. After more than a year at Maine Works, Daniels was hired full-time by one of the agency’s clients as a trainee bricklayer. It is hard and physical work.

DANIELS: I feel good. Almost four years sober now.

PORTER: As for Margo Walsh, this year she hopes to take Maine Works’ business model and expand it to other states.

WALSH: And I would like to see Maine Works reproduced in New Hampshire Works, Wyoming Works, Florida Works.

PORTER: Walsh is driven partly by a social conscience — a belief that everyone deserves a second chance — and partly by economics. Rather than going back to jail or going on welfare programs where they cost the state money, these guys are working and contributing to the economy.

For NPR News, I’m Tom Porter in Portland, Maine.

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