When Arthur Parker left prison this summer after serving more than 20 years for a burglary conviction, what he wanted most was a job to support himself.
But getting one proved more difficult than he expected. He spent weeks applying for work with no success, he said, until Catholic Charities helped connect him with Gerard's Furniture on Florida Boulevard. But now, with that business' impending closure, Parker knows he will soon be again searching for a job.
"Employment is very important for somebody getting out of prison, because without it you'll be shortly going back to prison or getting into trouble — or homeless," Parker said Friday morning, speaking to about 50 business, corrections and service leaders in downtown Baton Rouge.
Parker was a speaker at a forum engaging employers about hiring those previously incarcerated and how landing the job at Gerard's Furniture "helped me get on my feet."
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The 61-year-old was one of three "success stories" of employed former prisoners presented to the business and nonprofit stakeholders at the forum, organized by the Capital Area Reentry Coalition, Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
But research shows it takes about three years for a former prisoner's successful integration back into society, which means what comes next for Parker could be the difference between reoffending or staying out of prison.
But Parker felt more confident after meeting Eric Lane, the owner of Gerry Lane Enterprises. The businessman pulled Parker aside at the forum and encouraged him to apply at his company.
"That was a good thing," Parker said, smiling. "I'm going to go see him."
Those are the types of connections that state Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc hopes to continue to nurture in the business community, especially as the state begins to address its historically sky-high incarceration rate and to invest more in re-entry programs and support.
Last spring, the legislature passed a sweeping prison reform package that addressed sentencing and parole eligibility guidelines. The objective of the reforms are to reduce the state's prison population and free up funds for more services to support prisoners.
"When you leave prison with that ex-offender (label) on your back, it's tough," LeBlanc said. "We need help and we need help from our employers."
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About half of the more than 60,000 people under supervision by probation and parole are unemployed, LeBlanc said. But he said changing that will come through partnerships, both by his department and in the public and private sector.
He said his department has started programs in the past few years to provide useful training to offenders while they're incarcerated, so they can a valued part of the workforce upon their release. He also said they are working to better prepare prisoners to return to society, including providing driver's licenses and technology courses.
Lane, along with two other local business executives, one with the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino and Hotel and the other with a contracting company, shared their successes in hiring ex-offenders, as well as the challenges they've faced.
All three said transportation is an ongoing issue as well as having employees trained to work. LeBlanc said they are working to better address both those issues.
Department of Corrections assistant secretary Rhett Covington also shared the new ways prison officials are bringing online certifications and educational programming to prisoners, and said if employers have other ideas or needs, they can find ways to see them.
After many years as the nation’s leading jailer, Louisiana has ceded that ignominious title to Oklahoma.
“Let us know how we can help,” Covington said. “Put us to work.”
The forum also included information on tax and insurance breaks and benefits businesses can access when they hire certain formerly incarcerated job candidates. And nonprofit leaders explained how they are already working with ex-offenders to prepare and support them as they return to the job market.
“Work with social service agencies,” said Cherie LaCour-Duckworth, the vice president of workforce development for Louisiana's Urban League's, explaining they can help decrease turnover and improve candidates. “You’ll find you’ll save money and you’ll improve the community.”