Give green jobs to ex-cons

Green jobs are all the rage these days. In February, President Obama signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law; $75 billion of which is earmarked to help American businesses create eco-friendly jobs. During a recent weekly radio address, President Obama touted the thousands of jobs that have been created in California and Michigan producing wind turbines and solar plants since the law passed.

The proposed green economy also provides potential job opportunities to address environmental injustices in urban communities, such as alleviating lead and asbestos in housing, monitoring water and air quality and developing other green construction initiatives. Urban green employment should also be seen as a priority to help those who are chronically unemployed – ex-offenders.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, approximately two-thirds of state convicts are re-arrested for a violent, property or drug related offenses within three years of their release. Prison rights activists argue that the common reason for recidivism is the lack of skills training and job opportunities available for ex-offenders once they leave the prison walls.

For many ex-offenders, having a criminal record is a life sentence. Many states don’t provide resources that would help ex-offenders transition to life on the outside, such as drug treatment, GED preparation and vocational training. Many are automatically denied employment in most fields, financial aid for college and housing simply because of their criminal pasts. Some ex-offenders also have a difficult time adjusting back to the family lives they left behind before entering prison, but counseling services are not readily available. With all of these obstacles and no hope for an ex-offender to start life over, it is not wonder the recidivism rate is so high.

In recent years, there has been a growing number of churches around the country using their prison ministries to address this problem. Greater Love Tabernacle is a church in Boston that runs Future Hope Apprenticeship Program, an intensive training initiative that prepares youth and adult ex-offenders for jobs in the construction and trade industries. Rev. Emanuel L. Hutcherson, the program’s executive director, has been training ex-offenders through his painting company for many years before setting up Future Hope in 2005.

He said that he started the program because he became tired of seeing ex-offenders in the community have doors shut on them. As the construction industry tends to be more open-minded about hiring ex-offenders, Hutcherson wanted to give ex-offenders a second chance at being productive citizens. In addition to learning about painting, drywalling, carpentry, taping and roofing, apprentices are also offered courses for GED preparation, computer literacy, as well as social services for themselves and their families. I talked to Rev. Hutcherson recently, and he said that he is now looking into getting federal money for green jobs training, so his apprentices can compete for work in the new economy.

I also interviewed an apprentice in the program named Marcus, who had spent almost half of his young life in and out of jail for various gang-related activities. He said he was referred to the program by a friend – a referral that changed his life. Not only was Marcus taking the right steps to becoming a certified carpenter, he also aspires to start his own carpentry business, where he too can give back to other ex-offenders who want to change their lives.

America’s green revolution is a monumental step in its economic and environmental history, which should be inclusive for any and all Americans who want to take advantage of this opportunity. If our society expects ex-offenders to turn their lives around for the better, society also needs to make the allowances to make this possible.

Prison systems need to reevaluate their re-entry programs, and green vocational training should be made available for at-risk youth before they detour into a life of crime. Giving ex-offenders a chance at the America dream is good for their productivity, while also making society a more safer and environmentally sound place to live in.