Alaska Prison Seeks to Help Inmates Reintegrate into Society

By Michael Klazema on 12/3/2015

A major concern recently, both in politics and more general discussion, has been the idea of criminal justice reform. Many believe that felons are so stigmatized that, even after they have served their prison sentences, employers aren't willing to hire them. This inability to compete in the job market can in turn lead to greater levels of recidivism, simply because ex-offenders turn to crime as their only recourse for surviving on the outside.

Background checks are sometimes tied to this idea of recidivism and discrimination against criminals in the workplace. Since most employers either ask questions about criminal history on their job applications, require criminal background checks as part of the employment screening process, or both, it can be difficult for those with criminal records to earn serious hiring consideration. These concerns have inspired both regulation of employment background checks by bodies like the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and legislative movements, like the recent swell of popularity for ban the box policies.

By eliminating criminal history questions from job applications and judging background check reports on a case-by-case basis (rather than simply disqualifying anyone with a criminal record), states and municipalities have been able to give ex-offenders better hiring odds. Since employers are increasingly not permitted or able to learn immediately of an applicant's criminal history, they are more likely to judge ex-offenders on their skills and experience. The problem then becomes the fact that, coming out of prison, some offenders just don't have the job experience or training to compete for certain positions—even if they aren't immediately judged based on their criminal history.

At least one prison is working to address that part of the problem. According to a report from the Alaska Dispatch News, the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, a women's prison based in the Eagle River municipality of Anchorage, has a program that trains inmates on how to be baristas. The training sessions are designed to give inmates the skills they need to compete for jobs on the outside. Since coffee shops in the Anchorage area are either lax in background checks or willing to hire employees with criminal histories, barista is one of the jobs that recently released inmates can target.

In addition to getting valuable skill training, Hiland Mountain Correctional Center also gives inmates a chance to gain work experience. There is a coffee shop inside the prison, and the staff is made up entirely of inmates. These individuals can leave prison with recent resume experience, which, combined with the ongoing advancements in criminal justice reform, should help them find jobs and avoid returning to lives of crime. It's a concept that other prisons throughout the country would do well to implement.


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