A second look for an untapped Eastern Iowa workforce

Employment is biggest challenge for ex-offenders re-entering community

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Rob Crader says growing up in violent Chicago neighborhood and being around “gang-banging and hustling” led to a career of drug abuse, and then selling drugs and committing robberies and thefts to support that addiction.

Crader, now 42, of Coralville, who had been in and out of Illinois prisons for the last 10 years, now is on a new career and life path after his last crime — burglary — garnered him a 12-year prison sentence.

“This time was different because I had a spiritual change sitting inside that cell and realized this wasn’t why I was created,” Crader said. “It’s not what I’m destined to be.”

While in prison, he went through drug treatment and started taking advantage of every educational, job training and rehabilitation program available. Crader learned that growing up around violence made him immune to it, and it was easier to be part of negative forces just to survive.

He had to overcome that way of thinking, and a mentor in prison introduced him to “meta-cognition, which is basically analyzing your thought process and changing how you think about people and situations, and how you react.”

Miranda Lalla, 54, of Iowa City, said she also had to change how she thought about others and herself.

“I had to believe I was worthy of another chance,” Lalla said.

Lalla, who has a long history of alcohol and drug abuse-related convictions, said her real-life change happened on June 17, 2012. She was giving a friend, Pamela Gross, 44, a ride home after they had been drinking at a bar, and they got into a physical fight in a parking lot.

Lalla then got into her pickup truck to leave, but Gross was standing next to the open driver’s door and was knocked down by the door as Lalla put the truck in reverse. Lalla, without realizing Gross was still on the ground, continued to back up, running over and killing her.

Lalla pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and served over three years in jail and prison of the 25-year sentence.

“I wanted to change because I never want to make a choice like that again,” Lalla, with tears in her eyes, said as her voice went low. “Someone is gone because of my choices. I can’t bring her back ... . the best I can do is help someone else.”

Lalla went into substance-abuse treatment while in prison and then into a halfway program. She also took advantage of the prison programs that teach inmates coping skills and how to stop negative patterns of behavior.

‘Returning citizens’

Crader and Lalla said they faced many obstacles after getting out of prison, but they knew one of their biggest challenges would be finding jobs. They were passed over for several jobs because of their criminal records.

Bills to “ban the box,” which would prevent employers from asking job seekers if they have a criminal record, have been proposed in the Iowa Legislature. According to the National Employment Law Project, based in New York, 19 states and 100 cities and counties as of earlier this year have passed ban-the-box laws.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cedar Rapids, along with Iowa Workforce Development and agencies and organizations last month sponsored workshops to encourage employers and human resource professionals in light of the shortage of workers to take a look at Iowa’s “untapped” workforce — ex-offenders such as Crader and Lalla.

U.S. Attorney Kevin Techau told The Gazette last month these offenders eventually will get out of prison and return to the communities, so it’s beneficial if they can find jobs and housing and start contributing to the community in a positive way.

“Employment is one of the largest indicators of whether an individual who has been released from prison will re-offend,” Techau said.

During the three re-entry workshops — one each in Cedar Rapids, Ft. Dodge and Sioux City — the 60 to 90 participants all went through a simulation, which put them in the shoes of a fictional offender and they were required to comply with probation and parole requirements, obtain a job and avoid going back to prison. Many didn’t succeed and landed up back in “jail” which was a corner designated in the room that slowly filled over the hourlong exercise.

Most of the employers at the workshop seemed open to hiring but were reluctant to comment for this article because they were undecided or perhaps, out of concerns about how their customers or clients might feel about these potential employees.

Kyle Horn, director of Iowa Job Honor Awards, a not-for-profit initiative designed to help disadvantaged individuals with criminal records enter the workforce, said after the workshop he sees Iowa businesses reassessing their policies against hiring “returning citizens.”

“Faced with Iowa’s talent shortage, more employers are taking a second look at our untapped workforce,” Horn said. “There are employers I’ve talked with who are open to this.”

Employers are discovering these individuals who “overcome patterns of failure” are not only highly qualified employees but also demonstrate “remarkable” work ethic and loyalty, Horn added.

Julie Little, a re-entry workforce adviser with Iowa Workforce Development who participated in the workshops’ panel discussions, works with employers on hiring workers with criminal records, and she encourages those companies to look at their skills and experience more than the crime they’ve committed.

Statistics have shown there is no greater risk for an employer to hire a person who has served prison time or has a criminal record than someone from the general public, Little said. Those figures come from the

Little cited the Federal Interagency Re-entry Council in saying there is no greater risk for an employer to hire a person who has served prison time or has a criminal record than someone from the general public. The Council is comprised of 20 agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, that have been working for the past five years to reduce recidivism and to improve employment, education, housing and child welfare outcomes.

The national recidivism rate is about 67 percent, but it’s much lower — only 31 percent — in Iowa.

Little also pointed out employers can benefit from hiring ex-offenders because they can receive tax credits up to $2,400, depending on how many hours the employees work. And they may qualify for the federal bonding program, which lessens the risk for potential theft or dishonesty, if that’s a concern.

The bonding program is free to the employer for the first six months, she added.

Another important factor Little tells employers is that most inmates gain work skills and training while in prison, as did Crader and Lalla.

Tim Diesburg, Iowa Department of Corrections Apprenticeship Program coordinator, talked with employers at the workshops about the recent apprentices offered in all nine prisons. The program, which started in 2014, offered only a few vocations. But today inmates can receive certification and training in 16 different industries including as a cook, cabinet maker, welder, computer operator, electrician, refrigeration and air-conditioning repair person, and electrostatic powder coating tech.

Diesburg said there are 291 Iowa prison inmates in the program and 50 have completed their certification.

Crader was granted early parole in 2014 but didn’t find a permanent job until three months ago in the maintenance department at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Iowa City. He also obtained a scholarship and will start HVAC classes this fall at Kirkwood Community College.

Lalla, who was paroled in January, didn’t find a stable job until nearly two months ago at the Hampton Inn in Iowa City. She handles the breakfast area and cleans the public areas of the hotel. She continues to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and hopes to be a mentor one day to other ex-prisoners.

Both are involved in Inside Out, a not-for-profit in Iowa City that provides support and resources to individuals who come out of prison. Volunteers provide tutoring, mentoring, life skills classes and assistance with resumes, interviewing skills and housing.

WHERE ARE THE POTENTIAL JOBS?

The Workforce Needs Assessment survey is conducted annually by Iowa Workforce Development. Employers provide information regarding their current level of employment and their current and expected job vacancies.

The regional analysis include Linn, Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones and Washington counties. By the close of the survey, 1,305 of 5,741 employers contacted completed the survey.

Total current vacancies, according the 2015 regional analysis, for some occupations include:

Building and grounds cleaning, maintenance — 18.6 percent

Sales and related jobs — 11.1 percent

Transportation and material moving — 7.1 percent

Health care practitioner and technical — 6.4 percent

Food prep and serving — 5.5 percent

Production — 4.2 percent

Construction and extraction — 2.8 percent

Installation, maintenance and repair — 2.7 percent

Farming, fishing and forestry — 2.3 percent

Protective services — 1.5 percent

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