Simulation exposes Eastern Iowa employers, officials to life as ex-offenders

Many fail drug tests, end up in jail during attempts to find a job

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“Jessica,” who just did a 20-year stint for murder, firearm and drug charges, is “praying” she could just get a job.

She has $100 she saved while in prison and is living in a halfway house, but she has to pay $15 for a state-identification card, pay another $15 for weekly substance abuse treatment and $30 probation fee before her job hunt can begin.

Jessica goes to her required meetings and pays all her expenses, surviving the first week but in the second week her plan to stay out of prison goes awry because of her substance abuse.

She fails a drug test and can’t qualify for financial aid because of her drug conviction. Then, to top it off, she has a poor attitude and is disruptive at her weekly AA meeting.

“I’m back in the halfway house but won’t eat this week and I didn’t get my assignments done for this week,” Jessica says after the fourth week.

Jessica isn’t a real ex-offender but she experienced what many face when they are released from prison. Bea Cisler, Hy-Vee recruiting specialist for the central region, was given the fake identity of Jessica during a “re-entry” simulation last week. She was given a fake background and had to meet certain goals just like real offenders on probation or parole.

At the same time, about 29 other employers and social services personnel from Eastern and Central Iowa, also went through the simulation. This invitation only event at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville last week was part of “Iowa’s Untapped Workforce: A Roadmap for Second Chance Hiring.” The goal of the event is to encourage employers to consider hiring ex-offenders in light of the shortage of workers in the state.

“This is hard,” Cisler said as she and the others frantically had four sessions of 15 minutes each to visit the fake probation and financial and housing assistance offices, a drug testing center, courthouse and if lucky, got a job interview. “You really don’t understand their frustration until you go through this experience.”

During the role playing, most of the participants actually seemed panicked, when they couldn’t complete the probation requirements because they knew they could be sent back to jail.

“I’m going to end up in jail,” one company recruiter, who declined to be named, said after the first week of the simulation. “I really hate this.”

Another employer known as “Randy” pleaded for someone to lend him bail money so he could get out of jail for failing requirements. After he got out and got a job, he loaned others money, which was allowed.

Most of the employers, who attended and may be open to hiring ex-offenders, were reluctant to be named for this article, either because company policy prevented it or possibly they feared it might impact relations with their customers or vendors.

Cisler said Hy-Vee was open to giving people “second chances” but she couldn’t comment further because of company policy.

“I have no doubt that the people who went through the simulation left with a changed perspective about the challenges of re-entry,” Pat Steele, executive director of Central Iowa Works, said after the event. “I could see their frustration level increase as they met roadblock after roadblock when trying to find employment, receive services and negotiate the system.”

Steele said he will follow up with the employers but had received positive feedback so far.

“This just shows you how disadvantaged they are from the beginning,” Jean Shelton, chief executive officer of the Iowa Digestive Disease Center in Clive and participant, said. “They have so many burdens on top of trying to find a job.”

Shelton said the clinic supports employment opportunities for women who have barriers such as a criminal record.

Natalie McNaught, a recruiter with Unity Point Health in Des Moines and participant, said what touched her was hearing from an ex-offender, Edward Ailey Roberson of Ankeny, a former marine, who was released in November 2015 after serving four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

Roberson, an America’s Job Honor Award recipient, given to people who have overcome significant barriers to gain employment, participated in the simulation but nobody knew his identity until it was over.

Roberson later addressed the group, telling them he was a drug addict, and one night in 2009 he had punched a Fort Dodge man who fell, hit his head and died.

“I deserve a second chance,” Roberson, who has been sober for over seven years, said. “We (ex-offenders) need to know that we can get good paying jobs if we’re willing to change and work hard. We just need an opportunity.”

Jane Hawley, 6th Judicial District offender workforce development specialist and participant, said the corrections department has a pool of employers who are willing to hire those with criminal records and offer better-paying jobs. She said attitudes regarding ex-offenders has changed over the years.

One manufacturer in the Cedar Rapids area recently hired a man — even though he’d been convicted of manslaughter — because he possessed a specific skill the company needed.

Hawley said the department’s biggest challenge is to place sex offenders. Many times, it’s “easier to place someone who has committed murder than a sex offense.” She said it also helps if the employer knows the circumstances behind the crime and can see them as a person, not just the conviction.

Both U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the Northern and Southern districts have teamed with partners across the state to hold similar events, such as the one held two months ago in Cedar Rapids. This event was sponsored by Central Iowa Works, America’s Job Honor, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District.

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