Brian Estes (pictured far right) entered a Kansas City parole and probation office with an optimistic mindset and a determination to change his course in life. But there was a problem. His prison term had resulted in the loss of his job, car, home, family—“pretty much everything,” he said. It’s a story police and court officials say they hear time and time again: former inmates re-entering society with little direction and even fewer resources. They have dubious housing, scarce financial resources and often lack appropriate forms of identification.
Unfortunately, this scenario is repeated daily all across the nation. While well intended, the current process of integrating former inmates back into society is flawed. The Twelfth Street Heritage Development Corporation in Kansas City, Missouri has designed a new, innovative model that offers an effective solutions-oriented approach to integrating these individuals into society: the Prison-to-Workforce Pipeline.
Dwayne Williams, president/CEO of Twelfth Street Heritage Development Corporation (a nonprofit entity), is spiritually motivated to support a small portion of the 4,000 inmates released from the state of Missouri on an annual basis. “One of our missions is to help ex-offenders re-enter society, which led to the creation of this program,” he explains. “I believe most people really do want to change; they just have no idea how to do it.”
As a mentor and advocate, Williams seeks to connect and teach ex-offenders how to successfully build their lives through a community beautification program. “It is ultimately our responsibility to extend ourselves and our resources to allow others to stand on our shoulders. Long-term success ultimately hinges on a person’s desire to change,” adds Williams.
The Prison-to-Workforce Pipeline has become a critical re-entry and re-socialization tool that connects ex-offenders with civic leaders, police representatives, business owners and elected officials to facilitate their re-entry into society. However, the Prison-to-Workforce Pipeline is becoming more than the re-entry program it was originally envisioned to be—it’s changing the face of the community.
The program is twofold in that it helps ex-offenders gain valuable, tangible work skills and changes the lens of a distressed community. Williams engages participants in all aspects of the program, such as networking, budgeting, home ownership, job retention and healthy choices. For example, crew leaders are exposed to diverse networking opportunities. This mechanism allows ex-offenders to build relationships with parties they once viewed as unreachable or even the enemy, such as police officers.
The residual impact of incarceration could have easily nudged former inmates Keith Whitley (pictured second from right) and LeVonne Dallas (far left) back into a life of crime. They might have aligned themselves with the revolving door of offenders cycling in and out of prison. Fortunately, these men utilized the opportunities offered by the Prison-to-Workforce Pipeline as a catalyst to change their lives.
During an interview, both men expressed how Mr. Williams and the program has influenced their quality of life and created a ripple effect among their families. Whitley’s experience taught him to assess situations differently. He acknowledges that his heart is heavy at seeing a community in despair that was once vibrant. “The community is in real bad shape. People lack hope,” stated Whitley. Dallas agreed and stated that he believes 90 percent of ex-offenders are overlooked for employment opportunities based on their criminal past. As a result, when challenged by despair and lack of opportunities, many will repeat the same illegal behavior that led to their imprisonment.
A recent study released by the nonpartisan Pew Center* found that more than 40 percent of offenders nationwide returned to state prison within three years of their release. The Prison-to-Workforce Pipeline is positively shattering this statistic. “Programs of this nature are needed in every urban community,” said Dallas. “I am a living example of the transformation. My future is bright as a husband and father of two children—plus I posses a home and transportation.”
Williams is a member of the Bethel Adventist Church in Kansas City (Kansas). Under the leadership of Pastor Ronald Williams, Jr., spiritual guidance is provided to many of the men in the program.
Since the inception of the Prison-to-Workforce Pipeline in 2010, 90 ex-offenders have been impacted, many of whom have secured full-time employment and housing and have reunited with their families. The Kansas City community is now witnessing the positive results driven by one man and one organization pushing to transform a distressed community through job training, educational opportunities and housing for former prisoners.
News writer Thalia Cherry is president of 7 Strategic Management Consulting Firm in Kansas City, Missouri.
For more information about the Prison-to-Workforce Pipeline, contact Dwayne Williams of Twelfth Street Heritage Corporation at 816.674.2718.