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These Companies See Advantage in Putting Former Inmates to Work

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by Sharon Sullivan, Colorado Newsline
March 17, 2023

Three years ago, Drew Patterson moved his company from Greeley to the town of Buena Vista, in part because a prison is located there.

The Buena Vista Correctional Complex for men offered a labor pool for Patterson’s Basic Industries business that makes wooden stakes and other wood components. Patterson believes in second chances. 

While the Colorado Department of Correction’s Take TWO work-release program for inmates at Buena Vista is no longer operating, Patterson continues to hire individuals who’ve been involved with the criminal justice system.

“I have four employees now with past convictions,” Patterson said. “We really like helping that population.”

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In 2021, the Colorado attorney general’s office launched the $1.1 million Fair Chance Hiring Initiative with the DOC and the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership to increase employment opportunities for individuals who have completed a prison sentence and are reentering society.  

Employment for such individuals has shown to reduce recidivism, improve public safety, and boost Colorado’s economy, according to a recent attorney general report.

In late February, the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership announced it had received a $125,000 grant from Amazon to help with that effort. 

“We’re creating a growing network of Fair Chance employers,” said LCCL Colorado Director Cory Miskell. “Drew is a great example that shows (hiring former inmates) makes a lot of business sense.”

Patterson said he has followed the fair-chance hiring concept for eight years. With eight employees in total, half of his workforce was formerly incarcerated.

“What I’ve found in general is that former incarcerated folks are more motivated, more loyal, and more skilled than their positions call for than the general population,” Patterson said. “We’ve had guys who haven’t worked out because they couldn’t figure out how to live outside of prison. But most are great — and is why we shifted to fair-chance hiring.”

What I’ve found in general is that former incarcerated folks are more motivated, more loyal, and more skilled than their positions call for than the general population.

– Drew Patterson, of Basic Industries

The attorney general’s office is also working with Honest Jobs, an online employment platform connecting job seekers with employers.

“The partnership with Honest Jobs is an important step in building a fair-chance hiring ecosystem in Colorado,” Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a recent Honest Jobs news release. “Helping employers connect to a talent pipeline of justice-involved individuals creates safer communities and a more vibrant economy that benefits us all.”

Honest Jobs founder and CEO Harley Blakeman knows firsthand what it’s like to not be able to find a job after serving time in prison. Blakeman was young when his father died, and as a teenager he ended up homeless. At 19, he was convicted of selling drugs and served 14 months in prison. 

After his release Blakeman attended community college and then Ohio State University, where he graduated with honors at the top of his class with a business degree. Still, after he graduated no one would hire him. He’d make it to the third round of interviews but was rejected dozens of times after companies did background checks, he said.

After five months, Blakeman finally landed a job at a fiberglass insulation manufacturing plant where he worked the night shift for a year and a half. 

Honest Jobs founder and CEO Harley Blakeman. (Courtesy of Harley Blakeman)

Blakeman, 31, founded Honest Jobs four years ago. Since then, Honest Jobs has worked with 150 companies in Colorado and 1,300 nationwide to help employers understand and mitigate the risks of hiring people with criminal backgrounds.

He said the company has helped 55,000 job seekers with criminal records find employment. 

Software engineers at Honest Jobs designed a program that helps to match suitable job seekers with employers. 

“Employers still do background checks,” Blakeman said. “Employers need to be informed.” 

Colorado’s recidivism rate — which measures the number of inmates who return to prison within three years of being released — is currently 49%, according to Miskell.

Individuals with criminal justice backgrounds face other obstacles, as well, such as finding housing.

“What we’ve noticed is when people are transitioning it’s insanely hard,” Patterson said. “We take for granted things like cell phones. They may never have had a cellphone. Navigating DMV to obtain a driver’s license is hard. A lot of these guys have best intentions. They want to go a different route.”

Danny Graham, 49, worked for Patterson at Basic Industries while still serving his sentence at the correctional facility in Buena Vista. Graham had been in and out of prison for a total of 13 years for drug-related charges. 

He worked at Basic Industries for nearly a year, where he started as a general laborer and ended up assistant production manager. He also helped run inmate crews and repaired machines.

“Drew taught me a lot about management,” Graham said. “Drew would mentor us. Men learned to run equipment, operate fork lifts.”

Graham was released from prison in February 2022 and has been working in Montrose at an upholstery shop ever since. He’s confident this time he won’t be returning to prison.

“When you walk out of prison you have nothing — no home, no car, no clothing,” he said.

He said being able to work at Basic Industries was a blessing – “it helped me pay off restitution. From the job program I left with $10,000 saved. This time I did not have the struggles I had before. I was able to send money home to my family. That’s the biggest blessing of the Take TWO program — having something in your pocket. It relieved all the stress.”

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Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.