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Second chances

August 22, 2019

By Susan Chance, courtesy SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Companies must keep up with the ever changing “Ban the Box” legislation and other laws around background screening, and now there is the First Step Act that adds another layer of considerations for criminal histories on background checks. Employers have a lot to think about when using information from those records in employment decisions.

So, what do all these laws and providing second chances have to do with eating a gourmet meal? A meal like one in the following example:

“It was one of those unforgettable lunches — a wild game feast with a menu that read like something out of a Jim Harrison essay.  We devoured duck confit salad wrapped in lettuce, oven-roasted pheasant resting atop a Calvados-infused sweet potato puree, braised rabbit ravioli adorned with pickled blueberries swimming in cardamom cream sauce, and tender slices of seared bison loin laid across deep purple mashed potatoes and carrot-ginger puree.”

It turns out, quite a bit. There are 11 prisons in the Michigan Department of Corrections that have a program to teach inmates about the food service industry. This includes serving, cooking, and pairing wines with each course in a meal. This program has been in place for 30 years and Executive Chef Jimmy Lee Hill has been involved for almost 29 of the 30 years. Hill states that “if you treat them like humans, they act like humans.”

Treating the inmates like humans and teaching them skills that help with getting a second chance has been a success. The recidivism rate in Michigan was at a high of 45.7% back in 1998. Currently the rate is one of the best across the U.S. at 28.1%. That is a significant change and is helped by programs like this.

Chicago has a similar rehabilitation program, Recipe for Change, that teaches pizza making skills at the Cook County Jail. To be clear, they are not learning to make Chicago’s style pizza. The inmates and a chef who volunteers with the program share a distaste for the deep-dish variety. Chef Abate’s belief is that this is a way to “open your mind . . . give you hope, give you self-esteem, give you dignity.” Over 300 inmates have been trained and Abase knows of less than 10 of these trainees who have gone back to jail.

Inmates feel they are learning life skills along with the culinary skills. Skills such as respect and interpersonal skills. Most importantly these people are given hope.

While driving a few days ago I was stopped at a red light. There was a man with a sign asking for help. I gave him some money. He told me he wanted to cry, and he almost did. It turned out he had been released from prison a few days before. He obviously had nowhere to go and no employment options. He told me he had been eating from a dumpster near the corner where I met him. He stated he did not realize “how hard it is out here.” I can’t help but think that given an employment, opportunity he would work hard to keep it. I don’t know his full story, after all, the red light only lasts so long. What I do know is that everyone who does their time must have an opportunity to support themselves or they will resort to committing more crimes.

The ban-the-box laws and pre-release programs are a good start. Employers should be familiar with these laws. You will not only protect your business; you may also give someone a much needed second chance.

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