On teaching a class in prison

‘ve written several times that when I leave here I will have to answer to myself for how I handled my incarceration.  I’ve also written about how being selfless is far more rewarding than being selfish.  Most of my free time at Yankton FPC has been directed towards pursuits that benefit me.  I spend a fair amount of time reading and writing.  I work in Horticulture which helps keep the compound looking orderly, but to a degree, is self-serving since I enjoy the work.  I also work out a lot, which clearly, helps me.  To that degree, I have been trying to find ways to be more selfless. 

In prison, a pattern score is a number assigned to an inmate based on his recidivism rate – the likelihood of finding oneself in trouble and coming back to prison.  The lower your pattern score, the higher your chances of having greater levels of liberty sooner in the process.  Age, criminal history, history of violence and programming hours are among the factors that combine when assigning an inmate a pattern score.  The more classes/programming one is involved with, the lower their pattern score. 

Every Monday night a group of us now meet for a class I am teaching.  The class helps inmates work on creating a resume and cover letter as well as prepare for job searches and interviews.  I thought most who signed up would be interested in only the programming credits and lowering their pattern score.  While those aspects of the class are a benefit, everyone is actually engaged and enthused about the work we’re accomplishing. 

Writing a resume is a vulnerable process.  In my previous career, I hadn’t given anyone a resume for years.  My experience and a conversation on the phone was enough.  This is bringing back memories of how humbling and exposing it can be to lay out all of your personal and professional accomplishments on one sheet of paper that is supposed to define your professional worth.  Thereby turning the decision of your value into a purely objective analysis that is out of your hands unless you receive an interview. 

If hiring was all facts and information we would input resumes into a computer program and a decision would be made on who to hire.  Instead, we’re human.  We’re an emotional species and hiring decisions extend beyond objective measures.  To me, there is a two part process to this class and what I plan on everyone taking away from it.  First, in this instance, a resume and a cover letter need to be crafted with a particularly compelling story.  Next, how do we take that opportunity, once we’re in the door for an interview, and turn it into a job offer? 

One aspect I feel needs to be addressed is reframing everyone’s mindset on the process of finding a job, being confident during an interview, and knowing they are actually good candidates.  That their past can be an asset to them and the employer.  I recently read an article in Newsweek on the idea of Second Chance Hiring.  It was an eye opener and reaffirmed much of what I had already been thinking.  From the author: “Of all the potential talent pools, my work suggests that one of the very best opportunities for employers is to hire people who have been marginalized by a criminal record.  When sourced right, people with criminal records are among the most engaged and loyal of workers.”  I know, it sounds like satire, but stick with me. 

This is an article that I shared with our entire class.  It is exactly what we needed to flip the script and make everyone feel confident that while they have challenges to overcome, those challenges are not insurmountable and they can be an asset to them when viewed in the right context.  “I think most of us can think of times in our own lives when we fell short of our own standards; people of character redouble their efforts to prove that they are more than their worst mistakes.  When we take into account the magnitude of the obstacles that those who have been incarcerated must overcome in order to rebuild their lives, it is easier to understand that many with records are indeed people of character” writes the author of the article, Jeffrey Korzenik.  He is a Banker and Investment Strategist who wrote the book: “Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring works for your Business and the Community.” 

Most of the inmates are concerned about lapses in employment – not only due to their imprisonment, but because of long time spans without a job prior to their incarceration.  Times where they may have been focusing on capitalist pursuits outside of the realm of W2’s and paying taxes.  These are admittedly tricky resumes to craft.  Maybe it’s all the time in Horticulture but I came up with an analogy for how we are working through this challenge. 

You can look at a tree from any vantage point of the 360 degrees around it.  What we’re doing is trying to give the best vantage point for a “tree” that from some angles may look damaged, yet from others, you can see it’s beauty.  It’s possibly all the time in Horticulture but when you walk around the same quarter-mile track and work on the same compound day in and day out you have a new found appreciation for the trees you see each day.  People who have gone to prison may have a tarnished record, but many of them have grown from the experience and bring a perspective and work ethic to employment that I think many employers would be lucky to have. 

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