Advocates for the formerly incarcerated gathered the Capitol on Tuesday as part of a National Day of Empathy to raise awareness of the lack of opportunities facing people when they get out of prison.
The event was led by #cut50, a bipartisan group dedicated to reducing prison populations, and Reinventing Reentry, an Arizona nonprofit organization that assists former inmates. It focused on the need for employment opportunities for inmates.
Sue Ellen Allen, the founder and executive director of Reinventing Reentry, spent seven years incarcerated at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville. She said former inmates are left without job opportunities, leaving them unable to do things like pay rent and support their children.
Arizona has 870 laws restricting employment for people who have been incarcerated, Allen said, noting that ex-convicts can’t get occupational licenses to work in fields such as cosmetology, pest control and athletic training. Nor can they work as an interpreter, tow truck operator or get a bingo license. Allen said she has two friends with PhDs who are unable to work as psychologists because they’ve spent time in prison, even though one’s conviction is more than 25 years old.
“Today, we are focused on jobs, because if we come back and cannot get a job, you’re stuck,” Allen said.
Michelle Cirocco, the chief social responsibility for Televerde, a sales and marketing company whose 600-plus employees is mostly comprised of women prison inmates in Arizona and Indiana, said the approximately 3,000 women who have worked for her company over the past 25 years have a recidivism rate of 7 percent, compared to a statewide rate of about 50 percent.
Cirocco, who started her career with Televerde as an inmate in 1999, said Arizona needs to turn its prisons into “workforce development centers.” That can’t happen without sentencing reform, vocational training and advanced education for inmates, and real opportunities for skilled jobs when they’re released, she said.
“Smart criminal justice reform requires more than bipartisan efforts. It requires everyone – government, nonprofit and businesses to get involved in providing solutions that work, solutions based on empathy, education, experience and employment,” Cirocco said.
Two state lawmakers, Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, and Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, advocated for legislation to aid the formerly incarcerated. Quezada expressed hope for his Senate Bill 1437, a “ban the box” proposal that would restrict private sector employers’ ability to ask job applicants about their criminal histories. The Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill in February after two Republicans joined the committee’s Democrats in supporting it. The bill is awaiting debate by the full Senate.