Durham helps with re-entry

For former inmates - A chance to work

Staff WriterApril 29, 2005 

Patrick Graham was working at an Arby's fast food restaurant last year when his boss offered him a promotion.

So he quit.

His boss knew he was dedicated and reliable but didn't know Graham, 28, is a convicted armed robber.

When the truth came out, his boss would surely fire him, Graham thought.

"I didn't even give him the option," Graham said. "I just turned my stuff in."

The situation is common to many of the roughly 400 former inmates released back into Durham County each year. Few jobs are available to ex-cons.

The interview goes well, but as soon as employers find out about a prison record, "It goes from 'Come in tomorrow' to 'Hold up. Let me give you a call,' " Graham said.

Durham's leaders hope a new initiative will help. City officials announced this month they will keep at least five entry-level jobs in the Public Works Department open specifically to ex-offenders.

Durham's prison re-entry hiring program is the first of its kind in Triangle cities. Raleigh and Chapel Hill officials say they don't have similar programs in place. But being a convicted felon doesn't rule out job applicants, spokeswomen for the two cities say.

In Durham, Graham was one of the first five people to benefit from the program. This summer, he will mark one year as a city employee, now a full-timer with the city's stormwater maintenance division. He was hired just in time for the birth of his son.

"It was a blessing, the timing," he said.

To qualify for the ex-offender hiring program, applicants must be referred by the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center. The center offers job training, counseling, drug treatment and other support to ex-offenders on probation.

The majority of those enrolled at the center are referred there by the courts, said Jim Stella, the Criminal Justice Resource Center's employment specialist.

In the next few months, the city plans to designate more positions in the Water Management, Parks and Recreation, and General Services departments for ex-offenders, said J. Marianne Green, the city's acting staffing manager.

Still, Stella said, more employers, public and private, should offer opportunities to ex-inmates.

For every four ex-offenders ready to work, there's only one job offer, Stella said.

That's a recipe for disaster, said David Peaks. Peaks, 32, is another ex-offender who works with Graham doing storm drain maintenance.

"How are you going to put a person out into the world without no job?" Peaks said. "You're setting them up for failure."

It took months for Peaks to get a job after being released from prison last year for selling drugs near a school.

Filling out job applications was like playing the lottery.

"I didn't care what it was, I just signed it," Peaks said. "I knew if I didn't get no job, I would be back in the same place.''

This summer, Peaks will also mark one year in a steady job. His supervisor calls him a team leader who is poised to move up quickly.

"David will be up to his knees in water. He never complains. He came to work once with the flu," said Rickey Glenn, Peaks' supervisor. "If you don't give anybody a chance, you'll never know."

For Graham, the opportunity has turned from an entry-level job to a door to a career. Having a job with the city means he has learned how to operate machinery and gotten his commercial driver's license, and it has inspired him to go back to school for a degree in engineering. And when Graham moves on, that means another ex-offender can take his place.

"Hopefully, it will open doors for other people, too," he said.

Staff writer Samiha Khanna can be reached at 956-2468 or skhanna@newsobserver.com.

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