TAMPA — Abe Brown Ministries, a non-profit Tampa agency that has been working to help ex-convicts rejoin society since 1976, is putting to work $1.5 million in state money for a training and job-placement program.
The state appropriation, along with $350,000 from the Hillsborough County Commission, will help the ministry adopt Ready 4 Work — started by President George W. Bush to help former prisoners get jobs. The money will help manage clients’ cases, coach them on behavior, train them in employability, and place them in jobs.
Robert Blount, chief executive officer of Abe Brown Ministries, said the program will save taxpayers money by reducing recidivism — returning to prison — and uniting families fractured by an incarcerated parent.
Blount said most former offenders want to live honest, productive lives when they get out of jail or prison but are barred from employment by many companies. The returning prisoners often lack job skills and suffer from mental or substance abuse problems that make them unemployable. Ready 4 Work tackles those obstacles.
The Rev. Abe Brown, a Tampa minister, died in 2010 at age 83.
“Please don’t misunderstand me, there are people who have committed some extremely heinous crimes and deserve to be behind bars,” Blount said at a news conference Wednesday. “Our founder, the Rev. Abe Brown would say it this way: ‘We aren’t so naïve as to think we are going to be able to save everyone.’ But there are some who genuinely want to lead responsible and respectable lives in the community.”
One of those people is Michael Reid, who graduated with Abe Brown’s first Ready 4 Work class in September and October. Reid, 53, said he had a good job working for a private contractor at CSX railroad, but made a “bad decision,” using a company credit card to buy gas for his own use.
A guilty conscience pushed Reid to admit what he did. He was given probation and a fine.
Afterwards, he called Abe Brown Ministries and enrolled in Ready 4 Work. The program enabled Reid to get a job at the new Amazon production and distribution center in Ruskin. Just as important as the job were the personal changes the program made in his life, Reid said.
“This showed me how to be a father again, a husband, a brother,” he said. “Before, it was all about me.”
Many corrections experts consider mass incarceration an inefficient way to fight crime. Since the 1970s, prisons have become a growth industry, with about 2.5 million men and women behind bars and another 5 million on probation or parole.
The surge, driven by increased drug use and inflexible sentencing laws, has transformed the United States into the “most incarcerated country in the world,” Blount said. The country has just 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned men and women.
Hillsborough County residents account for 7,458 inmates in Florida prisons at an average annual cost of $17,338 per prisoner, according to the Department of Corrections. Each year, more than 2,000 convicts from the Florida Department of Corrections are released back to the county.
The average Florida prisoner has 2.5 children, Blount said, many of whom live in poverty. Before they go to prison, the typical offender has a monthly income of $1,000.
“If these parents can’t return to the community with transportation, education, housing, income, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment and employment, then returning to prison will be a given and the generational cycle of incarceration will continue,” Blount said.
Abe Brown will model its jobs program on Jacksonville’s, where the agency New Operation Hope was chosen to run the first Ready 4 Work classes. Kevin Gay, who founded New Operation Hope in 1999, said the agency first worked to restore blighted Jacksonville neighborhoods by building affordable housing.
But Gay said he soon learned that “communities are more than brick and mortar.”
“We’d build these houses and look across the street and there would be a lot of people not working,” Gay said at the news conference. “I wanted to help, but I didn’t know what help was.”
In 2003, Gay said he got a call from President Bush about whether giving ex-convicts jobs could curb recidivism. Gay accepted the president’s challenge and asked Jacksonville business managers what they look for in employees.
The businessmen said they wanted hard workers who came to work on time and were drug-free. Then Gay asked if the leaders would hire ex-convicts who meet those criteria. Many said they would.
Since then, the agency has worked with 300 businesses in Jacksonville and surrounding areas and placed more than 1,500 ex-offenders in jobs. Recidivism rates for people who have completed the four-to-six-week Ready 4 Work program were 5-9 percent over the last three years, according to figures provided by the agency.
“The end result is our recidivism numbers are absolutely incredible,” Gay said.
Also at the news conference was former state House Speaker Will Weatherford and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner.
Weatherford, who played a key role in the $1.5 million appropriation for Abe Brown’s program, said Gay and Blount came to him about a year-and-a-half ago with a “vision” to bring Ready 4 Work to Tampa. Weatherford said he liked the idea because he had gotten second and third chances after missteps when he was young.
“If you stick with this, I guarantee it will change the trajectory of your life,” Weatherford said, looking at Ready 4 Work clients sitting in the audience.
Beckner said Ready 4 Work complements two of his signature projects: a civil citation program that keeps juveniles from getting arrest records after first-time offenses and a violence prevention program called Safe and Sound.
“Part of my goal is making sure kids don’t end up behind walls to begin with,” Beckner said. “But in the event that they do, it is our responsibility to make sure once they get out we help them become productive members of our society.”