Every year in the United States, more than 600,000 prisoners wind up released from state and federal correctional institutions. According to the Justice Department, 67 percent of these ex-offenders get arrested within three years for committing a new crime. The federal government has sought for decades to solve the problem of recidivism by funding programs intended to lead ex-offenders to employment—a key factor in avoiding a return to crime—and analyzing their effectiveness. During 1971–74, for example, the Living Insurance for Ex-Prisoners (LIFE) initiative gave ex-offenders in the Baltimore area weekly income supports and help in finding jobs. The Job Training and Partnership Act of 1982 tried “vocational exploration” and “job shadowing.” In 1994, Opportunity to Succeed provided job-placement assistance for “criminally involved individuals with substance abuse problems” in Kansas City, New York, Oakland, St. Louis, and Tampa. In the late 1990s, the Job Corps began providing “vocational and educational preparation coupled with job placement services.” Yet studies have shown little success for these projects in getting former offenders into long-term employment—and keeping them out of jail. “The accumulation of evidence during the past half-century indicates that ex-offender job placement programs are not effective in reducing recidivism,” wrote Marilyn Moses of the National Institute of Justice, the in-house think tank for the Justice Department, in a 2012 review of eight federally funded programs of this kind.
Government efforts in this area may have fared so poorly because it’s “not the government’s problem to fix,” as Brandon Chrostowski, a 36-year-old chef, puts it. “Since the beginning of time, it has been the people who move society.” In 2007, Chrostowski—who formerly worked in some of the world’s finest restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Le Cirque in New York City—founded the EDWINS (for “education wins,” Chrostowski has said) Leadership and Restaurant Institute in Cleveland to lead ex-prisoners into the culinary trades. A combination training course, restaurant, dormitory, and job-placement enterprise, EDWINS is doing what those federally funded initiatives have failed to do—reliably place the graduates of its six-month program into jobs, many for the first time in their lives. EDWINS operates its own dormitory for participants and some alumni; its curriculum includes a required seminar on French wines. Some 73 percent of its 150 “graduates” have found and kept jobs in one of the 60 Cleveland restaurants eager to hire those trained in the institute’s eponymous four-star French restaurant. EDWINS’s recidivism rate: 1.3 percent.
In Manhattan’s East Harlem neighborhood, Mark Goldsmith’s Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO) recruits participants while they’re still behind bars at New York City’s forbidding Rikers Island jail complex. The group then corresponds with applicants, sometimes for years, as they serve out their sentences. GOSO offers everything from mock job interviews to classes in how to build a business (first step: take a job at the kind of business you’d like to be in). Now in its 13th year of operation, GOSO also holds discussion groups on what it means to be a good father—40 percent of its participants, many as young as 16, already have children. Of the 4,000 enrollees, mostly men, in its Job Readiness Program, 65 percent have finished, and three-quarters of those are now employed or in school.
EDWINS and GOSO exemplify the vitality and variety of American civil society in finding new approaches to persistent social problems. After years of government failure in addressing these problems, independent nonprofits offer a more promising path forward.
The mission is challenging. For potential employers, newly released ex-offenders often have an unattractive profile, to put it mildly. “Releasees may face a number of employment barriers to their return to society,” notes Moses, including “inadequate educational attainment, insufficient or outdated skills, a spotty or nonexistent work history, undesirable physical appearance (e.g., missing teeth, tattoos), drug addiction or other health impairments, few soft skills, economically disadvantaged communities with few available jobs, and a criminal record.” Ex-offenders, with their deep, multiple, and varied problems, aren’t a group easily helped by the kinds of across-the-board approaches typical of government. By their nature, public programs seek to serve what Moses calls “large client volume” and to show their effectiveness through “strong data collection.” But former prisoners require more individualized attention. Some need help finding housing; others may need treatment for drug problems or legal aid to manage child-support payments. Because of the personal nature of this work, intermediaries play a vital role.
Rufus Hill of East Cleveland lived in correctional facilities almost nonstop between the ages of 13 and 25—first in a juvenile detention center, and then in Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institution. When he did return briefly to East Cleveland, best known for its high crime and political corruption, he recalls feeling “behind,” unfamiliar with a changing world. “You feel inferior. Other people are more advanced; you feel you can’t compete.” Soon enough, he was in trouble, or, as he puts it bluntly today: “I’d sell drugs and rob people.” He never managed to stay out of prison for longer than six months. Coming home in 2015 from his most recent jail stint, Hill fell into a depression. “I figured I’d die in the streets,” he says. “There wasn’t no future. I had accepted that.” It’s not that he hadn’t tried government-supported programs. “The people there really didn’t give two F’s about you. They’re only there because politicians have to have programs that make it look like they’re doing something.” He stayed in halfway houses that “were not even habitable.” The staff was “mainly focused on addiction, when for me, the first and foremost thing was getting a job.” At 27, Hill landed his first legal job—as a busboy at the Music Box Supper Club, in Cleveland’s Flats nightlife district. A job, he once thought, was something for “suckers.” He credits EDWINS with changing his view—and his life.
Enrollees in GOSO tend to feel the same way about what the organization has done for them. Participants must sign contracts promising to complete high school; GOSO runs its own New York City–approved alternative high school inside Rikers. Applicants can join, by writing an essay, before they’re released from jail or prison. “I am a very bright kid but let the love of fast money and peer pressure take me down and get into trouble,” wrote Allen, a Rikers inmate and high school dropout, late last year. “I believe GOSO can help me by keeping me focused and active so I wouldn’t be in the streets looking for something to do. They can also help me get a good job so I won’t have to be hustling to make ends meet. At least, I’ll be working legit.” GOSO’s programs director, Sarah Blanco, meets every new applicant. Many tell her that the absence of a father was a key to their choosing crime. “They say, `If I had a father who’d told me to get off the streets, I wouldn’t have done the things I did.’ ”
Though their focuses differ, the organizations have much in common, including being founded and shaped by strong individual leaders, whose values continue to influence them. At 19, Chrostowski had “already made many of the wrong choices a young man could make,” and he was facing jail time—until a sympathetic judge assigned him instead to job training with a local chef. The move transformed his life, and he went on to a successful career as a high-end New York City chef. After hearing about Cleveland’s high crime and low high school graduation rate, he relocated to a gritty part of the city, where he’d never lived, to start EDWINS. GOSO founder Goldsmith, a retired cosmetics-industry executive, volunteered for the New York public schools’ “principal for a day” initiative and was assigned to the jail high school on Rikers Island. He sensed that his corporate experience might help him reach inmates, many of whom had worked in illegal businesses.
Both organizations incorporate an understanding that those released from prison face a range of obstacles—from the psychological to the bureaucratic. EDWINS ensures that participants have cleared up old traffic violations so that they that can get or keep a driver’s license—often essential to getting and keeping jobs in Cleveland. The group also requires participants to take classes in ethics and “culinary math.” GOSO hands out MetroCards so that enrollees can get to the community-college classes and paid internships in which it helps them enroll. Both at Rikers and in classrooms at GOSO’s East Harlem office, Goldsmith talks with participants not just about how to land a job but also how to climb a career ladder. Among his suggestions is that of finding a Horatio Alger route to upward mobility: take a job as a building janitor, move up to become a superintendent, befriend wealthy residents—and recruit them to buy the building across the street and include you as a partner!
Both programs also require training in “soft skills”—how to look people in the eye, say, or present well in an interview. Goldsmith runs mock job interviews, in which he asks his students why they’d been behind bars. Wrong answer: “I was framed.” Right answer: “I made some serious mistakes when I was young but that’s not who I am anymore. This is what I’m like today and why you should hire me.” Passing muster with Goldsmith is effectively the final exam in GOSO’s “Adolescent Job Readiness Curriculum.”
Both organizations emphasize employment—or, at GOSO, acceptance at a two-year college as another positive step. In many cases, they’re helping men who’ve never held any legal job. Neither group is starry-eyed. At GOSO, the goal is not the Ivy League or even a four-year college; in fact, the organization will help with applications only for community colleges. At EDWINS, the aim is not to make everyone a top chef but to prepare them for useful work. Both groups focus on jobs that some might deride as “dead-end”—maintenance work, busing tables—with the goal of helping members of the underclass join the working class.
Lynn Feemster found himself observing EDWINS founder Chrostowski as he managed the details, including the accounting, of the EDWINS French restaurant, a major source of the organization’s revenues. (It supports all but $400,000 of a $1.5 million budget.) Feemster—who’d done more than eight years in Illinois prisons for drug trafficking—has gone on to run his own gourmet food cart (it started as a hot-dog truck) and win contracts from a major local employer. “EDWINS gave me a vision of starting my own business,” he says. The same holds true for Ty Egler, whose business plans don’t focus on the restaurant business directly but on providing a niche laundry service for it. “It’s not just about cooking,” says one participant. “It’s about your well-being, about every aspect: courts, health, health insurance, a place to stay. They want to know if you’re still involved in street activity. When someone else cares about you, then you start to care about yourself.”
GOSO has had some success persuading judges to divert young offenders to its supervision. That’s how Brooklyn-bred Joseph avoided what might have been a five-year sentence (he did not specify the crime) and instead completed a business program, first at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx, and then at Baruch College, where he gained a bachelor’s degree. Today, he earns $60,000 a year as an office-buildings manager—and has his sights set on an MBA.
Failure remains a real possibility for enrollees. At EDWINS, of 330 applicants accepted, only 150 have completed the program. Angry outbursts, drug-use relapses, and skipping classes are among the factors that can get someone booted out. At GOSO, absenteeism from classes can bring the same result. Such tough love sets down rules that one must abide by, just as employees must do in the working world.
This emphasis on standards is very different from most government job-training programs, which judge success merely by how many enrollees get through them. That incentive structure could have the perverse result of just pushing ex-offenders through and demanding nothing of them, worries Max Kenner, founder of the Bard Prison Initiative, which organizes college-level education behind bars and tracks what happens to releasees as they enroll in reentry initiatives. Kenner also fears that government emphasis on “scale”—finding a model program and then expanding it—is misplaced. “I’ve come to have a deep belief in there being a diversity of programs for our graduates,” he says. “It’s the innovators who show what’s possible.”
In Kenner’s view, groups such as EDWINS and GOSO offer something beyond training or education: an invitation to become part of a community. Each organization serves as a sort of family that one can report accomplishments to and earn praise from. For his part, Rufus Hill—raised without his father, who’d fallen into drugs and drink before he was born—sees EDWINS as a collection of people who care about him, something he’d seldom experienced before. “They’ll always be there for you. It makes me feel valued.”
Another advantage is funding independence. Both EDWINS and GOSO rely for funding on dozens of private donors, individuals, and foundations—in contrast with government-supported programs, far narrower not only in their approach but also in their funding base. Chrostowski cherishes his organization’s independence from government money, with all the strings that come attached to it. “The government has too many limits. We have a limitless philosophy and anything is possible. This breeds a totally different culture where if a problem arises, it gets solved aggressively. We are not beholden to anyone, avoiding anything that may hold us back.” Had EDWINS relied on federal funding, for instance, the same types of grants could not fund job training and housing; Chrostowski can use his donors’ funds for both, or other, purposes. And he relies, of course, on the significant profits from the restaurant, located in Cleveland’s legendary Shaker Square; reviewers rate it as one of the city’s best.
Getting Out and Staying Out and EDWINS Restaurant and Leadership Institute are small planets in a large galaxy of programs—local, state, and federal—dealing with the challenge of integrating ex-offenders into working life. The desire to scale them up is understandable but should perhaps be resisted. One can imagine a limited role for the federal government—one in which, for instance, parole and probation officers, or judges, make referrals to programs of this kind, even as they remain independent and continue to rely on private donors. Even in this limited scenario, however, the organizational independence so vital to the programs’ success could be compromised. It may be that, in order to give people like Brandon Chrostowski and Mark Goldsmith room to flourish, we’d do best to leave them alone—and hope that others will be inspired to emulate them.
Top Photo: Hot-dog vendor Lynn “Oudie” Feemster is a graduate of EDWINS Institute, a Cleveland-based culinary-training program for the formerly incarcerated. (LISA DEJONG)