Davis Powell works at Pomp’s Tire Service in Savage where he inspects and repairs tires. “Overall, it’s a good job with good benefits,” said Powell, 33, a two-year employee.

Powell has gone from being a penniless inmate in a Minnesota state prison four years ago to a $14-an-hour employee, plus benefits and ample overtime, a shared apartment, a car and a future.

Powell also represents an untapped national workforce of millions of formerly incarcerated people.

“My crime came out of pride and low self-esteem,” said Powell, who was released months early in 2013 for good behavior following a robbery conviction. “I’m not going back to prison.”

Powell, while on probation, went through personal-empowerment and job-skills training provided by Twin Cities Rise, the 25-year nonprofit that helps unemployed and underemployed folks boost their technical and personal skills and advance in careers through jobs that range from office work to mechanics and bus drivers. While enrolled at Rise in north Minneapolis, Powell also worked a temp job that required a three-bus commute.

Empowerment training, which Rise teaches to business managers as well as former inmates, involves humility, decisionmaking, communication skills and owning your choices.

“Empowerment motivated me,” Powell said. “I’ve gained the skills. To listen and express myself professionally. I took the classes. I went from a low credit score to high credit [score]. Despite my background, I felt I deserved a second chance. And I know if I do well, maybe other people and employers will see that. And it will help open the door for others.

“One of my goals is to take a vacation. And I want to own a home one day.”

Formerly incarcerated people, disproportionately lower-income people of color, have been a tough group to employ, even in a worker-hungry, low-unemployment rate economy. However, there’s evidence that employers and society are starting to reconsider.

A groundbreaking report this summer by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its Trone Private Sector and Education Advisory Council, provides a road map. Called “Back to Business: How Hiring Formerly Incarcerated Jobseekers Benefits Your Company,” the report has been embraced by the disparate likes of criminal justice reformers, including Google, Total Wine, the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Koch Industries, Walmart and others.

“We have hired individuals with criminal records as employees for decades by getting to know them as candidates first and looking into their background only after they have received a conditional offer,” Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries, said in a prepared statement. “These employees have been humble and diligent contributors, and we encourage other employers to think about hiring differently.”

Seventy million Americans — one in three adults — have a criminal conviction, according to the report authors.

The ACLU report offers practical advice for employers looking to tap into this often overlooked talent pool, providing case studies, compliance recommendations and hiring advice.

The report stresses the importance of not simply creating entry-level positions, but also career pathways that start with prison education and training that continues along the employment ladder.

“Large and small businesses alike can reap dividends by providing second-chance opportunities to returning citizens,” said Janice Davis, vice president and general counsel of eWaste Tech Systems. “Our experience has shown returning citizens to be as reliable, if not more reliable, than citizens without any criminal history.”

CEO Tom Streitz and Jeff Williams, director of the Empowerment Institute at Twin Cities Rise, said the retention rate for their graduates who were formerly incarcerated is higher than average.

“We have 80 percent retention for one year and 70 percent for two years,” Streitz said. “That’s double the national average of retention on a [entry-level] job. We not only provide a great employee, but one who will stick.”

However, Williams said barriers persist, including concern that hiring former inmates will drive up insurance rates.

“It’s a myth that anyone who has committed a crime is a bad person who cannot change,” he said.

CEO Thomas Adams of Better Futures Minnesota runs a social enterprise that has trained and employed 150 former incarcerates over the last three years. Better Futures generated $5 million in revenue from deconstructing houses, recycling and selling 70 tons of building materials that once were landfilled. Yet, the organization has yet to see a significant uptick in the pace of hiring since Minnesota law was changed to no longer require job applicants to check a box if they are a former prison inmate.

Adams said 70 percent of his trainees were in prison because of drug dependency or sales.

“Sixty percent of the men we serve in Hennepin County without intervention go back to prison within six months,” Adams said.

Better Futures employs a two-year model involving training, support and employment, including housing, personal health and mentor coaching.

“When they leave us, in as little as eight months, they have a work history and certifications in forklift operation, construction safety, janitorial-custodial, hazardous-material removal, other certifications,” he said.

Those jobs pay $16 to $18 an hour, but criminal convictions mean they usually have to start out in food service or light manufacturing, where pay is more like $10.50 an hour.

“We try to keep them motivated that the change they recognize in themselves [will eventually be recognized and rewarded by employers]. For us, success is even the guy who gets a full-time job making $11 or $12 an hour and who can pay the rent on time.

“We want to help them not be dependent on somebody else or the correction system, but to be self-sufficient.”


Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.