“All criminals don’t have hoods on their faces,” said Melody Young, a Humboldt Park resident with roots in Austin. She was wearing festive purple hospital scrubs and smiling, as if to emphasize the point. Young, a licensed practical nurse, said she spent three months in prison in 1994 for a drug offense. While locked up, she got clean and began setting goals for herself.

“I said I wanted to get my GED, I wanted to get an ID — because when I was getting locked up, I was using alias names — and I wanted a job,” said Young, 48. She said she eventually got all three. Within two years, she was working at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

“But just a few weeks into her new job, Melody’s supervisor told her that even though she was doing great work and patients loved her, she was being let go. Melody’s criminal record popped up in a background check,” according to a statement by Safer Foundation, the West Side organization to which Melody turned for guidance after losing her job.

Last Thursday, May 7, Safer sponsored a healthcare forum at a Cook County administrative building within the Illinois Medical District on the Near West Side. The goal was to begin to coax major healthcare employers in the area out of the kind of attitudes that may have led to Young’s ouster. 

“Illinois has about 3.9 million people with criminal records,” said Victor Dickson, Safer’s president and CEO. “There are only about 9 million adults in Illinois. We have 49,000 people incarcerated and 30,000 of them are released from prison each year. Over 71,000 go in and out of Cook County Jail on an annual basis. All of those individuals have a record.” 

Dickson said that the taint of a criminal record can be a barrier to education, housing and employment opportunities. It may also play a major role in shaping the environments to which many of those ex-offenders return once they get out of prison. 

“The people coming back to Chicago from prison are going to seven neighborhoods on the South and West Sides and they happen to be neighborhoods that are right around most of these medical institutions we’re talking about,” Dickson said. “When you go and look on the North Side of Chicago, the unemployment rate is 5 percent. On the West and South Sides, it may be 25 percent. And in those neighborhoods as much as 50 percent of people may have a criminal record.”

“Without employment, they have really no way of breaking the cycle of incarceration,” Dickson said. “In our state, 47 percent of the people released from prison go back within three years, but if we get them employed, we know that we can break that cycle.”

Dickson noted that his organization convened about 25 healthcare employers to discuss opportunities for collaboration. Safer pre-screens, trains and offers various support services for ex-offenders, facilitating their smooth transition from prison to payroll. 

The outreach is part of Safer’s strategy to facilitate what Dixon believes could be a synergistic relationship between one of the country’s largest untapped pools of human capital and one of its fastest growing industries. Dickson said that there are about 600,000 healthcare jobs in Cook County, with another 80,000 new jobs projected in the next several years.

Much of that growth, said U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th), a keynote speaker at the forum, is directly attributable to the “15 to 16 million people who now have health insurance who did not have it before [the Affordable Care Act] passed.” 

“Our need for workers is insatiable,” said Pamela D. Paulk, president of Johns Hopkins Medicine International in Baltimore — a model of the kind of collaboration Safer is pitching to healthcare employers here in Chicago. Paulk said that about five percent of her institution’s employees, and about 20 percent of its non-college educated workforce, comprise ex-offenders. 

“Over the years we’ve partnered with referral organizations and they will find those people who are ready to go back to work and will train them,” said Paulk. “We open up our employment policies to allow ex-offenders to have the same opportunities as anyone else … Research we’ve done shows that our ex-offenders stay with us just as long as our non-offenders; they have the same promotion rate; and they have the same evaluation rate every year.” 

Paulk noted that the biggest hiring hurdle that most employers may have to overcome is attitudinal. She said her company made a conscious effort to look at ex-offenders as people who made mistakes — not people who are the result of their mistakes.

For her part, regardless of how employers may have perceived her, Young said the burden of exploding certain preconceived perceptions was mostly hers. After she lost her job with the Rehabilitation Institute, she went to Safer and acquired a healthcare worker waiver, which makes it easier for employers to hire job applicants with non-disqualifying criminal records. 

“I faced a little prejudice and stereotyping,” she said. “On applications, I would say that I have a record, but I didn’t specify what it was. I’d write that I would explain it in the interview. I knew then I would have to sale myself. I’d say [to employers], ‘I guarantee you won’t go wrong employing me. I would be your best asset. And they always hired me. Later on, maybe a year or two, they’d say, ‘You know, that were the best decision we made.'”

Young kept setting goals for herself. She enrolled at Malcolm X College and graduated with honors. She obtained her nursing degree from Kennedy King. She became a CPR instructor and a precinct captain for aldermen Emma Mitts and Walter Burnett. Currently, she works with Safer Foundation helping people who may be walking in the shoes she wore 20 years ago. Her next goal is to become a full-blown registered nurse.

“This is a win-win for us,” said Paulk in reference to her company’s practice of hiring ex-offenders like Young. “I often say, it’s a business rationale that we’re doing this. It’s not just a mission and it’s not just philanthropic on our part — it’s business. It’s good business,” she said, adding that an acute shortage of workers drove Johns Hopkins to pay serious attention to tapping into the Baltimore area’s ex-offender population.

“We could no longer look at the perfect worker … we needed to look at where there were other sources,” Paulk said. “We started in homeless shelters and that’s where we really began to push this initiative forward.”

So far, that initiative has worked to prove Paulk’s point, which is to take a systematic chance on an erstwhile ignored population of people is well worth the risk. 

“I haven’t heard anybody say that the quality of [Johns Hopkins’s] services have diminished,” said Rep. Davis. “I haven’t heard anybody say they got all kind of malpractice lawsuits as a result of hiring these people…I have the good fortune of representing more hospitals than any other single member of [Congress]….We are a health mecca. We also want to become an employment mecca for some of these individuals looking for work.”

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

A previous version of this article mispelled Victor Dickson’s last name. The Austin Weekly News regrets this error.

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