WOOSTER, Ohio – Hundreds of thousands of men and women are released from prison each year across the United States, and among the significant challenges they face upon re-entry is finding employment, but a recent project by College of Wooster students Emma Cotter and Halen Gifford should help ease the transition for ex-offenders right here in Wayne County, where more than 100 prisoners returned to the community in 2017.
With the backing of the College’s Applied Methods and Research Experience (AMRE), now celebrating its 25th year this summer, Cotter and Gifford conducted research for a number of local clients, such as the Wooster/Orrville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Wayne Economic Development Council, with an aim to collect data from employers that will ultimately aid returning citizens more readily find opportunities in the workforce.
As anticipated, Cotter, a rising junior at the College, and Gifford, a sophomore, encountered some resistance when cold calling hundreds of area businesses. They found that many were unwilling to answer questions about their hiring processes, some citing legal restrictions, while others described such decisions as taking place on a case-by-case basis.
Still, their persistence paid off with 60 respondents covering a variety of industries and the data collected now gives agencies criteria like the percentage of employers that inquire about an individual’s criminal history on job applications and the percentage that would be willing to hire certain classes of felons. Possibly of most importance, they compiled a database of companies in Wayne County that are “felon friendly.”
Tammy Jackson, the reentry coordinator at Anazao, was one who was very appreciative of the study. “The time and effort Emma and Halen put into this project is vital to our better understanding the atmosphere of the business world in Wayne County. I genuinely appreciate their work. I believe this is the first step of many in helping us discover ways we might move forward through education, communicating with business professionals, and looking at the possibility of an ‘incubator,’ or other business prospect of sorts designed to meet re-entry employment goals,” she said.
Cotter and Gifford’s project didn’t stop with just data collection. The duo interviewed 10 returning citizens, compared reentry programming in nine other counties in Ohio, and analyzed some profit and non-profit organizations who have successfully hired ex-offenders in an effort to find some common themes. With that information in hand, they then formed their own recommendations.
Important factors that Cotter and Gifford believe would lead to improved re-entry programs for ex-offenders are pre-release programming, including resume and interview training, a single reentry center in communities that could provide a range of services, and stigma reduction education for employers. They ultimately provided a comprehensive report to the clients, who can disperse and utilize it as they see fit.
Cotter and Gifford, who were advised by Nate Addington, director of civic and social responsibility at Wooster, and Cameron Maneese, former director of the Wayne County Family and Children First Council, agree that the project was worthwhile, both serving as a way to fulfill their passion for civic engagement and providing real-world implications.
“It’s a super interesting topic and I like the social sciences. It was awesome to be able to do research that will directly affect the community that I’m currently living in in a positive way,” said Cotter, a political science major from Saratoga, N.Y., while Gifford, who plans to major in communication studies and calls Louisville, Ky., home, added it was gratifying to “bring together a lot of community partners and kick start something to get done.”