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October 2010

From Jail to Jobs

Jessica Bachman and Kenneth Harwick, both formerly incarcerated, now work to help others find jobs after doing time. Photo by Ezinma Oguagha.

After losing his job as a security officer—and with no money and no prospects—Kenneth Harwick turned to crime. He was arrested in August of 2006 for selling drugs and spent 14 months in prison. At 19, Jessica Bachman was arrested for possession of stolen property and served a four-year term. But beyond their prison experience they share a powerful bond: the ability to take what for many is a societal death sentence and turn it into opportunity. Jessica and Kenneth are now working at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), where they both took a mandatory course as a condition of their parole.

Helping ex-cons re-enter society

The Trust has given CEO $120,000 since 2006 to improve its job placement programs, which have helped hundreds of ex-cons find and keep living-wage jobs. But re-entry is a slow process. Manners, habits, priorities, and perspectives all have to be relearned so that the individual can thrive.

For Kenneth and Jessica, it wasn’t about justifying their crimes but about understanding why they had committed them. Jessica describes her childhood as dysfunctional: “No one in my family woke up and went to work. I didn’t know any adults who actually did anything.”

Kenneth attributes his actions to a combination of selfishness, poverty, and lack of hope in his neighborhood. He believes that “not all criminals are bad,” but most lack the opportunity to do something better.

CEO immediately found jobs for both Jessica and Kenneth after they were released. Kenneth worked at Krasdale Warehouse and later at a men’s shelter, where he worked with mentally ill substance abusers. Jessica was placed in a job with City Storage Company. CEO taught them business skills including how to write a résumé and do well in job interviews. Now both are working at CEO, where Kenneth teaches the life-skills classes and Jessica is a job search specialist.

Coming full circle

Kenneth sees his former self in those he mentors, and begins his lectures with, “I was sitting in those very same seats not too long ago . . .” When asked about how he has changed, Kenneth responds that he is “not being as selfish I was before . . . it’s not all about me. My daughter has to grow up in a place that is stable and my wife has to be cared for. It all goes back to having a sense of responsibility and purpose, which I didn’t have before.”

In a phone interview, Jessica exclaimed: “I’m working! I no longer have the craving to do illegal things to get money. I’m in an environment with working people who do the right thing each and every day in order to survive. Offering someone the ability to work and provide for themselves is wonderful.”

“Jessica and Kenneth represent the thousands of men and women who are returning to our communities each year,” says Tani Mills, executive director of CEO. “They are turning their lives around through gainful employment.”

This article was written by Ezinma Oguagha, a student at Brooklyn College, who interned at The Trust this summer through the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women.

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