Work-release staffers cite benefits of program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Representatives of the Charleston Work Release Center touted its benefits, both to inmates and employers, to legislators on Tuesday."I'm a big believer in work-release," unit manager Pam Baldwin said. "I believe everyone should go through work-release."Nonviolent offenders with 18 months or less remaining in their prison terms can apply for placement in one of four work-release centers in the state, where they are required to obtain employment in the community.Baldwin told legislators that most of the inmates coming into the Charleston center have never had a paying job, and receive counseling on basics such as how to dress for a job interview, and how to fill out a job application."For many, they just don't know how to act or react in public, and that's something they get here," she said.Although many inmates lack education and job training, virtually all are able to find jobs in the Charleston area, case manager Bobby Williams said."We don't have difficulty with our people finding jobs," he said. "They don't get the better-paying jobs, but they always can get work."Work-release staff  members maintain contacts with Charleston businesses, and as of Tuesday, had 50 inmates working at 16 Charleston businesses, in addition to others employed by the state divisions of Highways and Corrections.Baldwin said that each year, about three or four inmates will be fired or simply not be capable of performing their jobs, but most stay employed throughout their time at the center, which can run from a few weeks to more than a year. In addition to providing a transition from prison life, the employment allows inmates to save some money, since they have a $100-a-month limit on personal spending."They can't spend every dime they get, which is what they want to do," Baldwin said. "If they earn $100, they want to spend $100."She added, "They get mad at me while they're here, because I control their money, but they also learn they don't have to have a $150 pair of tennis shoes."Williams said one work-release inmate who was recently paroled had been able to save $20,000."I think a guy who leaves here with a little bit of money is going to be less likely to commit crimes," he said.
Baldwin said a study two years ago found that former work-release inmates had a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent, much better than 26.8 percent re-incarceration rate for Corrections inmates statewide.
"I don't know if it was because of work-release or not, but I felt pretty good about it," she said.Williams said work release inmates from other parts of the state frequently asked to be paroled to Charleston in order to keep their jobs."They want to parole to this area because they already have a job, and they get apartments here," he said.For employers, work-release assures a dependable workforce, since inmates must either be at work or at the work release center, Williams noted.He said there are about 20 Charleston businesses that regularly seek out work-release inmates."They actually tell me that our guys are more dependable," Williams said.
Work-release inmates are prohibited from taking jobs at telemarketing companies or in bars, but may work at restaurants that serve alcohol.Current employers include Charleston hotels, grocery stores, fast-food and sit-down restaurants, hospitals, and building contractors.Baldwin told a legislative interim committee the two biggest obstacles for the inmates are a lack of job skills and a lack of transportation.She said inmates frequently are limited to jobs within walking distance of the work release center in Charleston's East End, since limited bus service on weekends makes it difficult to take jobs in Kanawha City or down Corridor G."I really think work-release is something every inmate could benefit from," Williams said.Reach Phil Kabler at or 304-348-1220. 
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