institutions, poverty, prison, rehabilitation

Passport to Success?

Several years ago I was assigned to write an article for Harper’s Magazine about CEO, the Center of Employment Opportunities, and one of the reentry organization’s clients, Vanetta Washington. The article ended up being “killed.” I was never able to forget Vanetta’s dilemma, her hopelessness, anger and humiliation. When I sifted through my files and came across the original “Passport to Success,” so I decided to post it here:

A long-overlooked epidemic is reaching combustion point: Mandatory sentencing put millions of Americans behind bars and now they are coming back. There are currently five million people on parole or probation, and this year alone some 700,000 prisoners are expected to come home. If past studies are an indication, more than half of them will eventually land back behind bars. No one knows for certain how to rehabilitate these disenfranchised masses. Prison has long decimated their opportunities for improvement, shifting the burden to the communities in which the men and women are released. Having grown enormously in size and number, community-based nonprofit organizations have been testing various rehabilitative methods. One of the largest of these organizations is the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York. This agency tries the most austere, traditional and popular method of rehabilitation on several thousand ex-offenders each year. Its mission brochure, “The Power of Work,” suggests that putting ex-offenders to work upon their release and teaching them punctuality, discipline, respect and presentability increases their self-confidence and their chances of staying free. To promote and monitor these standards, the organization issues its “clients” a Passport to Success—a report card to be worn around their necks and checked off by supervisors at the end of each workday.


A 42-year-old former crack addict, Vanetta Washington was paroled in 2006 after having served yet another sentence for drug possession. A spotty work history, the surge of criminal background checks and various occupational bars have made it virtually impossible for people like Washington to find legitimate employment. She turned to the Center for Employment Opportunities, whose acronym CEO is meant to be “an aspiration for [its] clients.” “They promised me a lot,” Washington told me. Like thousands of other job seekers with criminal records, she had to first attend a job readiness class, which, depending on the program provider, lasts from a couple of days to four weeks. At CEO’s three-day class the students are instructed to take off their baseball caps and do-rags. They are taught how to fill out job applications and to respond appropriately to the questions of potential employers. In mock interviews the students practice shaking hands and smiling and looking into people’s eyes. They learn to take off their “game face”—the impassive survival mask of the ghetto. They become skilled at speaking about their convictions in a remorseful, non-threatening manner and learn to lie in the honesty test conducted by some .CEO_Passport_a

After graduating from Life Skills class, Washington received her Passport to Success and a pair of state-issued boots ironically like the ones she had to wear at Rikers Island. In the transitional work phase, which lasts up to 75 days, CEO employs its program graduates to clean and maintain state agencies and their jurisdictions. It promises to help find its clients permanent employment if their Passport can prove that they show up to work on time, clean and well-groomed, follow orders and value their work. CEO has grown into a burgeoning business that now serves as a national and international model. It is consulted by agencies from all over the world and its concept has been replicated by Pecan’s Workout program in the UK. Most importantly, its unsentimental philosophy is in line with that of the government, which provides most of its funding.


CEO’s approach echoes the old saying “idle hands are the devil’s playground.” Work has traditionally been seen both as the main method and desired result of rehabilitation. But some academics are skeptical. “Unemployment only has a modest correlation with criminality,” says Edward Latessa, a criminologist at the University of Cincinnati who assesses programs like CEO. Latessa refers to methods that don’t consider the specific needs and risk factors of ex-offenders and lack sufficient long-term evidence as “correctional quackery.” While work is important, studies have shown that people are not criminals because they are unemployed; they are criminals because they suffer from drug addiction, mental health issues and anti-social attitudes, and because they are unable to escape poverty and their criminal environment. The Fortune Society in New York is one of the few organizations that addresses these risk factors. The agency provides supervised housing as well as educational, mental health and employment services to ex-offenders. The 60 beds in its halfway house and the 4,000 people it is able to serve per year, however, are a mere drop in the bucket.


Washington cleaned CUNY campuses and Staten Island courthouses four days a week, taking home $42.25 at the end of each day. On the fifth day she would dutifully report back to her job coach to present her impeccable Passport. Her job coach, however, said he couldn’t find her a permanent job because she didn’t smile enough.  Only CEO’s most promising clients land a low-wage job as stockers in warehouses, janitors or dishwashers. The organization serves as a free-of-charge employment agency for interested companies. It also secures tax credits for its partners and handles the paperwork for federal bonding, an insurance that protects employers from the risks associated with hiring ex-offenders. Despite Article 23-A of the New York Correction Law, which makes it illegal for employers to have a blanket policy against ex-offenders, CEO bars assailants, arsonists and sex-offenders from its services. This picking and pruning to fit employers’ needs and to mollify society’s fear is anything but uncommon: The international non-profit STRIVE (Support and Training Result In Valuable Employees) excludes all people over 40 from its employment services. In its four-week boot camp it systematically breaks down the remaining applicants, (literally) making them pay for their mistakes. Appearance is also a concern. STRIVE teaches its students to dress in business suits and ties, and the Doe Fund’s ex-offenders sweep city streets in a uniform adorned with an American flag and the reassuring slogan “Ready, Willing and Able.”

While CEO eagerly promotes its success rates, it does not count those who fall through the gaps in its net. A study by MDRC, the social policy research organization that co-wrote CEO’s “The Power of Work” brochure, found that the one-year recidivism rate of parolees who had access to CEO’s services immediately upon their release was 10%, as opposed to 20% for those who were denied access. It is unclear, however, whether these rates hold in the long run. CEO’s test lab provides services for only one year and completely stops monitoring its graduates after that. A close look at in-house evaluations reveal that only 14% of Life Skills graduates are still employed after this one-year period. Vanetta Washington didn’t even make it that far. She was expelled after the allotted 75-day transitional work phase because CEO was unable to find her a permanent job. As CEO becomes a model on how to deal with the growing number of ex-offenders, we have to acknowledge that temporary minimum-wage work by itself can’t begin to tackle the myriad internal and external problems facing this population. The government needs to step in and provide housing, education and mental health treatment to all ex-offenders. Only long-term individual treatment and real opportunities can halt the revolving door of incarceration.