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Maine Employment Agency Gives Convicted Felons A Second Start

Feb 13, 2013
Originally published on February 13, 2013 9:44 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For convicted felons, it can be hard to land a job regardless of how much it pays. But there's an employment agency in Maine that's focused on putting felons into the workforce. Get an ex-con a job, the idea goes, and it might keep them from going back to prison.

Tom Porter introduces us to the founder of Maine Works.

TOM PORTER, BYLINE: For Margo Walsh, a typical day starts well before dawn.

Good morning, Margo.

MARGO WALSH: How are you?

PORTER: OK.

On a recent wet and windy morning, we meet in a parking lot near downtown Portland, Maine. From here, we drive in her pickup truck to collect two of her guys, as she calls them.

WALSH: Good morning.

LARRY TURNER: Good morning.

WALSH: How are you?

TURNER: OK.

WALSH: Thank you for waiting for us.

PORTER: She takes them to a nearby job site, where they'll spend the day putting up drywall. Both are convicted felons but have been out of jail more than six months. Larry Turner was hired by Maine Works a few days after he got out.

TURNER: I can't imagine what my situation would be right now if I hadn't met her.

PORTER: Thirty-nine-year-old Turner has a long criminal history. He spent 12 of the last 20 years behind bars, including 11 years in a federal prison.

TURNER: I was incarcerated the first time for armed bank robberies.

PORTER: With the stamp of convicted felon on his job application, he says finding employment was a challenge.

TURNER: I'd fill out an application with a work history and they would be impressed, but the background would come in and they were no longer impressed.

PORTER: Margo Walsh used to recruit employees for the investment banking industry. She admits there were a few raised eyebrows when she set up a private employment agency three years ago and began recruiting felons. But it wasn't long, she says, before she established a good reputation.

Walsh is careful to employ only people who are hard-working, reliable and above all, sober. It's a policy which her employees help to enforce, she says, because their livelihood depends on the good name of Maine Works.

In return, they get steady work during the construction season, earning at least $10 an hour.

WALSH: My lead line is not: Hi, I'm Margo and I've got bunch of felons for hire - not at all. It has to do with I have a fantastic product and that is extremely well-qualified, sober workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

PORTER: Jake Hall is a field engineer on a transportation project that employs several guys from Maine Works.

JAKE HALL: They're very capable. They're hard-working guys.

PORTER: So no matter what's gone in the past, as far as you're concerned, they're good workers.

HALL: It kind of seems like that. They're kind of due a second start and make a good impression.

PORTER: Margo Walsh says perhaps the most important thing of about Maine Works, though, is its success it is in keeping people out of prison.

WALSH: So I've had 250 guys working for me in the past three years.

PORTER: And of those 250, she says only about 20 percent have been re-incarcerated; quite a contrast to national recidivism rates, which indicate that more than half of all offenders are back behind bars within three years of their release.

STEVE DANIELS: My name is Steve Daniels. I live in Portland. Substance abuse kind of led me to where I am now. It took me down a road where I lost everything. It tore my life apart.

PORTER: Daniels, who's 37, is a former crack addict who's turned his life around. He served a five-year sentence for robbery. After more than a year with Maine Works, Daniels was taken on full-time by one of the agency's clients as a trainee mason. It's hard, physical work.

DANIELS: I feel great. Almost four years sober now.

PORTER: As for Margo Walsh, this year she hopes to take the Maine Works business model and expand it into other states.

WALSH: And I would like to see Maine Works replicated to New Hampshire Works, Wyoming Works, Florida Works.

PORTER: Walsh is motivated partly by a social conscience - a belief that everyone deserves a second chance - and partly by economics. Rather than being back in prison or on welfare programs where they cost the state money, these guys are out there working and contributing to the economy.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Porter in Portland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.