Thank you, Deputy Secretary [Chris] Lu for your warm welcome. It is my pleasure to be here with you to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Federal Bonding Program. I also want to thank you and the Department of Labor for your leadership on the Federal Interagency Reentry Council. Your agency plays a critical role in this administration’s efforts to ensure that the men and women who leave federal, state and local prisons have meaningful employment opportunities when they return home and rebuild their lives. Reentry work is crime prevention. The statistics on recidivism are sobering. One of the smartest things we can do to ensure the safety of our communities is to help those leaving prison reenter society successfully.
To that end, half a century ago, the Department of Labor had the foresight to create the Federal Bonding Program, addressing challenges we still grapple with today – like removing barriers to employment, motivating employers to hire formerly incarcerated individuals and providing those leaving prison with marketable job skills.
We know that having a criminal record makes it more difficult to find a job: applicants with criminal records are 50 percent less likely than those with clean records to receive an interview request or job offer. And, even when the formerly incarcerated are able to find jobs, they will earn 10 to 40 percent less than others in those same jobs.
This week, I visited a federal prison in Houston, where I had the chance to speak with a number of women at the Bryan Correctional Institute. They were readying themselves to return to society by taking advantage of the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) various programs, from drug treatment and parenting classes to employment at Federal Prison Industries, BOP’s largest and most successful job training program. Others were in a residential recovery center, working to heal from past traumas and to raise their children. During my visit, I was able to hear firsthand about their fears and concerns about returning home after they had served their sentences.
These women wanted what we all want – a stable home and a job that allows them to provide for their family. It is our collective responsibility to help the men and women who return from prison regain their footing. We fulfill this responsibility and make our communities safer, when we ensure that those leaving prison have job skills and job opportunities. Restoring a person’s ability to achieve success when they leave the prison walls promotes public safety, builds our economy and, most importantly, is the right thing to do.
But, this is not an easy task. It takes coordination across agencies, governments and society at large. That is why, this week, the department of justice launched national reentry week, during which agencies across this administration held over 500 events highlighting the importance of ensuring that those leaving prison have the basic tools they need to be successful.
Our commitment to reentry is also reflected in the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, where more than 20 federal agencies work together to reduce recidivism and improve employment, education, housing, health and child welfare outcomes for the men and women leaving prison. Today, the president issued a presidential memorandum formally establishing the reentry council, which will enable us to build on our successes and ensure that we continue this important work.
While we are committed to developing large-scale policies and practices to support successful reentry, I recently heard a story that reminded me how one act by one person can change a life. A couple of years ago, a recruiter for a large shipbuilder in Pascagoula, Mississippi attended a workshop for formerly incarcerated individuals. The recruiter admitted that she was skeptical about attending, but, ultimately, she decided to do it.
What really changed the tide was when the recruiter met a man – we will call him John – at the end of the workshop. John was late to the event due to some family challenges and even said to the recruiter, “Miss, I know you are not going to hire me.” The recruiter asked John about his skills and John told her that he was a metal grinder. The recruiter had coincidentally just posted a job for a metal grinder and told John to apply. Although not believing that he would get the job, John applied for the position. The recruiter interviewed him and reviewed his background, including his criminal history. He got the job. When the recruiter told John that he was hired, he started to cry. John’s mom was also there and she started to cry too. John is still with the company, is an excellent employee and is using his salary and health benefits to take care of his family. John told the recruiter that he would never forget what she said to him on the first day they met – “Don’t ever give up.”
We shouldn’t give up either. We have made significant progress, but there is more work to do. We look forward to continuing to support the Department of Labor and to work side-by-side to ensure that the men and women returning home from prison are ready for the second chance that they deserve.