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Alaska and Amazon vie to hire 2,200 to be freed under Trump prison reform

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 7/12/2019 Steven Nelson
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President Trump's criminal justice reform initiative will release some 2,200 federal inmates next week, and reform supporters are finding broad interest among employers, including Alaska's seafood industry and retail giant Amazon.

An effort to line up employment, guided by evidence it reduces recidivism, features job fairs and advertising to inmates ahead of a mass release July 19. Inmates gaining jobs could help provide political cover for Trump with Republican senators and law enforcement groups who said it would the release would endanger public safety.

A leading work option is emerging in Alaska, where thousands of people may be hooked up with seasonal work thanks to a chance White House meeting between Alaska labor commissioner Tamika Ledbetter and ex-inmate turned activist Angela Stanton.

Ledbetter, an African American Republican, and Stanton, a reality TV star and founder of the American King Foundation, met at an April "opportunity zones" event and found their needs matched. Alaska's seafood industry had 4,000 job vacancies, and 4,000 inmates were expected to be released under an expansion of "good time" credit in the First Step Act. Ledbetter referred Stanton to Copper River Seafoods, which has four far-flung locations and many openings.

"It helps reduce recidivism — I'm a returning citizen myself [and] if you don't have a job, you're going to go into survival mode," Stanton told the Washington Examiner. With a job in Alaska, people "don't have to worry about going back to old ways with old friends."

The Federal Bureau of Prisons made the opportunity known to inmates under a new initiative that seeks to line up work for them. Stanton said she's waiting to receive physical applications from the bureau, though she's submitted about 150 others already, mostly from people released from prison, but not as a result of the law.

Ledbetter, who believes "work brings dignity," said "it's hard work, but it's good work and for the right person interested in rolling up their sleeves, it's a wonderful opportunity to reset their lives."

Copper River Seafoods didn't respond to requests for comment, but a brochure notes travel reimbursement for people offered jobs. Wages start at $10.25 an hour, but with up to 16-hour shifts and overtime of $15.37, Stanton estimates that workers can make $1,000 a week, with free meals and room and board. Stanton is advertising the opportunity online. Her group co-hosts a Chicago job fair next week.

Trump signed the First Step Act in December, but a drafting error caused a seven-month delay in "good time" recalculation. The 4,000-person estimate of people affected by the error proved high. Some will be deported, leaving about 2,200 people released next Friday — a figure that still dwarfs the hundreds already released by the law's other provisions shortening crack sentences and allowing "compassionate release."

In June, the Bureau of Prisons invited employers to inquire about prospective workers, noting inmates had wide-ranging training, from HVAC repair to plumbing and masonry. "Newly-released individuals can provide an untapped source of qualified employees for businesses having difficulty hiring during this strong economy,” acting director Hugh Hurwitz said.

Seeking to ensure success stories, the coalition that pushed the law alongside Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner is working directly on prisoner reentry.

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a group backed by the libertarian Koch brothers, is hosting a July 31 "Welcome Home Expo" near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with support services and employment recruitment by Amazon and Bonefish Grill.

Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries and chairman of the AFPF's board, noted that "a lot of eyes are on it because of the First Step Act." But he noted that every week, 10,000 people are released from state and federal prisons. Holden has overseen an effort with the Society for Human Resource Management, which located 1,600 employers interested in hiring former inmates.

With historically low unemployment, Trump has used his bully pulpit to frequently advocate for hiring former inmates, including last month, when he shared a stage with celebrity Kim Kardashian West, who announced a partnership with Lyft to secure free rides to interviews.

Jessica Jackson, national director of #cut50, a group that worked closely with the White House to pass the law and with Kardashian, said "this is a historic moment for our country."

The group is working with Goodwill and the American Conservative Union to distribute a guide for returning prisoners.

"In order to keep our communities safe and prosperous, it is imperative that leaders in government, business, and the community work together to create an infrastructure that enables our formerly incarcerated neighbors to succeed when they come home," Jackson said.

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