Ex-Offenders Protest Dearth of Jobs, Services

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

More than 100 ex-offenders, some recently released from prison, and their families marched through downtown Washington yesterday, accusing business leaders of not hiring enough people who have served their time and District officials of not demanding that they do so.

Carrying signs and shouting such slogans as "jobs not jail," the men and women said that they plan to organize friends and relatives to vote and to lobby for more city services and training programs. D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang was singled out for criticism on a placard that said, "Bar Lang represents the rich. We represent the people."

In a heated exchange in the lobby of her K Street office, Lang told a small group of protesters she invited in to discuss the issue that she was offended by the charge. She said it was easier to create a spectacle than to create more jobs for ex-offenders.

In a city with a 6.5 percent unemployment rate, the unemployment rate for ex-offenders is as high as 50 percent, according to District statistics.

An estimated 60,000 ex-offenders live in the District, and many public and private partnerships are aimed at easing their transition upon release from prison. The Chamber, for example, sponsors summer jobs, has donated to training programs and placed its members on panels seeking long-term solutions.

Although many argue that such efforts are a drop in the bucket, Lang said the biggest problem is that most ex-offenders do not have the skills required for available jobs.

"The school system has failed them," Lang said. "You have to have a certain level of education."

Yesterday's marchers, who called themselves Returning Citizens United, included members of several groups, including Cease Fire: Don't Smoke the Brothers and Sisters, and the Peaceoholics, which advocates on behalf ex-offenders.

Among them was Rodney Mitchell, director of the District's newly created Office of Ex-Offender Affairs. Lang objected to Mitchell's participation in a protest, saying his job is to act as a bridge between ex-offenders and the business community.

A lack of jobs is only one issue with which most ex-offenders must grapple. Many who return to the city have no place to stay. They complain of being reminded at every turn of the mistakes that got them locked up. Some suggest that the problem starts with the term "ex-offender"; Jonathon Howard favors the phrase "returning citizen."

A fifth-generation Washingtonian, Howard said his brother died in prison after serving 23 years, just two months short of his release date. Howard has made it a goal to help others transition successfully. "Many of them are not psychologically and emotionally prepared to take care of a wife and two children when they get out," he said.

Kathy Akers, 57, has lived in a halfway house since her June 12 release from prison. She's been in and out of prison since 1975, mainly because of drug use. She's looking for a job but says many of the rules governing supervision of ex-offenders make it difficult for people to get hired and stay employed.

"For people with substance abuse, it's not the answer," she said. "No one ever offered me mental health services." She doesn't want charity, she added. She has a high school diploma and has worked as a secretary, an accounts payable clerk and, in prison, as a telephone operator.

"I don't want them to give me anything," she said. "I can work."

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