Working to Improve Employment Outcomes for Justice-Involved Women
By Heather Newcomb, Program Manager
Vermont Works for Women’s Reentry Services support women transitioning out of incarceration, so they can successfully integrate with their community, gain employment, and thrive. We work directly with women as they plan for their release from Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), meet them upon their release to provide critical transportation, housing and other basic needs, and maintain support as they reestablish their lives outside of prison. At the same time, VWW works with our many community partners to push for policy changes, offer workshops and presentations, and conduct research on evidence based practices that can improve the reentry process for the women we serve.
In February, VWW joined United Way of Northwest Vermont’s Working Bridges program, Greyston Center for Open Hiring and Rhino Foods to present a workshop on the practice of Open Hiring. This approach removes standard screening practices – such as checking criminal records – that typically exclude applicants. Today, 1 in 3 adults has a history of criminal justice involvement; employers can’t afford to exclude a potential workforce pool that large and still expect to meet desired growth, expansions, and outcomes.
With the Open Hiring model, funds normally spent on running background checks or drug screens (which give no guarantee of screening out potential “high risk” applicants for employment) can instead be invested in programs that strengthen their workforce. For example, employers could offer employees access to wrap around services on the worksite through a program like Working Bridges which improves retention, and bolsters recruitment to attract potential employees normally left out of the workforce landscape due to out of date hiring practices.
Out of this workshop, former VWW staff member Susan Edwards, now at Champlain College, developed a new research project titled “Liberating the Employment Pipeline at Champlain College: Innovating Hiring Structures with Open Hiring”. This project focuses on ways employment in higher education can be more inclusive to women with a history of justice involvement, creating pathways for higher education opportunities.
This project is supported by the Center for Social Justice at Champlain College. It explores hiring practices, challenges those that potentially exclude qualified candidates, and assesses whether a practice is required to perform the position’s duties. Improved access to employment opportunities in higher education presents many opportunities and benefits for formerly incarcerated women and their children.
VWW was also recently invited to present on a panel for the Snelling Center’s VT Leadership Institute, with representatives from Department of Corrections (DOC), as well as a formerly incarcerated woman who is living successfully today after many years of justice involvement. We presented about initiatives that DOC is developing to create more human centered systems, including several new programs at the women’s facility that are trauma-informed and gender responsive.
In addition, an advisory group comprised of representatives from each unit at the facility was formed, to create an opportunity for the voices of incarcerated women to inform program development and design. One such group is providing input on the new Windows to Work (W2W) program, formerly the inmate worker program. In addition to facility employment, W2W will also teach professional development and leadership skills to prepare women for employment success after their release. W2W will also provide individualized job coaching and group lessons on topics such as workplace advocacy and pursuing advancements. W2W is part of the new Career Resource Center that VWW is launching at the facility to coordinate all activities related to career exploration, work-readiness, and pathways to employment upon reentry.