After Prison

A new program helps nonviolent ex-offenders get back on their feet

When Francisco Varela was released from prison a little more than two months ago, he didn't have any place to go. There was no job lined up, no home to return to and no way for him to get around town. He didn't even have identification.

Varela's situation is not unusual. Many ex-offenders face similar conditions upon release from prison, and when things don't improve, newly released inmates are often likely to re-offend, statistics show.

In an effort to reduce recidivism and help newly released prisoners re-enter the workforce, Tucson's Primavera Foundation, with a $660,000 grant from the Department of Labor's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is leading a collaboration with several local agencies to help ex-offenders get back on their feet.

Varela, 32, is among the first individuals to take part in the Prisoner Re-Entry Partnership project (PREP), which began enrolling participants in late March.

Referred to PREP by his probation officer just two weeks after his release, Varela came to Primavera with the desire to put his past behind him. He spent a year and a half in prison for the burglary of an automobile.

On paper, Varela may sound like an unlikely candidate for such a crime. He was in the military for four years and spent time in Germany and Kuwait before moving to Tucson to be near his grandmother and attend the University of Arizona on his GI Bill. Back in the states, he got married, started a family and spent a year studying computers at the UA before things took a downward turn.

Varela and his wife divorced, and he went into a depression. Still, he says he blames no one but himself for his conviction.

"It's my fault, and I take full responsibility," Varela says. "To think that I used to defend freedom and lost it because of my own actions is ironic."

Varela says he left prison a different man, determined never to go back. He also realized his felony conviction could restrict him in a search for employment.

Esther Sharif, an employment specialist with PREP, says one of the project's main goals is to offer emotional support to ex-offenders re-entering the workforce, while communicating with local employers about the benefits of hiring individuals who have a support system.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, around two-thirds of ex-offenders are rearrested within three years. Many studies show unemployed offenders are three times more likely to return to prison, making post-release employment especially important.

Karen Caldwell, program director of Primavera Works, the agency's employment program, under which PREP operates, says the project aims to help former inmates find a job in less than a month--and be able to keep it.

That can be a challenge, since many employers either cannot or will not hire individuals with a criminal record.

"A big stumbling block is discrimination," Caldwell says. "More and more employers are doing background checks."

However, the task is not impossible, and Varela was hired as a full-time, bilingual call center operator within two weeks of meeting with Sharif.

Initially, Varela was worried about discrimination because of his past and says he was turned down for at least one job specifically because of his felony conviction. However, he says he never shied away from talking about his record, after being asked on about 15 job applications if he had ever been convicted of a felony.

Besides offering mentoring and counseling opportunities, PREP also helps provide the bare essentials. With the project's help, Varela was able to get an identification card, a Sun Tran bus pass and new, professional-looking clothes--seemingly simple items that can make a world of difference.

"You'd be surprised how much a bus pass opens the world to them," Sharif says.

Varela says putting on new clothes had a powerful impact on how others viewed him, and when he was on his way to a job interview in his new clothes, the bus driver greeted him by saying, "Good morning, sir." He says the same driver ignored him just the day before.

PREP aims to help 200 ex-offenders in its first year. That goal should be reached fairly quickly, Caldwell says, since the Arizona Department of Corrections has already committed to referring 100. Many other referrals come from probation or parole officers.

To be eligible for PREP, individuals must have spent at least four to six months in prison for a nonviolent, nonsexual offense and have been released in the past six months.

Partners in the project include the YWCA, Old Pueblo Community Foundation, Dorothy Kret and Associates, UA's PHASE program (Project for Homemakers in Arizona Seeking Employment) and the House of Neighborly Services, which provides tattoo removal for ex-offenders who need to get rid of gang-related markings.

Although PREP is employment-based, the project offers support in other areas as well, such as reuniting families.

For Varela, his 7-year-old son, Carlos, is his main motivation to get his life back on track. Varela spends as much time with his son as he can, seeing him at least once a week.

"My son still lives here (in Tucson), and that's the sole reason I'm here," says Varela, who is originally from Los Angeles.

Varela now has some very specific goals: to keep his job, stay out of prison, spend time with his son and save enough money to get his own place. He is temporarily living at Primavera's emergency men's shelter.

Varela says he feels much more confident about accomplishing those goals with PREP's support behind him. But he warns others in his shoes that Primavera and its partners won't do everything for them.

"PREP can't do anything but offer support. PREP isn't going to do it for you," Varela says. "You have to want it. You've got to have the initiative and the fortitude to accomplish your goals."

Caldwell says PREP is unique in that the collaboration specifically focuses on helping former inmates.

She says Primavera staff decided to apply for a grant to fund the project when they realized many of the people the foundation was already helping through its programs for low-income and homeless individuals were, in fact, ex-offenders.

For those like Varela, the project offers a network of support in the most critical period following release.

"I have conditions of parole, and if I violate one of those, I'm going back," Varela says. "But I have bigger goals, bigger obligations, bigger ambitions other than just finishing parole."

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