On a glamorous few floors centre in the middle of Wallstreet we visited CEO-works. It is a foundation which leads former incarcerated persons to a job. They are financed by the State for 70 percent and from foundations and individual gifts for the rest. Former incarcerated people are sent to them, mostly by parole officers who consider these people ready to go through the program. Because they need it and because they wanted. In the incredible amount of people leaving prisons there is a relatively small group going to CEO, But that is not because they do not need help: the people that come in have huge problems, often being incarcerated for a long time wit a huge lost of network and facilities like housing, job, educational background. Traumatized by being in such a suppressive surrounding.
What CEO does is offering them a two month program. The people gain work-experience on several governmental organizations of four days a week and do class for one day a week. They are attended by work-coaches and other professionals supporting them and the employers and from that situation CEO has a big network of companies where the people can apply for a job. In the program they learn to present themselves properly, learn how to behave in a working situation like coming in time etc. and they are stimulated to direct themselves to positivity and the opportunities there are for them.
The content of the program is very similar to the Kiezen Voor Verandering-program (Choose for Change) in our system and what we do in our Penitentiary Training Centers and (half-) open prisons, and it is painful to realize that our government just stopped with all this in the last few years.
We had the chance to attend a class and also had an interview with a few selected former incarcerated people. It was very impressive to experience this and to hear the stories of the people in the program. Of course there is a lot of misery: people being incarcerated for a long time, telling about brutality inside, the unsafe environment they lived in. One guy had been inside for nine years and just met his nine year old son for the first time, another guy stayed inside for 36 years and tells how he learns to text on a mobile phone and that he really needs this program because otherwise he would sit in his room without knowing what to do. The atmosphere in the institute is strict but also warm and positive. Mary Lewis, who teaches a big group of older recidivists and former long-sentenced people personalizes te system. One of the guys says:”She is honest and gives right and wrong straight to you. But she is sweet like a mother for all of us!”
I think the strengths of the program is the close and very focused combination of training, possibility to gain work-experience and a network of employers to get permanent work, and all the professional support around it. Despite the fact that the challenge over here is a sort of mission impossible, due to mass-incarceration, poverty and exclusion there is no doubt in my mind that this is an excellent program, doing a good and effective job. And that we can learn from this program. In Holland we do not have these internships in governmental organizations and we do not have programs where everything necessary is brought together in such a focused way!