Re-Entry Expo: An Innovative Way to Support Former Inmates

May 18, 2018

Getting out of prison and facing the world can be tough. Community, religious and government organizations try to fill in the gaps by offering help with job training and housing, or transportation and mental health counseling. But still, some people fall through the cracks.

So the groups providing reentry services came together for the first "Southeast Wisconsin Reentry Employment Expo" on Thursday on the campus of the Cousins Center in Bay View. Organizers hope to make it an annual event.

One of the goals of the event was to connect formerly incarcerated people to jobs, but this was not a traditional job fair. Instead of job seekers walking around to look for work, the people going from table to table were employers. And the tables were staffed by community organizations.

They were there to network and give employers information on the services they provide. One of the employers was Bob Hurd. He is an HR director for four manufacturing companies in the greater Milwaukee area. Pointing to the informational tables, he said the event is worth his time. “It provides an avenue of non-traditional recruiting," he says. "There’s a lot of people who need a second chance, and there’s a lot of agencies in the walls over there. So, it’s kind of a one-stop shop for us.”

The idea percolated from an earlier event, according to Anne Haines of the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese. She says that the US Department of Justice brought the idea to the archdiocese, which immediately got on board. Haines says the Archdiocese partnered with leaders from other faiths for the event. But she notes that the event was not religious. “The purpose is to love our neighbor," she says. "It’s to demystify the idea that hiring our neighbors coming out of prison is not a scary endeavor, and actually that there’s a lot of support systems out there to keep them on task as they transition from one world to the next.” 

One person who knows first-hand about the challenges of transitioning to society from prison is Alfred Waldrop. He was at the re-entry expo representing Racine Vocational Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit that helps those returning to the community. In 2006, he was convicted of a crime and served 8 years in prison. “When I got out, I had minimum money, no place to go. I was put into a TLV, transitional living. Struggling to stay on the right path," he explains. "Even though I had the job, it was hard to get to work. I had to ask people for rides to work.”

Waldrop says Racine Vocational Ministry helped him with transportation and more. He now has a job in a factory. Waldrop says it’s important for people facing release to have access to community organizations that offer re-entry services. “It helps because people that were in my situation, we have an advocate now," he states. "We have someone besides us that can talk to these employers and more persuade them to hire people coming out of prison.”

Kenneth Gales of the US Attorney's office says the fair is an innovative way to persuade employers to hire people coming out of prison. “We didn’t want it to be another job fair," he details. "There are enough job fairs going on. But the types of conversations that we want to have happen, need to take place in a much more informal environment.”

Gales says this way people will feel free to ask questions and get in depth responses. He says the committee of 35-40 organizations who put together the event are sticking together. “We are not going to disband this committee after this program," he states. "We are going to continue to rely on them to make sure we cover as wide a swath as possible of the southeastern Wisconsin region.”

Wendel Hruska agrees the re-entry expo is a step in the right direction. He's with Project Return Milwaukee.  "For too long in the city of Milwaukee we service providers have kind of operated in silos," he says. "We don’t really work with each other as well as we could." So he says events like this push service providers to work better together.

He says that will accentuate what each service provider does well and provide greater resources for the individual returning to the community. “And that’s really what we’re all in it for, is to help that individual become successful.”

Hruska says that even if even a few partnerships come out of the resource fair, the event will be a success.