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A First Step From Jail to Jobs

Fair at correctional facility lets inmates meet potential employers

March 11, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

It's a tough job market, and employers like Disney, Hometown Buffet and Irvine Suites Hotel can pretty much have their pick of candidates. So why go to the James A. Musick Branch Jail, of all places, and look for employees among inmates?

"Everybody deserves a second chance or a third chance," said Laurence Douglas, manager of Irvine Suites Hotel. "Everybody makes mistakes."

That is just the attitude organizers of the Orange County Sheriff's Department job fair hoped to find among employers Wednesday at the sprawling minimum-security jail in Irvine known as "the farm."

The pilot program for inmates brought 32 men and women in contact with eight employers for the daylong job fair, where the applicants could present neat, professional resumes and promote themselves in a positive light without worry that their arrest records would close the door on them.

"The very first premise is to tell the truth at all times," said Jerry Odette, supervisor of job development at the jail.

During a monthlong program, six hours a day, five days a week, the inmates practiced interviewing and filling out applications. They also attended workshops on self-esteem.

"Nobody else has ever taken a personal interest in them, helping them to make themselves good, solid citizens," he said.

On Wednesday, in their crisp, clean jeans, they filed into the one-story building for a round of appointments. And some left with job offers.

Theo Barbosa, 28, of Fullerton, serving a five-month term for failing to complete a required drug rehabilitation program after a previous drug arrest, hopes to stop using methamphetamine and be a real parent to his three young children.

With a food service job waiting for him at Hometown Buffet, he has more of a chance, Odette said.

Clint White, 24, of Anaheim, who is serving eight months at the farm, had been using crystal methamphetamine every day.

He says he's motivated to stay clean because if he's arrested again, he automatically will face three years from this conviction.

"It's time to grow up," he said. "I just want to get out and get my life together."

Compton Pugh, a tall 23-year-old jailed for selling marijuana, had never been arrested before. He says he's been scared straight by the experience. Before his arrest, he worked as customer representative for Culligan water systems and as a personal trainer -- but now realizes he has to prove himself to get another good job. He proudly displays his resume.

"Look at this," he says. The neat borders, the clean typeface, work history, skills and qualifications, clearly stated, promote a man ready to reenter the work force.

The idea of job fairs for inmates started about 10 years ago when the National Institute of Corrections conducted mock versions in federal prisons, Odette said. That model was so successful it gave rise to a handbook that has been followed in many jurisdictions around the country.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department followed the examples of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic and the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department at the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore, Odette said.

The plan is to hold a job fair at the jail twice a year, Odette said.

Some employers conceded that they were hesitant about offering jobs.

"I was a little apprehensive," said Estie Thomas of Hometown Buffet. "I'm concerned with felons, [whether] they'll be consistent, if I can rely on them."

But, by midday, she had offered jobs to two men and had yet to interview the female candidates.

"They made some bad choices, but people change," Thomas said. That they volunteered for the program suggests they are committed to changing their lives.

"If you're here talking to me, you mean business," she said.

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