More than 20,000 people released from Missouri prisons return to their communities each year. Sadly, according to the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission, nearly 42% of them will end up back in prison.
Dwayne Williams, president and CEO of Twelfth Street Heritage Development Corporation, believes better access to employment could help Missouri break its high cycle of recidivism.
According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, 69% of those formerly incarcerated people who do not have a full-time job return to prison within two years. But only about 23% of those formerly incarcerated people who do find full-time employment return to prison within that same timeframe.
“If they do not have employment and they do not have housing, nine times out of 10, they’re going to get back up in the penal system,” Williams said. “Those individuals end up back in prison because of self-preservation. If you can’t provide something for me, I’m going to provide it for myself by any means necessary.”
Not only is a job necessary, Williams said, but the training skills for how to keep a job are also important.
“Those are things that we teach at Twelfth Street,” said Williams.
TWELFTH STREET HERITAGE DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION
Twelfth Street originally began as a development corporation to create more affordable housing.
In fact, they anticipate that over the next five years, they will provide Kansas City with more than 1,000 units of affordable housing.
“We’re quite busy over the next five to six years with projects,” Williams said. “There’ll be multiple projects going on at the same time and I think that’s the only way we can attack the crisis and the need in Kansas City for affordable housing.”
Wanting to expand their success, Bishop James Tindall and the Kansas City Urban Summit suggested the organization begin a reentry program to help those reentering society after spending time in prison. Williams got to work.
“When you’re building houses, you have to think, ‘how do I build the community that’s around those houses and how would those houses support the community?’” Williams said. “So, we want to change the environment in which we’re living in and the thing that came out of that was our reentry program.”
TWELFTH STREET REENTRY WORKERS
The reentry program officially launched in 2010 and since then, more than 300 men and women have gained employment, workforce training and personal development training through the program.
While Twelfth Street has not tracked how their program has reduced recidivism, Williams said that within the next year, they will have data to tell how effective the program has been over the last 10 years.
Twelfth Street receives funding from the county and city to employ reentry workers year-round, seven days each week. They also have a partnership with the public works department, which gives Twelfth Street workers an opportunity to get hired by the city.
During the week, reentry workers with Twelfth Street work on lawn beautification for the city’s abandoned lots. They mow the lots, move trash and clean them up. Williams said the workers transform well over 1,200 city-owned lots every month, making those spaces look better than they were before.
“Some of these neighborhoods, these guys grew up in and some of them, they raised havoc in,” Williams said. “They get a chance to go back down and do land beautification in a place where they caused issues. That is a very humbling and very rewarding thing for some of these guys.”
Michael Shaw, public works director said the jobs Twelfth Street provides the people leaving prison is critical to reintegrating them back into society.
“When we got to see the work that this group provides…you would never know these individuals’ past,” Shaw said.
During the weekend, reentry team members help in the Jazz District. They sweep the sidewalks of trash and set up the weekend barricades.
“Even a cigarette butt shouldn’t be there, because people are expecting to see the very best of Blackness in Kansas City there. That’s the way we operate and that’s the way we talk about it,” Williams said.
On Wednesdays, reentry team members attend a training program at the 12th Street office, which usually lasts about two hours and gives the workers a chance to talk about some of the issues they’re dealing with.
Williams and Twelfth Street staff hear their grievances, like difficulty finding housing, navigating child support, getting a driver’s license or finding access to food. They help connect the team members with the resources they need to fix their problem.
This is also where Williams gets the chance to know each individual on a personal level.
“Most of the guys have got a sentimental relationship with me, because I may have been that only man in their life,” Williams said. “I do the very best I can to make sure that these guys have a place to work every morning because I don’t look at just 30 employees. I look at 100 employees because they have family members who count on me to make the right decision. Any day I make the wrong decision, their families won’t eat as well.”