The Case for Reentry Programs Based in Food Service Social Enterprise


Natalie Reitz, Catalyst Kitchens

The incarcerated population in the United States is enormous. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at 716 per 100,000 people. In comparison, more than half of the 222 countries and territories listed in the World Prison Population List had rates below 150 per 100,000. To date, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that over 1.5 million prisoners were held in state and federal correctional facilities at the end of 2014. When counting jail inmates, this number soars to over 2.2 million individuals behind bars.

In addition to the jail inmates returning to society, at least 95 percent of state prisoners will be released from prison at some point in their lives. This adds up to more than 600,000 inmates released annually and will join the approximately 70 million Americans with some sort of criminal record.  When prisoners are released and reintegrate into society, they need to do everything from find housing to securing employment.

Helping formerly incarcerated individuals secure employment serves many different purposes. In addition to giving reentering citizens the opportunity to start anew, helping ex-offenders find jobs contributes to reducing recidivism rates. Recidivism has significant economic impacts. Corrections costs exceed $70 billion per year, with a recent survey of 40 states finding that the average yearly cost of incarcerating one person is about $31,000As many as two-thirds of ex-prisoners are re-arrested, and half are re-incarcerated within three years. Helping ex-offenders get jobs is an effective way to reduce the prison population, diminish spending on corrections and decrease the likelihood of recidivism.

However, many formerly incarcerated individuals face at least some difficulties securing employment after their release. In a study done by sociologist Devah Pager, men who report criminal convictions are 50 percent less likely to receive job offers than men without criminal records. According to the report “Employment Barriers Facing Ex-Offenders” by Harry J. Holzer, Steven Raphael, and Michael A. Stoll, many ex-offenders possess characteristics that can limit their employability including:

limited education

limited work experience

substance abuse

physical/mental health problems

eroded employability skills that help get and keep a job

Additionally, since many ex-offenders are minorities, they not only suffer from racial discrimination in the labor market but from discrimination based on their ex-offender status. Holzer, Raphael, and Stoll’s findings are corroborated by the Pager study. Of potential employers surveyed, only 40 percent were willing to consider filling a job vacancy with an ex-offender.

Another factor discouraging employers from hiring ex-offenders is legal liability. In many states, employers “can be held liable for the criminal actions of their employees under the theory of negligent hiring.” Under this theory, employers may be “liable for the risk created by exposing the public and their employees to potentially dangerous individuals…Thus, employers may be exposed to punitive damages as well as liability for loss, pain, and suffering as a result of negligent hiring.” Furthermore, employers have lost “72 percent of negligent hiring cases” with an average settlement of “more than $1.6 million.”

However, studies have shown that employers might be more open to working with ex-offenders under the right circumstances. According to Holzer, Raphael, and Stoll, education and training can be an effective bridge for ex-offenders to reconnect with the labor market as well as providing them with particular skills sought by employers. Transitional work experience that lasts from 3-6 months will “not only provide some general work-readiness skills but also signal to employers their ability to hold a job and meet basic standards of responsibility.” These efforts can be made stronger by also providing “job placement assistance and transportation support,” connecting reentering citizens with new opportunities and providing other supports to reduce alienation that ex-offenders may feel.

As of the writing of this article, around 40 percent of Catalyst Kitchens members work directly with formerly incarcerated individuals, with ten programs providing programming or initiatives that focus on formerly incarcerated or recently released individuals. Model Member FareStart in Seattle, WA is an example of one of these programs that aims to be an effective bridge between incarceration release and the job market. Historically, FareStart has served students with criminal records. As many as 68 percent of FareStart students have a prior conviction, and 41 percent have served significant time in prison. FareStart has developed a program with a number of supports that are in line with Holzer, Raphael, and Stoll’s findings. FareStart’s adult culinary training program is approximately four months long, and includes life skills classes in conjunction with 500 hours of hands-on training in the kitchen. Life skills classes that teach “general work-readiness skills” as well as developing new attitudes and beliefs about themselves. These are all meant to “reorient them to life and behavioral norms outside the prison system.” FareStart has partnerships with many Seattle-based nonprofits, including legal services, mental health services, recovery support, and transitional housing support in addition to FareStart’s extensive network of employers throughout Seattle and King County. These supports all are a part of a holistic approach to help support students facing significant barriers to employment, and are all crucial aspects to successful reentry after incarceration.

In 2014 and 2015, FareStart began and implemented a three year pilot program in partnership with the Washington State Department of Corrections Division of Correctional Industries (CI) to provide job training, support services and employment placement for offenders while they are in prison and post-incarceration as they return to the community. This partnership allows those who participate in the program to create a strategy for continuous employment as they transition from incarceration to being enrolled in FareStart’s culinary training program. As students, reentering citizens receive a variety supports to help them get a living wage job and help them gain the ability to maintain self-sufficiency. The Department of Corrections (DOC) tracks recidivism after one year and compares it to a control group of CI offenders that did not participate in this program and provides a report annually.

Training and transitional work can be expensive paths to take for programs serving reentering citizens. However, by creating programs that are funded by social enterprise, many of the costs can be offset by income generated from restaurants, cafes, catering, etc. that are a part of the program. FareStart has profitable businesses that contribute to 50 percent of FareStart’s operating costs. This greatly helps FareStart to sustainably pay for training programs that might otherwise be difficult to fund.

FareStart has been able to boast impressive outcomes because of its effective model, according to Outreach Supervisor Eric Boutin. FareStart provides strong support for formerly incarcerated individuals, which is critical given that reentry is a very difficult process. With support from CI, FareStart has been steadily increasing the amount of students who come to the program directly from jail or prison. The number of students who are justice involved (that is, currently involved to some degree with the legal system) has been fairly consistent from 2015 to mid-year 2016. However, the number of students who begin training at FareStart directly after being released from jail or prison has increased from 27 percent in 2015 to 35 percent in 2016 thus far. Over 90 percent of these students gain employment after participating in FareStart’s 16-week program, which affirms Boutin’s observation that FareStart’s success as a transitional program is striking.

Students have also reported a high level of satisfaction and gratitude for the opportunities provided by FareStart. To read a first-hand account of a student participating in FareStart’s culinary training program after incarceration as told to the Department of Corrections, click here.

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