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Researchers explore how to better tap into Nebraska’s prison population to fill labor gaps

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Researchers explore how to better tap into Nebraska’s prison population to fill labor gaps

Dec 07, 2023 | 4:00 am ET
By Cindy Gonzalez
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Researchers explore how to better tap into Nebraska’s prison population to fill labor gaps
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(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

OMAHA — For nearly a decade, the Nebraska Center for Justice Research has examined how the state spends millions annually on programs that aim to help prisoners integrate back into society.

A focus has been tracking groups that together receive about $3.5 million a year to deliver reentry services. The center analyzes participation, recidivism — “quantitative things, the numbers,” said director Ryan Spohn.

Researchers explore how to better tap into Nebraska’s prison population to fill labor gaps
The legislatively funded Nebraska Center for Justice Research is based at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. (Courtesy of UNO)

But in its latest project, the legislatively funded center stepped away from the digits to offer a different spin.

Spohn’s team went to employers for first-hand accounts of what is or isn’t working in the state’s efforts to transition individuals from a stint behind bars into the labor force. 

It’s an inside take Spohn has long sought, and it’s as relevant a topic as ever with Nebraska facing a nagging workforce shortage. 

“If we want these individuals to be gainfully employed, we have to have employers,” he said. “What are the successes they’re seeing? What are the challenges and barriers employers experience in hiring justice-involved individuals in Nebraska?”

Moving the goalposts

The resulting 26-page report — to be shared with state lawmakers, the Department of Correctional Services and others — relays employer perspectives and recommends ways to boost employment prospects for soon-to-be or recently released prisoners.

Report recommendations

Among report recommendations to ease hiring and retention of justice-involved individuals:

  • Promote tax benefits for employers willing to hire formerly incarcerated individuals. Both Nebraska and the federal government provide such tax incentives, but only two of the 18 employers interviewed said they tapped them. Most said they were not aware any existed.
  • Allow people to save more money by working while incarcerated to prepare for expenses they’ll have upon release.  
  • Ensure that newly released inmates have housing and transportation. 

One manufacturing supervisor, for instance, groused about how he really liked and wanted to hire an applicant, but the state case manager kept moving the goalposts.

“When I submitted (initial paperwork) he’s like, ‘Oh, I talked to this department. We also need that.’ Okay,” the supervisor said. “And then I submitted that and he’s like, ‘Oh … we actually need the increased version of that.’ And I’m like, damn.”

Among other barriers cited by employers: drug tests that conflict with work hours; difficult communication and collaboration with work release centers; inmate skill deficits; obtrusive worksite checks by state officials.

Janee Pannkuk, a state corrections official who oversees reentry services provided through Vocational and Life Skills grants, didn’t dispute any particular concern raised in the report. 

She said state corrections officials already are working on some of the challenges identified, including beefing up communication and email capability between employers and job candidates at work release centers. 

She said the department’s 2023-24 strategic plan outlines ways to gain more input in general from the public and formerly incarcerated.

“To me it was affirming we are on the right track,” said Pannkuk. 

‘They’ll work a lot of hours’

Employer perspectives reflected in the report were gathered during interviews last year with representatives of 18 businesses of various sizes and industries.

They’re part of an ongoing evaluation of the state Vocational and Life Skills program, which lawmakers created in 2014 to better prepare inmates for a productive return to their communities.

So far, the report said, nearly 10,000 men and women have received vocational training, educational credits and other support through VLS grants to entities such as Rise, Associated Builders and Contractors and Metropolitan Community College.

About 75% of VLS services are delivered in correctional facilities and 25% in communities to people within 18 months of release from prison.

Overall, employers who participated in the study touted benefits of hiring from that incarcerated or recently released population — including that they filled staffing gaps in a tough labor market.

The report noted that at the start of 2023, 73,000 Nebraska jobs were available with only 28,000 unemployed individuals in the state to fill them. 

An oft-repeated remark by managers, according to the report, was that justice-involved employees were among their “best” workers. 

“They’ll work a lot of hours,” said a supervisor in the food services industry. “I think sometimes they have a lot to prove.”

A human resources manager of 140 employees told the researchers that Nebraska’s unemployment rate, one of the lowest in the nation, should push employers to think about the unconventional.

Researchers explore how to better tap into Nebraska’s prison population to fill labor gaps
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“We really have to start tapping into resources that we might not have thought of before,” the manager said.

Positive strides

According to the report, 77% of the employers interviewed pointed out institutional barriers, or procedures within the justice system, that can limit their ability to employ justice-involved individuals. But employers also noted positive strides by the Corrections Department and VLS to prepare inmates with marketable skills.

Many said they were more confident hiring inmates who completed a VLS program. Researchers noted that most inmates arrive at worksites with OSHA certification. 

Pannkuk said the state provides other key documents, such as a birth certificate, prior to release. More recently, she said, the state has arranged for testing for driver’s licenses.

A common refrain among employers, according to the report, was trouble communicating with local work release centers. Some supervisors said it took several calls to schedule interviews for potential hires. 

Some said they aren’t informed of disciplinary actions that might prevent an inmate from showing up to the job site. They said the person might explain later that their housing unit was under investigation or that they had lost a work privilege. “Whether this is true or not is often never known by the employer,’’ the report said.

Said Spohn, “There are rules in our work release facilities that are just constantly in conflict with what employers need to do to get people onboarded and keep them employed. We need to figure out what those things are.”

Other employers suggest that legislators revisit certain laws, including those that restrict certain offenders from selling alcohol in the convenience store industry.

An “unexpected” recommendation from more than one employer, researchers said, was for the state to ensure that every person released had a mattress and pillow that provided enough back and neck support for employees to work without avoidable pain.

Spohn, whose team is housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, expects the report to be discussed during community forums. He said the Nebraska Center for Justice Research hopes it spurs more job connections. 

According to the state, about 2,700 people are discharged from the Department of Correctional Services per year.

“If we can have people safely in the community and gainfully employed, that’s better than us paying to have them incarcerated,” Spohn said. “But that requires an employer.”