Sharon Brooks sees it this way: Giving former inmates jobs is an important step forward, but it’s equally important to ensure they have opportunities that help them adjust to life after prison.
Brooks — who’s been serving families of the imprisoned for the past five years through her Minneapolis-based nonprofit Peace of Hope — says she’s reached that conclusion after conducting years of listening sessions with formerly incarcerated individuals and their families.
“There are jobs in Minnesota for everybody,” Brooks said. “Many companies are willing to hire people who were released from prison. But you have to remember, these people spent a lot of time in a cage; they need mental stabilization in order to keep those jobs.”
In response to that problem, Brooks recently developed Hope Works, an organization aimed at connecting ex-offenders to employment opportunities in the Twin Cities, while offering them — after work shifts — programs tailored to help ease the challenges many face after release.
The organization has several approaches when it comes to providing service to ex-offenders in the Twin Cities, and especially those in north Minneapolis, where Brooks and her team have developed an extensive network.
First, Brooks and her team reach out to those released from incarceration. Because many of the participants have gained some employment skills and even certificates in trade occupations while in prison, Brooks said, the organization tries first to build their confidence. That means, Hope Works trains participants to look into their “strength,” including the education they attained in prison.
“I’ve seen some people who couldn’t believe that I thought their certificate was important,” she said. “Just because they earned it while in prison, they were embarrassed to show it. I tell them, ‘No, put that on the table. It’s just as good as any certificate; you earned it.”
Brooks then connects the employees to partner companies that are willing to take in former inmates — who have carpentry, painting and construction skills — and honor their employment certificates.
Unlike many organizations across the state that help former inmates find employment, however, Hope Works doesn’t stop its services when participants are connected to jobs. Instead, the services continue even after former inmates land jobs. For instance, when they complete their shifts, they attend educational classes to help them adjust to life after prison.
In those classes, Hope Works helps them develop skills such as learning to use musical instruments and sewing machines or taking dancing and painting lessons — programs Brooks says are meant to help ex-convicts cope with life after release.
“We have a life-skills coach,” said Brooks. “We have a financial fitness coach. I teach constitutional law on the community level. So every month, there’s something new for you to do and learn besides just going to work.”
Brook is no stranger to the people she helps. Her son, Marquis Rollins, was released from prison just last week after serving nearly seven years for burglary and aggravated robbery.
Today, Rollins says that he’s a changed man and wants to help those like him who were also released from incarceration and need support as they navigate through life outside prison. In fact, Rollins — who, unlike many of those he knew in prison, says he’s well prepared for his new life — already took the helm as director of communications and recruitment for Hope Works.
Rollins and Brooks say they know of dozens of people who have had difficulties maintaining employment after being released from the Department of Corrections, which has a job training program, EMPLOY, that provides employment opportunities to newly released inmates.
“They need more than just a job,” Rollins said of the ex-offenders re-entering society. “We want to give them a purpose. They’ve got to establish purpose in what they want to do with the job.”
Lamorris Britton, adviser of Hope Works, added that one of the most challenging experiences for former inmates isn’t finding housing or employment; it’s helping them keep a positive mental state of mind.
“Minnesota is full of jobs,” he said. “But how can you expect a broken person to hold a job and maintain a job? We have to build that person, and that’s what Hope Works is doing.”