Maria Polletta | Arizona Republic | azcentral.com
Marcus Moore is 45 years old. He has spent 26 of those years incarcerated.
He said it wasn't until this final year, in the last few months of his sentence, that he felt he was treated "like a human."
When he arrived at the Lewis state prison complex, home to one of the state's "Second Chance" re-entry programs, a corrections officer gave him a handshake.
"I was worried it was a setup," he said Tuesday, as other inmates laughed and nodded.
Moore is poised to join the more than 1,600 inmates who have graduated from the eight-week re-entry program, a Gov. Doug Ducey-backed initiative that has tripled in size since its creation early last year.
The program aims to reduce recidivism by giving individualized attention, including job- and life-skills training, to prisoners considered "moderately or highly" likely to commit another crime upon release. It also recruits local employers willing to take a chance on convicted felons in the hopes that other companies will follow suit.
"There are 42,090 men and women in Arizona state prisons," said Ducey, who — along with Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill and players Antoine Bethea and Corey Peters — toured a Second Chance center Tuesday.
“Nearly all of them will be released," Ducey said. "We’re working from the state perspective to make sure they’re prepared.”
About 60 percent of Second Chance participants leave prison with a job, according to Tim Roemer, the governor's public-safety adviser. And though not all of them succeed in keeping those jobs, state officials say the recidivism rate among graduates has seen a 30 percent reduction.
'More jobs than people'
The Second Chance initiative marks a philosophical shift in a state that has long prided itself as tough on crime — likely because that stance has not come cheap.
It costs Arizona more than $24,000 a year to lock up one inmate. State budget records show general-fund allocations for the Arizona Department of Corrections increased nearly 21 percent over 10 years, three times the growth rate of K-12 funding.
That spending hasn't been particularly effective. Arizona's recidivism rate is among the bottom half of U.S. states.
"When I first visited (the program), the press asked, 'Isn't it a risk to ask employers to hire convicted felons?' " Ducey said. "I think it's a risk not to. What will (inmates) do if they don't have a job?"
The state has put $6.8 million toward the re-entry initiative to date, according to the Governor's Office.
The governor's first stop on Tuesday's tour was a "resource room" focused on substance-abuse treatment. Nearly 80 percent of inmates have a problem with addiction, which can complicate their transition to life outside prison, according to corrections officials.
"Employers report that sometimes they return to substance abuse and stop showing up for work," adviser Roemer had told the governor, Cardinals players and other state officials before they went in.
Bidwill addressed the issue in a pep talk he gave to the inmates who had gathered in the addiction classroom, a handmade "#1 Cardinals Fan" sign on the wall behind them.
“You’ll be tempted when you get out," Bidwill said, encouraging them to surround themselves with a supportive group and ask for help if needed.
"… You set the tone for the guys behind you.”
Next, the group visited a computer lab where participants work on resumes and job skills. There, inmates said they had learned how to enhance their vocabularies and answer interview questions, among other job-hunting tips.
Carlos Mendoza, who had a week to go before his release, told the governor he had received two job offers: one at a warehouse and another in landscaping. He hoped to use them as a stepping-stone, later pursuing a beauty license to open a barbershop.
"I don’t know what the economy was like when you came in, but right now, we have more jobs than people to fill them," Ducey told the class.
'The right mind-set'
The group continued on to a job fair, an event the complex hosts monthly for graduating participants.
Employers in construction, commercial moving and other industries spoke to the 110 inmates in attendance one-on-one, providing job applications they could fill out on-site if they thought they would be a good fit for available positions.
Representatives took care to speak to the inmates about their specific strengths and plans. At the Jacksons Car Wash booth, for instance, one recruiter asked a participant whether he was more interested in sales or car detailing.
Finally, the group visited a hands-on training area that teaches inmates how to do masonry work and install drywall, among other construction-industry skills. The program "simulates real days at work," according to instructors, with a 6:30 a.m. start time and a brief lunch break.
John Ransom, a 33-year-old graduate released a month and a half ago, completed the masonry apprenticeship toward the end of his 15-year sentence. He began working for Top Quality Masonry immediately after getting out.
He told the governor that pocket money, affordable housing and transportation had proved challenging: The bus trip between home and work alone takes two hours.
He said he has surmounted those obstacles by leaving the program "with the right mind-set."
“I wanted it. I did it. And I’m doing great,” he said.
'We're here to support you'
After the tour, the visitors gathered for an informal town hall, where they heard mostly success stories and a few complaints.
Arthur Robertson, 47, said he had passed through prison systems in four states, but Arizona's was the only one that helped put him on track to get a job. He got out 10 months ago, he said, and it's "the first time I've been 10 months crime-free" as an adult.
"This is a ‘seize the day’ moment in your life," Bidwill told participants. "It’s going to be a lonely fight sometimes … Know that we’re here to support you.”
Tuesday's visit came just over a month after the governor met privately with Bidwill and three Cardinals players to discuss criminal-justice and prison reform.
The discussion was part of a pledge Bidwill made to players last year, after President Donald Trump said he would love to see an NFL owner fire a player for kneeling during the anthem.
Since Cardinals players have not knelt in protest of the criminal-justice system's disproportionate impact on minorities, Bidwill promised to “try to get us in front of some lawmakers, some people who really influence change,” Peters told The Republic last month.
Peters said he was skeptical about the Second Chance program. But "after seeing it, I think I’m even more committed," he said Tuesday.
At the town hall, Bidwill announced the team would ensure the complex's football field had grass; donate tickets to employers to take program graduates to games; and use their public platform to urge more employers to participate in the initiative.
The governor also vowed to work on participants' requests, such as additional addiction resources, compassionate parole programs and the elimination of abrupt release-date changes.
“If we could reduce recidivism even by 50 percent, we could shut down prisons instead of building new ones,” he told the inmates.
Republic reporter Craig Harris contributed to this article.
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