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The Difference: For Recidivist Offenders, Jobs Can Break the Cycle

Sean Bueter

All this week—and throughout 2014—WBOI is digging deeper into the reasons behind the achievement gap between black males and their peers in Fort Wayne, and along the way, meeting the people working to make a change. We’re calling the project “The Difference.”

According to the Indiana Department of Corrections, nearly half of African-American ex-offenders in Allen County will make it back into the prison system within just a few years. And for some, breaking that cycle can be nearly impossible without help.

But there are organizations working to train ex-offenders and offer them support upon release, and one of them—Blue Jacket, Inc. in Fort Wayne—is seeing real results.

Johnny Braster cuts an imposing figure when he walks into a room. He’s a big guy who grew up on the Southeast side of Fort Wayne, a straight shooter with an easy smile in his middle age. And he’s found success.

“My confidence level is through the roof,” Braster says, “I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do.”

But success didn’t always come so easy for Braster. When he was younger, he got caught up in what he calls the “wrong stuff.” He was dealing drugs and carrying handguns. He was arrested and went to prison, and when he was released, he says he couldn’t find work.

“The whole time I was home, I was never able to land a job,” Braster says. “I didn’t have the skill set. I didn’t have the confidence.”

Braster knew he wanted out of that life, but because he couldn’t find work, he started dealing again. He was arrested again and returned to prison, this time for five years.

“It was so easy for me to turn back to what I was used to, because I was comfortable with that lifestyle,” Braster says. “And that lifestyle for me consisted of pretty much everything but the right thing.”

Credit Virginia Alvino / WBOI News

After his second release two years ago, Braster decided he’d had enough of that life. Then he discovered a Fort Wayne non-profit called Blue Jacket, which trains former criminals to re-enter the workforce.

Anthony Hudson started the organization in 2003 as a way to help break the cycle of recidivism in Fort Wayne. He says for him, this is personal.

“I’ve made so many mistakes in my life. And I’m thankful that I didn’t have to go to prison for some of those, which I probably could have,” Hudson says. “I’m a flawed human who can sit without judgment and serve individuals who have committed egregious crimes against their neighors.”

About half of the ex-offenders who come to Blue Jacket are African-American, the other half Caucasian, and everyone goes through the same four-week course on selling themselves to employers and navigating the job search.

It’s not easy. If you don’t show up in business attire or come in on time each and every day, you may have to start the course over again. And many do.

After students graduate, the organization works with about 60 community partners and staffing agencies to get graduates placed in jobs. Blue Jacket was able to place 64 percent of their graduates in jobs in 2013.

Those jobs also seem to be keeping Blue Jacket grads out of prison at a better-than-average rate. At a time when more than 40 percent of all ex-offenders in Allen County recidivate, only 18 percent of Blue Jacket grads go back to prison within one year.

Hudson says without training like this, and the job that hopefully comes from it, many more of the ex-offenders he sees would get swept back into corrections.

Credit Sean Bueter / WBOI News
Blue Jacket, Inc. founder Anthony Hudson.

“If they feel the burden of the criminal justice system and pay back their debt to society over and over again, nine-times out of ten will end up in them going back to prison,” Hudson says.

Jonta Powell says he could’ve easily been one of those statistics. He grew up on the south side of Fort Wayne, in a neighborhood where he says there was so much poverty, it seems like kids only had two choices: join a gang, or start dealing drugs.

Powell chose the latter.

“Once I started it, the money was coming good, and I figured ‘what do I need to do the right stuff for?’” Powell says. “I made a lot of money doing it, but it wasn’t healthy.”

Powell was arrested for dealing drugs in 2011. After his release, he thought he’d get back into the business. With his criminal record, he didn’t think he could get a job and he didn’t see any other way to support his family.

“I still didn’t plan on changing,” he says. “I still had the mind frame that I was going to get off this program and go back and do whatever I was doing.”

But Powell was ordered to attend Blue Jacket, and even though he was resistant at first, he says the training showed him another way.

“It changed my whole train of thought,” Powell says. “Now all I want to do is go to work and go home, live the lifestyle I’m supposed to live in the first place.”

Powell says mentorship made all the difference. He has a good job at Community Harvest Food Bank, and a better family life.

Because Tony and the staff at Blue Jacket showed him a better way, he says, he was able to escape the revolving door.

This is the third story in our week-long kickoff of "The Difference."

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