For ex-convicts, getting a job on the outside can be as hard as a cot on the inside.
"They'll violate your parole if you don't find employment, but they don't give you the resources to help you. It's like they set you up to fail," says Shannon Wamser, a 28-year-old former meth addict who served time in federal and state prisons for organized crime and about eight other felony convictions.
But a new program is giving Wamser a shot at something she had nearly given up on: a career.
She's one of 22 local mothers, with convictions ranging from drug possession to assault to theft, enrolled in the Motherhood Program, a statewide effort to help females with criminal histories land jobs.
The Women's Resource Agency, a nonprofit that helps women of all backgrounds achieve economic self-sufficiency, received a $100,000 performance-based grant from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to implement the program for six months in El Paso and Teller counties. One agency in Pueblo and eight in the Denver area received funding to start similar programs.
Halfway through, 11 local participants are working as paid interns, and seven have secured full-time jobs. The remaining four are still completing required classes on career readiness. Only one participant has re-offended, serving a 10-day sentence and returning to the program.
"These are not women that will not have issues," says Aubrey Terry, Women's Resource Agency director of support services. "Some haven't worked for five to seven years, and employers have had to deal with some tardiness and absences and things like wearing flip-flops with a nice suit. But with encouragement and support, the women have gotten over their nervousness and, overall, are doing well."
The women work at hotels, restaurants, real estate offices, law firms and nonprofits such as Court-Appointed Special Advocates, Leadership Pikes Peak and the Center on Fathering.
Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, which previously has hired ex-offender males, took on three Motherhood Program interns who also receive food from local pantries. They process fresh produce and tend on-site gardens, boosting a new program focusing on local agriculture.
"These women have helped us test our ideas to help us anticipate what types of positions we should be hiring," says Deborah Tuck, Care and Share chief executive. At least one permanent job will evolve out of the intern experiment, she adds.
At Care and Share, other employees have helped solve interns' transportation problems. And throughout the program, interns' wages are subsidized, so employers' only costs are related to direct supervision. When most interns end their terms in October, they'll be armed with impressive credentials, Terry says, and can use services the agency offers for free, out of its Citadel Mall office.
Meanwhile, the seven full-time employees earn an average $11.05 an hour, paid by the employer, says Beth Roalstad, executive director of the agency.
Terry says most of the women had worked before, generally in minimum-wage jobs: "Some had good work histories but got caught up in drugs," she says. "For some, the internship is the longest employment they've had."
Participants have come via El Paso County's Criminal Justice Center, ComCor community corrections, or referral by Fourth Judicial District parole and probation officers.
Route to stability
Ginger Courkamp, 32, a two-time convicted drug felon, says the program has helped her turn her life around and repair her relationship with her 13-year-old daughter. On drugs, Courkamp "lost everything" — her job as assistant director at a day care center, custody of her child, her car, her home.
After several stints in jail, Courkamp has been clean and sober for six months and is interning at CASA.
"This program seems too good to be true — but it is true," Courkamp says. "These people love us for us and see us for us. They understand. They tell us we can do it and want us to show them we can."
Being labeled a felon closes most employment doors, says Wamser, who was hired in July as Estée Lauder's counter manager at Fort Carson's commissary.
"Even if I'd get a job, I'd get fired once they found out my background," says Wamser, who five years ago birthed her daughter while shackled to her prison bed. "Now, I get paid to do something I love."
The link between unemployment and ex-convicts returning to prison has been proven, says Carol Peeples, re-entry coordinator for Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. She cites a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice attorney general's report that states, "Steady gainful employment is a leading factor in reducing recidivism."
"The fact that you have to answer the question of convictions on job applications keeps a lot of people from getting their foot in the door," Peeples says. "There is a necessity for helping people move beyond their mistakes, because it's costing the state millions of dollars for re-offenders."
The recidivism rate for females released on mandatory parole is 53.7 percent in Colorado, according to the Department of Corrections, and the annual cost of incarceration in Colorado is $32,338 per inmate per year.