Photo contributed by Project Return / Bettie Kirkland, chief executive officer for Project Return

Every year, Tennessee penitentiaries release nearly 300 people a week who have served their sentences. Nearly half of them are back behind bars within three years, according to the Tennessee Governor's Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism. Project Return, started in 1979 by two Nashville ministers, expanded to Chattanooga this fall with its support services, skills training and job placement for former inmates. Over the past four decades in Nashville, Project Return reports it has cut the recidivism rate among its participants to less than a third of the statewide average, and offered a more promising future for thousands of Tennesseans. CEO Bettie Kirkland has spent a decade in leadership for the organization after a career as an attorney and stints in the Peace Corps and as a writer and researcher for the Race Relations Institute of Fisk University. The tight labor market has created new demand for second-chance hiring, she says.

"There have been some prominent voices and general movements in that direction, which is great, but the current great need for a workforce helps people think about talent acquisition as the primary innovation they need to have as a company," she says. "We are able to speak to how second-chance hiring and working with Project Return can be the innovation that helps turn the corner."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the biggest hurdles for people who hope to get into the workforce once they have been incarcerated?

It's important to be aware of the fact that, for most people, they are coming out of prison destitute, so there's this immediate time pressure in the context of destitution. They are often put outside the gates of prison at midnight and maybe arrive in a city at dawn with a few dollars in their pockets. Most are in debt from fines and court fees, they have no job prospects, no place to live or start from. These are the pressures people are under from the first moment of freedom, and those play into how easily they can slide into the workforce. It helps tremendously if you're healthy, have clean clothing, a stable living situation. It also helps if you have identification documents, which is obviously an absolute requirement, but most people coming out of prison don't have basic documentation. Those are just some of the basics that stand in between people and day one of employment.

At a different level, there's difficulty in terms of not being acclimated to this modern world. Cell phones, transportation routes, company cultures have changed. We talk to folks about workplace culture and what is acceptable. It's different than it was before this century started. It is also probably important to recognize that imprisonment itself is a trauma, a devastating experience that's often prolonged, and that engenders helplessness, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, and you compound that with coming out and facing that stigma.

The biggest hurdle is what we refer to as soft skills that we all have to bring to the job market and bring to the workplace, and we see a lot of folks who may not have had the opportunity to build those skills before incarnation, but even if they did, those skills are not appropriate in prison, so they really may need to brush that up.

How does Project Return help overcome those barriers?

Job readiness is an everyday affair at Project Return. We are obsessed with employment, acquiring it, retention, advancement. It turns out to be the No. 1 predictor of whether a person is successful in life. It's not the only factor, but poverty, lack of a legal economy, is what drives recidivism. We deliver job readiness for people coming back from incarceration. We focus on the tenets of workplace success — financial literacy, digital literacy, how to set up an email account, make sure they know what to do with that first paycheck, basic money management. We have three days of indoctrination to say, let's get ready to work. We run it each week, and it's a must-do for people who come for our services.

As to those basic needs, we're proving those, as well, every day — food, clothing, foot gear, outwear. We are not a community kitchen, but we peddle so much food because you can't be an effective job seeker or worker if you are hungry. We partner with medical, dental and vision providers to pay for our participants to get that care. We're moved by the fierce urgency of now. When someone gets released, time is wasting, and their ability to get on their feet, our ability to support them, will make the difference. A lot of small things could be the difference between success and failure. We learn these things that are needed from the people we serve.

As you launch in Chattanooga, what are some of your top priorities?

Connecting to people, having that awareness in the community that we are here to do the work. We go into correctional facilities, we have been forever going into all the state penitentiaries and many local county jails, as well. COVID has made that hard for 16 months. We're not back into the facilities so it's important to us they know we are here for them when they get out. The sooner you make your way to us after you get out, the better. Over time, the neighborhood voices will be able to turn to the next person and say, 'this is where you need to go.'

Why Chattanooga?

We'd been this four-decade-plus Tennessee nonprofit with great support, and really the drawback for us was we were only based in Nashville. If someone was released and went to Chattanooga, we weren't there for them. We're very pleased to be able to open up in East Tennessee. It's a very replicable model we have, but we also have the efficiencies of being so tied into the Tennessee system.

How has the tight labor market impacted your work?

In my opinion, there has been a gradual movement over the past few years to thinking through these issues of second-chance hiring. There have been some prominent voices and general movements in that direction, which is great, but the current great need for a workforce helps people think about talent acquisition as the primary innovation they need to have as a company. We are able to speak to how second-chance hiring and working with Project Return can be the innovation that helps turn the corner.

Generally speaking, there are two ways to hire someone. You can bring someone on with an intention to be more a part of the company's success, and grow and advance, but there's the other way, which is to get bodies in a production line, and we don't want to promote that latter type of hiring because that arises out of an intense need but is not the best approach for people looking to lead new lives and leave prison behind. A very tight labor market might drive that less thoughtful approach to hiring.

What I love most is each person we are able to work with and gains employment and succeeds against the odds becomes a one-man or woman ambassador. The comeback is possible, the redemption is not only doable, it's fundamentally American and part of being human. Each of our individuals stand for this in a quiet day-to-day way.

How do volunteers support your work?

Volunteering for us is a little bit unique. People become mock interviewers for us. We are really getting close to folks to help them be able to talk about themselves in an interview context, and we are specifically coaching people to be forthright and honest to own their past, not hide it and put it in context of who they are. Helping people to find that way to talk about themselves that is truthful but also true to who they are. Mock interviewers come in and represent the outside world — the stranger. They come in and use the mock interviewing protocol and give participants the opportunity to practice what they're learning. It's an opportunity to interact with someone they might never otherwise have the opportunity to interact with.

You employ your participants to get them started. How does that work?

We run employment-creating social enterprises, a field that has not grown up quite as much in the South as in other areas, but it's all about providing immediate support employment for people who would otherwise have trouble finding employment. We run a high-quality staffing company and hire our own participants immediately. We wrap around them with support that's intentional about making them successful. The companies contact us as a staffing company. The worker gets proof of concept, supported by Project Return, coached along the arc of job readiness and coming out on the other end as worthy, successful candidates.

We treat people as fully human, we embrace people with hope and positivity, we want them to walk in our doors and feel our hopes for them, our expectation of their near-term and long-term success. That's got to be palpable and real, that makes Project Return unique. Project Return is in the opportunity business. No one can succeed and break the cycle of incarceration and poverty without opportunity.