Pioneer wants to make some noise in favor of progress after prison.
When Karen Lee took the job as CEO of Pioneer Human Services five years ago, the large nonprofit had been a quiet presence in the community for years. Its low profile was intentional, but she wants Pioneer to step up and be a voice for the people it serves.
The core mission is helping people who’ve been incarcerated thrive once they are free. “Social acceptance is one of the biggest challenges we face,” Lee said this week. Pioneer has had decades of success getting clients into jobs, but it remains a challenge because of employer resistance to hiring people with a criminal record.
That’s why the organization decided it should not talk about that core part of its mission, as if it were just a job-training service for industry. But it has always been more than that, and when the board hired Lee away from her job as director of the state Employment Security Department, it made raising Pioneer’s profile part of her mission.
There’s good reason for that timing. Re-entry is becoming a pressing issue across the country, as it grows clearer that cycling people in and out of prisons harms individuals and communities. How best to handle re-entry has even been an issue in the campaign for president.
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The United States has a re-entry problem because it has an incarceration problem. We lock people up at the highest rate in the world, much higher even than countries that have similar crime rates.
Most of those people come out eventually and have to find a place to live, find work, learn to live without the regimentation of a prison in a community, where the rules of social interaction they’ve become accustomed to don’t work. Leaving that adjustment to chance makes no sense as public policy.
I’ve written about some of the nonprofits that try to address that unmet need, and about this state’s work-release programs for low-risk inmates near the end of their sentences.
Pioneer is the largest provider of re-entry services in the state. It has contracts to run nine of the state’s 16 work-release programs and all the federal government’s work-release sites in Washington. In addition, it runs its own program that focuses on people who are judged to pose a medium or high risk to reoffend.
It also operates several businesses, mostly manufacturing plants that provide skilled jobs at competitive pay.
Mark Behrends, vice president of Pioneer Enterprises, says people who are accepted into Pioneer’s employment program spend their first weeks learning the soft skills a workplace requires — time management, professional communication, conflict resolution. Some move on to on-the-job occupational training in manufacturing, food service or one of the other businesses Pioneer runs. Some of those employees make a career at Pioneer; others get help finding jobs in other companies.
Greg Burgess is a production supervisor for Pioneer Industries. He entered prison at 15 and came out at 44, so he didn’t know how to manage on the outside. He started at Pioneer nearly seven years ago and said learning from people who had been in his situation helped him adjust.
Pioneer businesses compete in the marketplace for contracts from companies that make a range of products, from airliners to ovens. Boeing is a big customer.
A lot of businesses turn away people with a criminal history, which is why Pioneer was created in 1963 by Jack Dalton, a former lawyer, who came out of Walla Walla after serving time for embezzlement and couldn’t find a job.
Over the years, Pioneer expanded its job program and added a wide range of other services, including addiction treatment and mental-health counseling, and it owns 850 housing units. On a given day, Pioneer serves 2,694 people at nearly 60 locations around the state.
Today, not all its clients have a criminal history, but 69 percent do. Lee, the CEO, says Pioneer’s size and the breadth of its services positions it to play a leadership role in advocating for expanded community-based services for people who’ve done time.
She said 8,000 people are released each year in Washington, and only a fraction of them get the services they need.
Meeting that need will require helping the larger community see that people can be more than the bad they’ve done in the past. Expect Pioneer to raise its voice in support of a more robust response to the needs of people like its clients.