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Originally published Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Giving ex-convicts a second chance

The tattoo on Jason Carter's throat reads: "Sober. " It's a badge of honor for the recovering drug addict and former prison inmate. Unfortunately, most employers don't...

McClatchy Newspapers

FRESNO, Calif. — The tattoo on Jason Carter's throat reads: "Sober."

It's a badge of honor for the recovering drug addict and former prison inmate.

Unfortunately, most employers don't see it that way.

"They would take one look at me, and they didn't want to hire me. They didn't want me dealing with the public," said Carter, who spent nearly a year looking for a job after being paroled from state prison in 2005.

"I went everywhere, but no one would give me a job."

That is, until Carter met John Shegerian, a Fresno businessman with a zeal for making money, creating new ventures and giving people a second chance.

Shegerian's Electronic Recyclers of America is among several Fresno employers willing to risk hiring people with prison records. Shegerian and others like him say they do it for altruistic and practical reasons.

"I tell CEOs and company presidents, 'Don't be scared. The people who are truly interested in turning their lives around will become some of your best employees,' " Shegerian said.

"They are on a mission to prove something, to prove that they can succeed."

Although employment experts say the number of employers hiring convicts is not growing significantly, the low unemployment rate, coupled with federal and state hiring incentives, could make it more attractive.

"I think we are on the cusp of things beginning to change," said Denise Ost, vice president of operations for Goodwill Industries of San Joaquin Valley.

"This is really an untapped labor market. And as the unemployment rates go down, employers are fighting over fewer and fewer employees."

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Goodwill Industries works with 92 prospective valley employers willing to hire former prisoners, many of whom have been convicted of drug-related charges.

"Employers tell us: 'Just give me someone who is reliable and will show up for work. We will teach them the trade or the skills they need,' " Ost said.

Nationwide, public officials have been trying to make it easier for ex-prisoners to be hired. The reason: People with jobs and a steady income are less likely to wind up back in jail.

In California, about 120,000 people are paroled every year, state officials said.

Employers who hire parolees are eligible for tax credits from the federal government worth up to $2,400. The credit is claimed during the employee's first year of employment.

California's Prison Industry Authority, the Department of Corrections and PRIDE Industries are doing their part — holding forums throughout the state to talk about the benefits of hiring former prison inmates.

The Roseville-based PRIDE Industries creates jobs for people with disabilities and helps teach nonviolent parolees the skills they need to re-enter the work force.

Bill Sessa, spokesman for the Prison Industry Authority, said his agency also provides several vocational programs, including carpentry and underwater welding for inmates.

Graduates from the state's carpentry program qualify for an apprentice program with a Northern California carpenters union.

Last year, of the 90 carpentry program graduates, about three returned to prison on parole violations.

"To us, it underscores the fact that one of the keys to rehabilitation is stability — of having a home and a job," Sessa said.

"If they get those, they are two steps ahead in what they need to get their life turned around."

At Shegerian's southeast Fresno recycling plant, about a quarter of the 200 employees are either ex-gang members or have served time in state or federal prison.

Shegerian's work in hiring former inmates and former gang members landed him a spot on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 10-member advisory council for the newly created Office of Gang and Youth Violence Policy.

He preaches the virtues of hiring ex-offenders to anyone who will listen.

"You don't have to hire 50, just open your doors to one or two. If more people did just that, it would make a difference," Shegerian said. "Just like I told the governor, we are leading the way in recycling electronics, and we want to lead the way in recycling lives."

Mandingo Cain, Shegerian's executive assistant, spent most of his teenage years in and out of the juvenile justice system in Oakland.

"I lived the street life," Cain said. "The only thing I was headed toward was a life in prison."

Cain eventually broke away and moved to Fresno, where his wife's sister lived. He got a job as a dishwasher at the former Bulldog Brewing Co., a restaurant created by Shegerian.

"He gave me a chance, and I worked my way from a dishwasher all the way up to chef," Cain said. "And now I am a father with three children, and a [I'm a] licensed minister. I tell people who work here that you can turn your life around. It is possible."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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