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MaineWorks: Felons Stay on the Job - and Out of Prison
01/02/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

MaineWorks is an employment agency based in southern Maine that supplies temporary labor for construction projects. Nothing unusual about that, you might think. However, most of the workers the agency uses are convicted felons. The company's founder believes MaineWorks represents a new business model: A for-profit company that offers both economic and social benefits, while also giving a second chance to those who sorely need it. Tom Porter has the details.

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MaineWorks: Felons Stay on the Job - and Out of P Listen

Felons at work 2

A few miles from downtown Portland on a normally quiet residential street, a work crew is preparing for a pipe-laying project. "We got to find all the cables, make sure we know where they are and then the excavator will come through and dig the trench," says Quigley Douglas, as he toils away with a shovel.

Tom Porter: "You like this kind of work?"

Quigley Douglas: "Oh yeah, oh yeah. Yeah, it keeps me busy."

Douglas, 21, spent 16 months in juvenile detention. He got out on his 19th birthday, put his substance abuse problems behind him and joined MaineWorks. "You get to get out there and show your stuff, pretty much," he says. "And that's how companies pick the good guys - even if you'd had a troubled youth, they can see through that by what Margo's program does."

Margo is Margo Walsh, founder and president of MaineWorks. Walsh has about 40 workers on her books, most of them felons.

"The biggest obstacle when they get out is that they are often unemployable because of their felon status," she says. "And it's my interest to be an employer that is felon-friendly, where they don't have to lie about what their past is."

Felons at work 1To do that, Walsh has to win the trust of employers, and the workers have to prove themselves as well. It's a process that starts every day before dawn.

"I wake up at about 5, and leave the house by about 5:15," Walsh says. "At 5.30 I come into this Seven-Eleven, and all my guys are standing out front with coffee, smoking and waiting for a ride and I pick them up, and bring them to whatever work sites are employing them for the day."

Walsh - who has a background in financial recruitment - spends much of her time behind the wheel of her seven-seater minivan, transporting employees to work sites in the Portland area, making sure the jobs are running smoothly and dealing with various issues that come up throughout the day.

To qualify, each MaineWorks candidate must be motivated, ready to work hard - and most importantly, sober. "I have zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol," Walsh says.

In return, Walsh can offer steady, reliable work during the construction season, and a guaranteed wage of at least $10 an hour. Above all, though, these guys get a chance to prove themselves. In nearly two-and-a-half years, MaineWorks has found work for nearly 200 felons.

"My name is Steve Daniels, I live in Portland. Substance abuse kind of led me to where I am now. It took me down a road where I lost everything. It tore my life apart."

Keith DuboisDaniels, who's 37, now works full-time for a construction company. But it's been a tough road. As a young man he turned to crime to fuel his addiction to crack cocaine. A little over two years ago he finished a five-year prison sentence for robbery.

Coming out of prison, he says, was scarier than going in. "I basically felt like I had nothing after prison," he says. "I earned no money, I was getting released with nothing."

Daniels did manage to get sober while he was inside, and on release he continued to receive substance abuse counseling.
He found out about MaineWorks while living in a sober house in Portland. After more than a year with the agency, Daniels got taken on full-time by one of MaineWork's clients as a trainee mason.

It's hard, physical work, he says, but he likes it. "I feel great. I feel great - almost four years sober now," he says.

Tom Porter: "And your hopes, plans for the future?"

Steve Daniels: "Just as much as everybody, hitting the lottery I guess." (laughs)

"They're very capable. They're hard-working guys," says Jake Hall, a field engineer overseeing a construction project. His company has used a number of Margo's guys this year, and he's impressed with their work ethic. "She does her research and she gets quality people to come in here and do a good job," Hall says.

Tom Porter: "So no matter what's gone in the past, as far as you're concerned they're good workers."

Jake Hall: "Yeah it kind of seems like that - they're due a second start, and make a good impression."

"Like everything else to do with penal reform you have to see if it works - and in her case I think you can say it does work," says noted defense attorney-turned business consultant F. Lee Bailey. It was a Chamber of Commerce speech he gave on felon employment in 2010 that prompted Margo Walsh to start up MaineWorks later that year.

Apart from the social aspect of the business, Bailey says there's a strong economic argument behind it as it keeps many felons from going back inside - where they cost the state a lot of money.

"The cost per head is elusive because no one tracks it exactly, but $60,000 a year is a pretty good number," he says. "And the more people you can keep from going back to prison - which is what she does - the more you will haul down the state's need to support all these people."

MaineWorks founder Margo Walsh says that about three-quarters of the felons she hires stay the course and don't re-offend. "With work and with supervision, and with a decent income, many guys that have worked for me have remained out of prison and continually employed," she says.

No small feat, considering data that show that up to three-quarters of felons normally end up back behind bars within three years.

Photos by Tom Porter.


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