Ex-inmates hope training program works

They are sick of being ex-convicts, who are turned down for jobs they need to stay out of trouble.

By JUSTIN GEORGE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 8, 2008

TAMPA - Eighteen men listened intently to words at a news conference Monday, wondering if this was really and truly the beginning of the end for them.

They have bounced in and out of prison. When filling out job applications, they have marked the box asking if they've been convicted. They are used to not getting calls back, losing hope and landing back into bad habits that put them behind bars.

In a picnic shelter in East Tampa, they sat three rows back from a lectern and heard Mayor Pam Iorio say that it doesn't make sense how people are treated coming out prison. They heard Robert Blount, president of Abe Brown Ministries, say men are three times less likely to reoffend if they're employed.

They heard U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor introduce a program that may help them get the jobs they need to stay out of trouble.

And many of them believed her.

"You've got big people here, said Damon Bellamy, 29, "and they're talking good things."

He's among the first recruits of the program, called Carpenter's Bench, run by the nonprofit Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa Inc., which hopes to reach 100 former prisoners over three years.

Abe Brown Ministries, a group that ministers to prisons, will recruit ex-offenders to the program while Able Body TrainingU, another group, will train the men in construction fields and help them land jobs. Another group plans to one day guide the men through home buying.

Monday was the first day of the monthlong program. Recruits sat in classrooms and learned how to fill out job applications and interview for jobs. Many had been through similar programs and failed, but they saw hope in Carpenter's Bench for various reasons.

Jimmy Wiley, 45, said age has given him newfound maturity after he spent the past three decades passing through prisons. He doesn't drink or smoke anymore. He attends church regularly, he said. He looks forward to getting married in February and being in his children's lives for the first time, regularly.

He has modest dreams of opening a business that would wash out city garbage cans.

Charles Jones, 37, wants to open a barber shop and invest in real estate. He, too, has modest goals: Getting calls back from employers. The program has promised him that.

Bellamy, 29, wants to build an indoor water park. But he said he'll start with a steady job and build his way up. He's tried the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance and other programs, which have helped some. But he's never had a job that stuck.

He said he knows the odds are against the men in the program.

"Everyone's got a felony," he said. "We're all background challenged."

But he said he's hopeful things will be different this time.

"I needed employment," he said. "I was tired of going to jail, and I needed change."

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or 813 226-3368.