When Gary Wozniak was rejected from an entry-level job at Enterprise-Rent-A-Car after leaving federal prison in 1991, he witnessed the barriers to employment ex-convicts and ex-drug addicts face in life after prison.
Wozniak testified three decades and seven businesses later in front of the U.S. Committee on Small Business on his company, RecoveryPark, which launches for-profit food industries, including a Detroit-based 105-acre-farming operation that supplies food to about 130 restaurants.
Wozniak said his goal is to train inmates inside prison walls so they can gain a firm footing within months of their release. Then he’ll offer micro-lending for their business, Wozniak said.
Wozniak’s business is about to launch construction of a $13 million hydroponics greenhouse that will employ a minimum of 30 people and grow to nearly 300 employees over the next five years, with wages between $18 and $22 per hour, plus benefits.
“There’s a cost saving to society when people stay out of prison,” Wozniak said, adding that those who are employed pay taxes, so there’s a net productivity gain to society by hiring others versus spending thousands of dollars a month keeping them in the prison system.
“That’s $40,000 that we don’t have to spend to incarcerate someone,” Wozniak said.
Wozniak said the time frame of post-prison employment matters; inmates’ chance of returning to prison is almost zero percent if employed within three months post-prison, 30 percent at six months, and 70 percent after nine months.
“And if you’re not working, whether for yourself or someone else after a year of being out of prison, you’re probably going to go back to prison,” Wozniak said.
Past mistakes can loom over ex-convicts for decades.
“I returned from prison over 30 years ago, and despite owning seven businesses, launching an eighth, sitting on five non-profit boards and mentoring hundreds of returning citizens and people in recovery, I still cannot obtain a job mopping floors in a nursing home because of occupational licensing laws and regulations,” Wozniak said in his testimony.
Wozniak said eight prisons in Michigan offer gardening and horticulture training inside their walls, so prisoners leave with farming skills and can work in food-based businesses.
Michigan Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Chris Gautz told The Center Square 20 inmates have gone through the RecoveryPark program; none have returned to prison yet.
“It’s been an incredibly successful program, so far, for us,” Gautz said.
Wozniak suggested new legislation to offer entrepreneurship and business classes inside the prison system to ease prisoner reintegration to society, as well as federal expungement after certain milestones.
“The bottom line is if you’re incarcerated and you’re sitting there, just whiling away time, why not put that to productive use and do something that will make you successful when you get out,” Wozniak said.