Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

Archive for May 2010

Crime and Punishment

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My story in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and TC Daily Planet (here) about one man’s struggle to shake the past. Check out the links for the great imagery from photographer Jeff Cowan.

Crime and punishment: When does the punishment end?

by Anna Pratt

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Originally posted 4/28/2010

Ex-felon did his time long ago, yet payment for his crime lingers on

In February 2009, Grant Terrell, 56, a longtime employee of the Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps Center in St. Paul, was let go because of his decades-old felonies. Terrell, a Brooklyn Park resident, had been the property manager at the center in charge of tracking campus equipment, a position he held since 1994.

When he first lost his job, he was in shock. He sank into a depression and lost weight. Now, he’s barely making ends meet. Unemployment insurance has become his main source of income, along with the temp work he’s doing. When those funds run out, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do.

Among other things, Terrell is worried about losing his home. “There are days when I feel completely drained of energy,” he said. “I feel as if I’ve been wronged and treated unfairly.”

The Humphrey Center is a site for the federal Job Corps program that dates back to the 1960s, which delivers career planning, on-the-job training, job placement, housing, food service, driver’s education, health and dental care, and a basic living allowance to at-risk youth, ages 16-24, according to program information.

At the time of Terrell’s firing, a new contract management company, the Mississippi-based MINACT, Inc., was taking over operations at the Humphrey Center. The U.S. Department of Labor, which administers Job Corps, hires private companies to manage its 123 centers.

MINACT also runs eight other Job Corps locations in Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Tennessee. Some key players from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement are behind MINACT, namely founder, president and CEO Booker T. Jones, who started it in 1978, and Benjamin L. Hooks, a former director for the national NAACP, who chaired the company’s board until his recent death.

During the transition, the Humphrey Center’s employees had to reapply for their jobs. MINACT reshuffled some workers and got rid of others while some simply left, downsizing the staff by nearly 35 percent, by Terrell’s count. Terrell was notified in writing that he would be rehired if he passed a criminal background check. According to him, he was terminated specifically because of the felonies on his criminal record, the most recent dating back to 1991, three years before his original hiring and 18 years before his termination by MINACT.

Considering that Job Corp’s mission is to prepare youth for work, MINACT’s critics, including some current and former employees, say it sends the wrong message when it gets rid of people who have proven themselves. However, center officials argue that the transition, while disappointing to some, has been necessary to improve its performance, which in recent years was among the worst in the country.

Painful memories

Initially, Terrell was led to believe that if he got his record expunged, he could have his old job back, but later he was told by a former supervisor that doing so wouldn’t change anything after all. Terrell, who is Black, is still trying to get his record expunged in case the issue comes up with other potential employers. He has also lodged complaints against the company with the State Human Rights Department and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which are still under investigation.

Terrell believes he has proven himself, but now it’s as if he’s being punished all over again. He had been convicted of burglary in 1989 and tampering with a witness and terroristic threat in 1991. Separate charges of criminal sexual conduct and assault and another for terroristic threats were overturned or dismissed. All of the charges stem from a domestic dispute with his ex-girlfriend, Anita.

It’s a long story with many twists and turns, but according to Terrell, Anita told police that he had entered the apartment with a gun, assaulted and raped her, and then burglarized the place. Even though the case was convoluted, with some charges dropped, Terrell ended up serving five years’ jail time.

Following that drama, he tried to turn his life around. He landed a job as a cook’s assistant in the Humphrey Center cafeteria in 1994. After nine months, he became the property clerk. Terrell said he had always gotten positive performance reviews, receiving employee of the month awards and other honors and even traveling to other Job Corps centers to help other property managers.

He said he’s stayed out of trouble with the law in the years following his felony convictions — yet he’s still paying for them.

Although it’s unclear at this time whether Terrell’s firing was legal — different offenses have various “look-back” periods — it’s safe to say that it’s hard for people like him to make a fresh start. Stories like Terrell’s are all too common according to Emily Baxter, a criminal records projects attorney with the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime and Justice, a nonprofit agency that works to address the barriers to successful integration into the community faced by offenders and their families, victims and others.

Asked about Terrell’s situation, she explained, “Without reviewing court documents, I cannot be sure of the final dispositions of Grant’s legal matters.

However, I can tell you that just as Minnesota’s prison and probation population grows each year, so too do the collateral sanctions and consequences associated with criminal records.

“Whether by statutory disqualification or by many private employers’ distrust of anyone with any type of criminal background” regardless of the specific facts, Baxter said, “people with criminal records are seriously disadvantaged in the job market.

“Unfortunately, if by law or by practice we make it impossible for a sizable portion of Minnesotans to earn a livable wage, we only decrease community safety.”

Slash and burn?

Through the years, Terrell saw Humphrey Center contractors come and go, including Career Systems Development, Vinnell Corporation and Northrop Grumman. In his view, none had the same slash and burn approach as MINACT’s.

MINACT was awarded the contract in St. Paul when the center’s Outcome Measurement Standard (OMS), used to determine center performance, had worsened, reaching 109. (The higher the number, the worse the ranking — number one would be top-notch.) The Humphrey Center had once been among the best in the nation.

Some other current and former employees of the center sympathize with Terrell. Diane Martin retired from her human resources position as title records manager when MINACT came in. She’d been working at the center for 25 years. “I didn’t apply for my job because I thought MINACT was rude and uninformed,” she said.

“They gave us job descriptions that weren’t even close to what we were doing. Each contractor might modify it based on their experience, but it didn’t cover a great many tasks we were doing,” Martin said.

Terrell’s case, she said, seems to make for a double standard. “Ironically, Job Corps is all about taking students who have had incidents and guiding them into a better life.”

Likewise, Everett Waters, a former manager of outreach and admissions and counselor at the center where he worked for 27 years, decided to leave during the tough transition. “I chose to leave because I felt I was worth more than they were willing to pay me,” he said, adding that MINACT had cut a lot of his salary and benefits even though the center’s budget stayed about the same.

Staff had been put on probation for six months, and students were also scrutinized. “Turmoil” and “unease” are words to describe what ensued, Waters said. “There’s a balance that has to be maintained, and I think they’ve gone to the extreme” in terms of rules, such as not letting students work night jobs.

“Their problem is a lack of communication from HR issues to program issues.”

Waters said a MINACT representative once described students as “inventory.”

“For those of us who had been in the business and cared about our work there, to us that showed a lack of respect,” he said. “If we can’t accept [students] for who they are and where they’re coming from, they shouldn’t be involved.”

Support for management

Cate Smith-Edlund, a spokesperson from the Humphrey Job Corps Center, said she couldn’t discuss personnel matters. However, more generally, she confirmed that there are periodic management changes at the center: “Yes, we underwent a transition for some staff. We notched job eligibility up a bit. Some people were not offered a position based on that.”

She said it’s common for employees to have to reapply for their jobs when a new contractor comes in. “People get laid off by the new contractor, and then they have to be rehired by the new contractor,” she said. “Some people thought people should be grandfathered in, but either you made it or didn’t.”

Each contractor has “slightly different configurations,” she said. Background checks are a standard part of that process, precluding some from being rehired. In general, the process “doesn’t always make everyone happy, but it’s real life,” Smith-Edlund said.

In her view, MINACT is very committed to the objectives of the Job Corps program. The policies and handbook are followed closely, she said. “We have to meet standards, and we do. Our goal is to provide services to our students and help them develop careers for a livable wage and upward mobility.”

There are 290 students at the Humphrey Center, although the number fluctuates from week to week as students complete the program. About 30 percent of the 111-person staff is minority, which is “well in excess of the state composition,” Smith-Edlund said. “The goals of the company have always been very diverse.”

“This is a good company with good goals and good people running it,” she said. “Our students turn out pretty darn well.”

Scott Allen, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor’s regional office in Chicago, said the Department of Labor hadn’t received any complaints about the way MINACT is running the center, except for a letter to which it responded. Further, the department doesn’t investigate civil rights-type complaints. In his view, “MINACT is very good.”

MINACT has taken the center from a poor OMS ranking of 109 to 75 as of February of this year. However, some off-the-record sources who are close to the situation say the number is inaccurate and that the center’s OMS has been getting worse since reaching 67 at the end of October.

Allen said that MINACT still has a ways to go at the Humphrey Center, but noted, “It’s showing improvement.” According to him, MINACT is running a number of centers and drastically turned around the low-performing St. Louis site.

He said the company had the right to make personnel changes, but whether those changes were fair remains an open question.

As for Grant Terrell, he continues his search for full-time work and awaits the results of his civil rights complaints, hoping that one day he can finally put those long-ago felony convictions behind him.

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Written by annapratt

May 2, 2010 at 10:04 pm

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