Former inmate Alicia Brown develops empowerment program to help those in reentry succeed

Alicia Brown

Alicia Brown

Alicia Brown, a former Indiana inmate, is using our book Jails to Jobs: Seven Steps to Becoming Employed as part of an empowerment workshop she’s created to help those in prison succeed when released.

She developed her seminar series F.A.N.S — Fresh Attitudes for New Success – during time spent at Madison (Ind.) Correctional Facility in 2016, where she was incarcerated for prescription drug fraud. The idea came after her business technology instructor, Mary Shipman, gave her our book.

“I was going through a hard time in my incarceration, and she saw I needed a pick me up. She said, “I think you need this,” and gave the book to me on Friday. By Monday I had finished it.”

“I talked to some of the women in my dorm about it and saw such a need for this information. With mass incarceration, there are not enough people to help those who are incarcerated when it’s time for them to leave. They give out these very generic release plans, and you’re free to go. But you’re not really prepared for what’s going to happen. Prisons don’t have a really good setup for success.”

Brown gave her workshop to other inmates and made a great impression on her teacher. “She’s really found her passion. She goes and gives these presentations and empowers women. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Shipman.

According to Brown, it was such a great experience that she decided she would eventually give her workshop after getting out of prison. But first she had to find a job.

She found a job in a week

Inspired by our book, she knew she had to do whatever it took to get a job.

“It only took one week. I used the skills from the book, and I went to the first job I could find that would hire me. I worked at the local Humane Society and scooped up poop for six months. I stayed that long to have the continuity that the book talks about,” she says.

And it was worth the effort. Brown now has a job working the front desk at Varsity Clubs of America, an all-suite hotel in South Bend, Ind. She says she got the job by the cold calling technique we recommend.

“I came well dressed, with a JIST Card and prepared to address my felony with my turnaround talk. I did a cold call, just walked in. I did know that they were hiring, though. I didn’t have an appointment. The hiring manager saw me filling out the application, talked to me and hired me right then and there on the spot,” Brown says.

Her F.A.N.S. program took a bit more time to find a home, but she’s now teaching the five-session seminar at the DuComb Center, the St. Joseph County (IN) community corrections program, where she was on a work release program last year. Her first class consists of 10 men and women.

How Brown developed F.A.N.S.

“I developed the program by dissecting what the needs are from what I was hearing from other offenders,” she says. “Low self-esteem is a huge problem in (preventing people from) getting into the job market. F.A.N.S.’ mission is to extend reentry not just for job skills but for life skills in general. It’s a source for empowerment and encouragement for the person who wants change but isn’t certain how to go about it.”

Each of the five two-hour workshop sessions is devoted to a different subject. The tools she uses include:

  • Jails to Jobs: Seven Steps to Becoming Employed
  • PowerPoint presentations created by Alicia Brown
  • TED talks
  • Social Media
  • Additional resources from local staffing agencies
  • Responsible Mothers Workbook
Our book changed her life

In a recent TV interview on ABC 57 News in South Bend, Brown told the reporter that our book changed her life.

“Why?” we asked.

“This book was able to provide tools for me that I needed and up-to-date information so I could get out and do what I wanted to do. This book changed my perception and told me I could be successful, but I was very nervous that I ever would be,” she said.

“The book gave me initiative and drive and confidence – and a whole new purpose for me to take this message to the next person who needs it.”

She’s convinced it works. “I taught it to 350 women while I was incarcerated in Madison, and I’ve heard from people on Facebook that it changed their lives too.”

Highlighting soft skills can be key to getting a job

soft skillsSoft skills – the personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others – may be just as important to performing and keeping a job as the technical or job performance related skills for which people are hired.

And many employers agree. In a survey of 2,138 hiring managers and human resource professionals conducted on behalf of CareerBuilder in 2014, 77% of employers felt that soft skills are just as important as hard skills.

“When companies are assessing job candidates, they’re looking for the best of both worlds: someone who is not only proficient in a particular function, but also has the right personality,” said Rosemary Haefner, Vice President of Human Resources at CareerBuilder.

“Along with responsibilities, it’s important to highlight soft skills that can give employers an idea of how quickly you can adapt and solve problems, whether you can be relied on to follow through, and how effectively you can lead and motivate others.”

Top 10 soft skills that employers consider when evaluating a job candidate

The top 10 most popular soft skills companies say they look for when hiring are that the candidate:

  • has a strong work ethic – 73 percent
  • is dependable – 73 percent
  • has a positive attitude – 72 percent
  • is self-motivated – 66 percent
  • is team-oriented – 60 percent
  • is organized, can manage multiple priorities – 57 percent
  • works well under pressure – 57 percent
  • is an effective communicator – 56 percent
  • is flexible – 51 percent
  • is confident – 46 percent

If you want to know more about the importance of soft skills, just ask Frederick H. Wentz. He’s an expert on the subject and wrote two books used for training people so that they can recognize and develop their soft skills.

Wentz became aware of the need during his years working in the restaurant industry. “I hired a lot of entry level employees, and many came from communities that lacked exposure to soft skills,” he says.

He also worked training people in reentry and noticed that people who have been out of the workforce for a long time had the same problem.

“The biggest challenges (to those in reentry) are making decisions and problem solving. When they’re incarcerated all their decisions are being made by someone else,” he says. “Communication is another difficulty for them. In prison communication is just one way.”

Wentz goes on to say that, “The behaviors that people need to survive in prison are being tough and being intimating, and these are not going to work on the job.”

Four types of soft skills

Instead they need to develop soft skills. Soft skills can be one of four different types, related to:

  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Personal attributes

As specific examples, Wentz mentions, among other things, being:

  • Able to get along with others
  • Positive
  • Able to control emotions
  • Conscientious
  • Friendly
  • Able to follow instructions

In his book, Soft Skills Training: A Workbook to Develop Skills for Employment, Wentz alternates articles and stories about success with exercises that make students think about the importance of soft skills.

Some examples of the questions from the exercises in the book:

  • What do most entry-level workers lack?
  • In what areas do entry-level employees need the most improvement?
  • Why is it important to reach out and help others while at work?
  • When you do not understand something, what are three positive consequences of asking a question?
  • List five personal qualities you must display on every job.
  • How did Michael Jordan visualize and how did it help him? Give an example of how it can help you.

Job developers who work with those in reentry may find this book a useful tool.

And those looking for work might want to add references to their soft skills in their resume or JIST card. Including things like “meets all deadlines,” “works well in a team environment” and “communicates effectively” will highlight your proficiency in the soft skill arena.

Because employers are convinced of the importance of these skills, make sure you let them know you have them.


Maritime industry offers opportunities to ex-offenders

The welding program at Seattle's Harbor Island Training Center is a joint venture between Vigor Industrial and South Seattle Community College.

The welding program at Seattle’s Harbor Island Training Center is a joint venture between Vigor Industrial and South Seattle Community College.

Formerly incarcerated job seekers may want to check out jobs in the maritime trades, and a new maritime painting class in the San Francisco Bay Area is just one example of some of the opportunities that exist.

A joint venture between the College of Alameda and Bay Ship & Yacht, the program is seeking out those on probation, formerly homeless individuals and veterans to fill the first four-week class, which will take place in September. And those who do well may have a job offer at the end.

“This is a pilot class, and ideally we want to offer it on a regular basis,” said Chris Rochette, who helped develop the program and serves as training manager at Bay Ship & Yacht Co., a full service shipyard. “We want this to coincide with our hiring cycle, so we would offer one class in the winter and one in the fall.”

There is no prerequisite to apply. “They’re supposed to go from zero experience to us hiring them,” he said. Alameda College instructors will teach most of the classes, and Bay Ship & Yacht employees will assist in the hands-on instruction.

“Those employees can get a good feel for the people in the class, and if they do well, the goal is for us to hire them. We are a second-chance employer, and this offers a really good opportunity for people to get back on their feet.”

The program is modeled after Seattle’s Harbor Island Training Center, which, like the Alameda program, is a joint venture between a shipbuilder, Vigor Industrial, and an educational institution, South Seattle Community College.

Harbor Island offers the two-quarter, 5-1/2-month Welding Intensive for Maritime & Manufacturing Environments program that is is taught onsite by industry professionals at Vigor’s shipyards.

“The purpose of this program is to keep this vital industry alive when many members of the workforce are aging out,” said Kevin Maloney director of communications for South Seattle College. “It gives students the marketable skills they need to earn a living wage.” The average salary for a graduate of the program is just over $45,000 per year.

Graduates have been hired by Vigor, but the skills they learn are applicable to jobs at any shipyard anywhere.

Vigor Industrial has a similar joint venture with Portland Community College, which opened its new Swan Island Trades Center last September. The welding classes are taught at the Vigor Industrial Welding Training Center at its Swan Island Ship Repair Yard.

East Coast programs

On the opposite end of the country, the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association sponsors a six-week Marine Trades Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program that teaches a variety of entry-level skills, including painting, varnishing, rigging, forklift operation and shrink wrapping. These skills prepare graduates to be hired by area yacht builders and others.

As part of the program, which is held twice a year, students participate in a six-day job shadow with a local employer in an area of work that they are interested in.

Participants, who must be Rhode Island residents, attend sessions at various places throughout the state, including venues in Newport, Bristol and Portsmouth. The program is free to students, and those who don’t miss any days will receive $100 per week in compensation.

The Marine Trades Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program is funded through the Governor’s Workforce Board Rhode Island and has a 90% job placement rate for its graduates.

Another opportunity to get involved in maritime trades is a series of apprenticeship programs offered by Tidewater Community College and local maritime businesses in Suffolk, Va. These provide training for such positions as dock master, rigger, ship fitter, welder, electrician and painter. Participants take classes at the college and can earn an associate degree, in addition to gaining employment in the maritime industry.

The apprenticeship section of the Tidewater Community College’s website includes a list of companies that sponsor the apprenticeship programs. They range from BAE Systems and CDI Marine to Norfolk Naval Shipyard and Newport News Shipbuilding.

If you are interested in considering employment in the maritime industries, learning more about the programs in this article may be a good place to begin your search. creates free WordPress tutorial

unnamedTo develop a skill that is in high demand and that can result in paid employment would solve one major problem many formerly incarcerated people face after leaving jail or prison.

Erik (who prefers not to reveal his last name for privacy reasons) is taking the website he created to help ex-felons search for a job one step further. He’s putting together a set of lessons to teach people how to build websites using WordPress.

His story is not unique. He got into drugs at age 17 and became a convicted felon by age 20. A year before his prison term was up he was transferred to a community reentry program with a supportive staff, which he said changed his life.

After leaving prison and moving to Ohio, Erik couldn’t find any but the lowest level work at Wendy’s. The “box” got in the way, and hiring managers couldn’t look beyond the fact that he was an ex-felon.

But that challenge nurtured his entrepreneurial spirit, and he became a freelance web developer to help support himself. He hopes to help other ex-offenders learn to support themselves in the same way, since website development is a skill that can pay a decent wage. “It’s a field where your experience is more important than your background,” Erik says.

It’s not only a great skill to be able to do as a job, but it can also help anyone who is putting together a small business create and maintain their own website for free.

The lessons are both in written and video form, with the information very clearly explained so most people will be able to create a WordPress site by following the tutorials. Erik now has two lessons up on and will add more soon, creating enough information for someone to be able to build their own website.

“After that, the lessons will cover other things that people need to know about, like hosting, search engine optimization, marketing, building backlinks and getting into ways of monetizing it (the website),” he says.

Erik is hoping to establish a broader curriculum, drawing in other people with complementary skills. He’s lined up someone to teach a class in how to make money online and is looking for volunteers to create more courses.

The ultimate goal, he says, “is to have a better life. I can’t really force people to take the classes. I can’t hold their hand, but I can try my best to teach them skills that they can take into the job market.”


Rubicon Bakery says employees with barriers prove to be an asset

Worker displays Rubicon Bakery's sweet treats.

Worker displays Rubicon Bakery’s sweet treats.

Andrew Stoloff, owner of Rubicon Bakery in Richmond, Calif., has a secret he’d like to share. Hiring people with barriers to employment can result in some of the most loyal workers anywhere. And it makes good business sense. Is anybody listening?

Baking is a business that Stoloff fell into by chance. Nonprofit Rubicon Programs had operated the bakery since 1993 to train homeless people, ex-offenders and recovering substance abusers. The bakery was losing money, and Rubicon recruited Stoloff, a local restaurateur and former Morgan Stanley director, to help sell it. After finding little interest in the business, Stoloff decided to buy it himself. The terms were that it would continue to hire the same sort of workers it did in the past.

That was in 2009. Since then, Rubicon Bakery has increased its staff from 14 part-time to 100 full-time employees and increased its output from less than 1,000 cakes per day to about 5,000. It sells through a distributor to places like Whole Foods, Andronico’s, Mollie Stone’s and smaller San Francisco Bay Area stores.

What does Stoloff look for in the people he hires? “Someone who has committed to turning their life around and is not afraid of hard work,” he says. “We don’t turn people’s lives around or even help them turn their lives around. Rather we give people a break if they’ve demonstrated what they have done to turn their lives around.”

And among those who have done that are ex-offenders, who make up about 15 percent of the bakery’s workforce.

Once hired, new employees start right to work. There’s no official training program, and Stoloff doesn’t expect anyone who starts working there to have any baking skills. Some do, however, including people he hires from Emeryville’s The Bread Project.

Each new employee is assigned a buddy who has been working at Rubicon and knows how things are done. It’s a kind of mentoring relationship that works well, says Stoloff. And the proof is in the low turnover in an industry that tends toward the opposite.

The personal training/mentoring is crucial, as the company makes more than 100 different products and each of those has a different process, but Stoloff is pleased with his loyal employees.

In fact, he’s learned a very important lesson in his new venture: If you give people a second chance, they very frequently surprise you at what they can accomplish.

Knowing that, he has a suggestion for how ex-offenders can increase their odds of securing a job.

“They need to tell their story and explain to a potential employer what they’ve been through, how low they got in their life and how hard they’ve worked to make sure they never go back there again,” he says. “Any employer who is willing to listen will realize that, yes, they made some really bad choices, but this is a pretty exceptional person.”

And hiring this sort of person is a win-win for everyone involved.

“Not only should you hire them to do a good thing for society, but you should do it for your business. When I bought the bakery the condition of the sale was that I maintain the social mission. What I learned is that it makes business sense. I have all of these very loyal employees that I wouldn’t normally have. If businesses understood that, they’d all be better off. And the rest of us would be too.”


Prison Toastmasters clubs teach skills useful for job search

Although programs of various types exist in prisons across the country, those operated by Toastmasters International have proved particularly successful. Toastmasters volunteers across the nation have taught inmates speaking, leadership and organizational skills and instilled the type of confidence that will help them when they search for a job upon release.

Pictures of prison Toastmasters clubs are unavailable, but this photo shows a typical meeting.

Prison Toastmasters organizations are supported by Toastmasters clubs on the outside, and one of the most active is in eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where 25 volunteers support 15 programs in men’s and women’s correctional facilities. 

“On the surface we teach people how to speak, but what we teach is much more than that. We teach them how to think critically, organize their thoughts, tap into their passions, and develop teamwork and leadership,” says Susan Tordella-Williams, a writer, speaker and activist in Massachusetts. “When I go into the maximum security prison they have no idea what teamwork is. They do everything alone. They wait for things to be done for them. Toastmasters offers regular practice to develop new ways of thinking, speaking and working together.”

Although it’s not easy to get volunteers, once people interact with inmates, they may return, because the experience is rewarding for both inmates and volunteers. “The first visit is the hardest. It’s scary,” she says. “Once they’ve done it they often come back.”

Prison programs are set up in a different way in each institution. Some prisons use funds dedicated for inmate education and recreation to purchase Toastmasters manuals and other supplies.

With help from other volunteers, Tordella-Williams published a step-by-step manual on how to create a prison Toastmasters club that is available online. The manual gives instructions on how to handle everything from conducting the meetings to understanding prison etiquette, and how to deal with sex offenders, who are at the bottom of the prison social-status totem pole. It also includes grammar guidelines to help prison members improve their English.

The manual outlines three steps to establish a prison Toastmasters program:

  1. Connect with a prison administrator who is interested and able to invite Toastmasters into the facility, train volunteers, and recruit inmates.
  2. Invite a team of two to four volunteers to mentor the program.
  3. Attract the interest of 10 to 20 inmates who are committed to the program and will invite friends to join.

Several weeks beforehand, Toastmasters will recruit two to 10 volunteers to produce a “Demonstration Meeting” for inmates to show and tell how the program works with a sample meeting, and to encourage people to attend and join. Once 10 to 20 members commit, a prison program can begin. 

Volunteers can lead a SpeechCraft program for four, six, eight or 10 weeks to develop interest in creating a gavel club or chartered club that will meet weekly for years. SpeechCraft is a time-limited course to introduce the program to people and begin to teach skills. Whatever type of Toastmasters organization is created, however, it gives leadership opportunities and self confidence to people who live their daily lives under the control of prison guards.

While Toastmasters’ purpose is to teach speaking skills, it goes far beyond that. Above all else the organization provides support to those in the prison programs. “Most of the world has given up on us, and most of us have given up on ourselves,” said one inmate.

Toastmasters offers inmates an opportunity to have a future different from their past and to learn better communication, higher self-esteem and how to work with others.

For more information on Toastmasters, visit

If you are already active in Toastmasters and would like to help your district start a club in prison, you can find a how-to manual at the D31 Prison Toastmasters website.


Irvine’s One Stop Toastmasters Club helps job seekers develop skills

The One Stop Toastmasters Club’s meeting is in progress.

We at Jails to Jobs highly recommend Toastmasters International and recently discovered that the One-Stop Career Center in Irvine, Calif. hosts its own chapter, an idea that other One-Stops or job-development agencies might want to consider doing.

Toastmasters provides excellent training for job interviews. With more than 270,000 members in 13,000 clubs in 116 countries, it was founded in 1923 as a nonprofit organization that helps its members develop public speaking and leadership skills. Clubs meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, depending on the location, and meetings last for an hour to an hour and a half.

In a very supportive environment, members take turns speaking on various topics, and the organization is set up to train them to be able to do so. New members receive a manual with five speech projects to get them going. After completing these, they can move on to an advanced communication series with 15 different manuals. Each of these manuals also outlines five speech projects, and many of them are career-related. Members receive awards as they progress through the program and are encouraged to take on club leadership roles. A special manual teaches leadership skills, and members are often guided by mentors who have previously held the position they assume.

Each club has its own personality and types of members, but at the One Stop Toastmasters Club #4637 in Irvine those involved include job seekers, who may come as guests as they search for jobs and can join the club if they find work in the area

The club, which formerly met at a software company that ran out of space to host it, has been at the Irvine One-Stop for two years. It provides a much-needed venue for job seekers to improve their communication skills, and its membership includes One Stop staff members. Stephen Springer, a disabled veterans outreach program specialist with the State of California Employment Development Department, is one of them.

“Toastmasters is vital for developing interview skills, especially the Table Topics section of Toastmasters, where you get impromptu questions,” he says.

Springer thinks that having a Toastmasters club connected to a One-Stop is a great idea. “It helps clients. Once you get the word out and make it available to clients, they can see how getting involved in a chapter helps them learn to communicate better to employers and to people around them when they’re marketing themselves,” he adds.

And being able to effectively communicate one’s skills and abilities is key to finding opportunities in today’s competitive job market.

To learn more about the Irvine One Stop Toastmasters, visit or to learn about Toastmasters and how to set up a club, visit