Clarence Larkins and David Greenidge say they have a goal. It might be a little tough – maybe impossible — to accomplish, but they might have a fighting chance. They say they want to bankrupt the prison industry.
For three years now, members of the Irvington Covenant Community Development Corporation have been trying to attain that goal, a handful of ex-offenders at a time.
Traveling to Oregon's prisons and meeting soon-to-be-release inmates, Clarence Larkins said he gets a lot of people interested in their Constructing Hope program, a free pre-apprenticeship class targeted to individuals reintegrating from prison to society.
"This is a career option rather than just another job," said Larkins, the program's director.
The free program takes in a maximum of 15 students for a three-month training period to teach the basics of construction math, blueprint reading, life skills and driver's education. Students are taught the soft skills – appearance, resume building, interview skills – and hard skills – construction math, driver's ed and blue print reading – necessary to succeed in an apprenticeship program for a variety of construction trades, from electrician to heavy equipment operator to carpenter. And through the Clean Slate program, Constructing Hope will help get certain offenses expunged from a student's record to help with obtaining a license or getting a job. They also get a chance to work part time as they go to school.
Students are primarily selected on the basis of their passion to be in the program, said Larkins. During the interviews, Larkins said he makes sure it is the individual who is motivated, not a family member or girlfriend.
"I've gotten pretty good at sniffing them out," he said. Like a good interrogator, Larkins said he'll always find the ones who say, "My mom told me to come or I couldn't live there no more."
"'You better find a new place to live,'" he recalls telling one applicant.
Although this tough love approach to finding the right candidates may sound heartless, Larkins and Executive Director David Greenidge say it's in the best interest of the person they're excluding.
"How bad do they want this?" Larkins asks. "Do they have a real desire for this? Construction is hard work."
With a graduation rate of 50 percent – the same as other similar ex-offender programs in Portland — the teachers need people who are motivated to be in the classroom. Getting people with a variety of problems to succeed can be tough work, said Greenidge. But those who do not exceed the first time are encouraged to reapply. The graduation rate for those who are enrolled in the class a second time around is an astounding 80 percent.
"This is the hardest thing they've ever done," said Greenidge. "It's structure."
Although the program is aimed at ex-offenders, some who enter the program merely have an uneven work record, experienced homelessness or are looking to enter the construction trades.
"When you have a good mix of people from different backgrounds and cultures, (it helps everyone learn something)," Larkins said.
Unfortunately, say Larkins and Greenidge, the only kind of offender they can't accept is a sex offender, no matter what the charge. Until laws distinguish between the variety of sex crimes on the books, the program is forced to leave them out.
Greenidge says their program, and others such as Better People, are helping reduce recidivism rates. Nearly 80 percent of Constructing Hope graduates don't recidivate. And practices that help place the program's graduates with companies such as Hoffman Construction and schools such as the NW College of Construction help guarantee a criminal record doesn't get in the way of finding a living-wage job.
Larkins, who said he grew up around "street culture," said he wants this program to help start a new fad. He wants people to start doing things in a family manner.
"We're trying to bring that back," he said. "Not everybody's going to be a rapper or a football player, but everybody can be a family man. You can be proud of what you're doing."
After three years of operating classes, Greenidge and Larkins say they have improved upon their original model – adding driver's education and life skills – and hope to expand even further. The dream is to have a comprehensive career training center that will offer classes for nursing, culinary arts and other trades that don't require a traditional college path. As the original plans for the development center dreamed of creating a factory for housing components, this new dream could be a factory all its own.
"We want to create a human factory training center," said Greenidge.
Anyone interested in applying for Constructing Hope can call Clarence Larkins at 503-281-1784. The next round of classes started on Aug. 7, but enrollment will continue until Aug. 15, and a new round of classes will begin in 90 days.