Bigger And Better: Agency That Helps Offenders Unveils New Operations Center

By Jeff Neumeyer

July 19, 2012 Updated Jul 19, 2012 at 5:32 PM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Indiana's NewsCenter) --- A Fort Wayne agency devoted to connecting "ex-cons" with jobs, on Thursday unveiled a new headquarters for pursuing its mission.

It’s an improvement for clients, who are trying to earn a second chance at a decent life.

About 45 percent of felons released from a state or federal prison re-offend and wind up back behind bars within a year.

The inability to land a good paying job on the outside is a big problem.

Allen Superior Criminal Court Judge John Surbeck, who has crusaded to help offenders re-acclimate in society, knows the employment obstacles that those offenders face.

" It's terribly frustrating because most people are going to turn them away, we know that," said Judge Surbeck.

Enter Blue Jacket, a local non-profit agency that launched in 2005.

It works with approximately 300 ex-offenders in Allen County each year, preparing them for and placing them in available job openings.

Thursday, Blue Jacket showed off its new campus on South Calhoun Street, featuring a main building that's four times the size of the old one.

It has better classrooms and computer labs, and a warehouse to help offenders incubate start-up businesses of their own.

" With a 53 percent employment rate, we say it always could be better, but then we look at the reality, no one else is doing as good as we are," said Tony Hudson, executive director of Blue Jacket.

One of the key functions that Blue Jacket performs is job training. A flower and vegetable garden on the campus is one of the places where that training takes place.

Offenders in the program help weed and tend to the garden, developing work habits and skills that can translate to the workforce.

" It's definitely a blessing to have a program like this, you know, for guys who is actually trying to make those steps to get where they need to go in life, make better choices," said Cameron Brooks, an offender who is hoping to soon land a job as a graduate.

The 60-hour, four-week curriculum costs $600 per offender.

Hudson says that’s nothing compared to the $29,000 annual cost to keep someone in prison.

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