The last time Joseph Johnson was a free man, the world was different.
It was 1994 – Bill Clinton was president, Michael Jordan was playing baseball, and The Lion King was the year’s highest-grossing movie.
Now, 2018 is almost over, and Johnson is just weeks away from finishing his sentence at Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City. With all that’s changed since Johnson was incarcerated, it wouldn’t be crazy to think he’ll be a bit unprepared for when he returns to life outside of prison.
But thanks to a Missouri pilot program with the nonprofit organization Connections to Success, Johnson says he’s confident and ready for what the future holds.
“This program has blossomed things in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Johnson said. “This program has helped me strive to be the best that I can be; to walk with my head up; to know that I am somebody and know that I can achieve all things.”
Connections to Success is a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting individuals and families living in poverty through a network of services aimed at helping them become economically self-sufficient. It was founded in 2001 when Kathy Lambert and her husband, Brad, combined two nonprofits they had already started: Dress for Success Midwest, which provides interview-appropriate attire for women in disadvantaged situations, and Wheels for Success, which provided hardworking participants with donated vehicles to give them reliable transportation to and from their new jobs.
But it wasn’t until this past summer that the organization partnered with the Missouri Department of Corrections and Central Workforce Development Board to create a new program at Algoa Correctional Center.
Alex Earls, the Department of Corrections case manager who oversaw the program, said the new class helps offenders who are close to release with preparing themselves for the professional world.
It’s a two-week, 10-day program. The first week is focused on “cognitive restructuring,” getting the offenders to think about their situation differently and understand their self-worth. Then comes the professional work, getting the offenders ready for the professional world.
“They work so hard to better themselves,” Earl said. “They’re working on coming up with a life plan; they’re preparing themselves for interviews; they’re understanding how to write a resume; they’re understanding how to answer their felony questions. They’re understanding all the aspects that are very challenging without this training.”
And while the professional training is undoubtedly important, Lambert said the chief reason for the program is getting the offenders to realize that they have the power to change their lives for the better.
“So many of them have never worked before, or they’ve cycled in and out of prison,” Lambert said. “And to see them have a look on their face after we do career assessments and help them find out what their passion and their skills are – they’ll look, and they’ll say, ‘Gosh, I can really do something with my life. I don’t have to come back to prison.’ That’s – that’s our goal.”
Lambert said the program also helps Missouri’s economy.
According to Jana Nulik, Connections to Success director of training and impact, the average prisoner in Missouri costs the state about $20,000. By preparing the offenders for the professional world, not only does Connections to Success reduce the rate of recidivism among its participants, but those that go out and get jobs become tax-paying citizens.
“A lot of us are afraid of challenge, afraid of change,” Johnson said. “This program has helped me overcome those obstacles, and I would love to pass it on to anybody else that’s not as fortunate as I am, that has the same things holding them back like I did, and show them that it’s possible – that they are somebody and they’re capable of anything they put their mind to.”