180 Degrees slows prisons’ revolving doors

By Dwight Hobbes
Contributing Writer

Sarah Walker -Photo by Dwight Hobbes

180 Degrees, Inc. is aptly named. After all, if anyone needs to do a one-eighty in life, it’s the recently incarcerated reentering society. The nonprofit organization, sticking a jamb in the revolving door of recidivism since 1973, enables wrongdoers who, having done their time, want to get right.
If you spent time in prison, odds are you never developed the skills and learned about the tools necessary to entering the mainstream. Breaking and entering, assault and robbery aren’t the sort of professional pursuits that call for organizing a résumé or learning how to handle an interview. For more than a few, basic literacy is a challenge they never needed to meet before but now find essential to completing job applications.
Getting such things under one’s belt can significantly empower someone likely attempting for the first time in life to cope with the world on its terms. 180 Degrees, Inc. provides fundamental, nuts-and-bolts services vital to making the transition to a legal lifestyle. Toward this end, clients are assigned a case manager to focus on securing legitimate employment, maintaining sobriety and locating a place to live.
The mission, stated at www.180degrees.org, is “to turn lives around to ensure safer communities.” It should go without saying that the more ex-offenders who are empowered to go straight, the fewer there are doing things like knocking people in the head and stealing money.
In 2001, 180 Degrees, Inc. instituted services for juveniles in Ramsey County. In 2008, the program increased its outreach to the future generation, working with St. Paul Public Schools and the Suburban Ramsey Collaborative to offer school-based intervention and case management for youngsters in the juvenile justice system.
Sarah Walker, chief operating officer, is pleased with the ground gained over the years. Animatedly articulate, a self-possessed individual with a dynamic personality, she told us during an interview in her South Minneapolis office, “I think we’re doing a good job. We serve about 270 men. Over 70 percent graduate with a job and housing.”
A mandate for most of those served is to find employment and lodging within 60 days of being paroled or be deemed in violation and returned behind bars to finish their sentences. Facing such constraints, 70 percent is indeed a praiseworthy outcome. Even without a criminal record, those two simple goals can be hard to accomplish in a mere two months.
Walker is hardly complacent, pushing to improve clients’ prospects by influencing the legislature: “It’s important to have a voice at the City, County and State levels.” She seeks to expand “Ban the Box,” which Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed into law.
The legislation prevents public employers from asking about criminal records on job applications and was passed in large part due to the activism of Second Chance Coalition, a collaboration of 24 organizations, including 180 Degrees. Walker wants Ban the Box applied to private employers: “We have a bill up in the House at the [state] capitol that we’re trying to get passed.”
With the stigma attached to having a criminal past being what it is, the idea is sensible. If you’re not automatically screened out, you have the opportunity to state your case and hopefully impress a prospective employer. Walker points out, “We all know if you get a chance to meet with and talk to someone, it can make a difference.”
One of the successful among that 70 percent is Mujahid Muhammad. After his release, Muhammad secured what eludes many of us in this economy, including those who don’t have the added stone of a prison record around their necks: He landed a job. Since last April, he’s been employed at a medical company as a metal presser.
A great deal is heard about dysfunction in African American households, generally with a missing husband and dad, often one who can’t stay on the right side of the law. That profile has fit in so many cases that it’s practically expected. But not this time.
Muhammad seized the opportunity offered by 180 Degrees and, having turned things around after 17 years, gratefully enjoys life as a breadwinning family man, relaxing after work with his wife and two children. He thanks 180 Degrees and, in the process, doesn’t forget a key piece, the strength of loved ones having his back. “My family,” says Muhammad, “has been extremely helpful in my success.”
Walker notes that diversity in the workplace isn’t a catchphrase at 180 Degrees; over time it’s come to characterize the program’s staff. “When we first [were established], I was probably the only person of color working there.” Walker is Black, contrary to what one might think on first sight (Zambian dad, European American mom).
“Now, we’re about 60 percent, [with personnel] that represent a lot of different ethnic groups, including White staff. People use this phrase ‘cultural competency.’ I’ve never heard exactly what that means. I say [it’s important to have] an organization that works effectively with any population.”
A segment of the population misses out on what 180 Degrees has to offer: women and girls. “While we would love to expand our services [to women] in the future, we offer services for girls in the juvenile justice system. We provide case management for girls who are on probation and have cases open in child protection and children’s mental health. We provide mentoring services, offer school-based interventions for girls and gender-specific restorative justice groups based on the Girls Circle model.”
Meanwhile, those at 180 Degrees avail themselves of an invaluable resource. “The most important thing we accomplish,” says Sarah Walker, “is sending a message to individuals we work with that they have a place in the community.”

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to dhobbes@spokesman-recorder.com.