Where there is mass incarceration, there is mass release. Thousands of people emerge from Tennessee prisons each year with little more than the shirts on their backs and their criminal records; they face nearly insurmountable barriers to employment, as well as the immediate, critical needs of folks who are both impoverished and marginalized. Nashville alone is home to four state penitentiaries and one private prison, as well as a federal halfway house and the county detention facilities. Those who return need jobs! It’s not whether they return, but how they return, and at Project Return we work on making that return successful.
Our vision is a full and free life after incarceration. At Project Return, we focus primarily on employment, since that is the best predictor of a successful return, and we wrap that around with case management, assistance for their multiple critical needs, and ongoing encouragement. All of Project Return’s programs and activities are directed at the ever-increasing phenomenon of ex-prisoners’ need to gain employment, establish productive lives, and stay out of prison. We work constantly to engage with Middle Tennessee employers and others in the business community, in order to meet their workforce needs and help them hire our motivated job seekers.
When asked to name the one thing for which they are most grateful, almost all Project Return participants say it’s their freedom, and Project Return strategically connects with that strong value in order to put it to its best use. Our participants are striving to put their criminal pasts behind them and to move beyond the horror and monotony of incarceration, as well as beyond pasts of debasement and utter lack of opportunity. They are at a fork in the road, where one path leads to lawless living and the other to a brighter, prison-free future. They face difficulty and discouragement, stigma and barriers borne of their past bad choices and circumstances. It is our role to mitigate those barriers and difficulties through our array of services and support, to connect their positive volition with positive opportunities.
We measure our success by high job acquisition and low recidivism. More than 80% of our participants gain employment, and, in contrast to a re-incarceration rate nationwide that hovers around 50%, the recidivism rate for Project Return participants is consistently less than 15%. Each person’s successful return represents a life that is on the right track, headed toward a greater future. Collectively, they represent the promising future of households, neighborhoods, and an entire metropolitan community.
Project Return is in its 35th year of service to the Nashville community and Middle Tennessee area. We operate with the combined funding and support of individual givers, foundations and corporations, faith communities, and state and federal government agencies. We operate a revenue-generating social enterprise, “PRO Employment”, which is a transitional jobs initiative, through which we hire ex-offenders ourselves upon their release and give them temporary jobs until they obtain regular long-term employment. Project Return has received accolades nationally and locally – from Skoll Foundation, The Huffington Post, Nashville Social Enterprise Alliance, and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce – for our innovativeness and tenacity in helping ex-offenders return successfully and in getting people to work.