DART Offers Hope to Plan to Employ Job-Hungry Ex-Cons to Recycle Old Tracks

You get a lot of sad news here, I know. I might have some good news for a change. Say, might. We must cross our fingers first.

We've been talking a lot in this space over the last few months about the staggering number of people in the city who are deemed "outside the labor force" by federal numbers keepers, as many as 60 percent of people in some southern Dallas census reporting tracts. That is, they didn't have a job yesterday; they're not looking for a job today; they're not going to get a job tomorrow. A connecting thread is that many of them have been to prison and have a tough to impossible time getting hired.

Just before Christmas I talked to the Reverend Eddie Lane, a southern Dallas preacher who described people to me who are still very young when they come home to his neighborhood from prison for the first time, determined never to go back. Many of them took some kind of vocational training on the inside and are all fired up when they get home, convinced they will find real jobs and have real lives like other people.

"But there is no opportunity for them whatsoever," Lane told me.

The bitter truth — we're still on the bad news part here — is that the vocational training was a cruel joke for most of them. No one is going to hire them. The Reverend Peter Johnson, who counsels ex-offenders, told me last week, "I have grown men come in here and sit in front of me and cry tears every day, because they have babies at home, and they can't do anything to support them."

If they could get minimum-wage jobs, they might have a long shot at survival. In Texas that's $7.25 an hour. Forty hours work produces a gross income of $290. Take about $28 out of that for federal income tax withholding, $20 for Social Security, $4 for Medicare, and you've got a take-home pay of $238 or $952 a month. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the average fair market rental rate for a two-bedroom apartment in Dallas is $887. Now all you need is food, clothing, transportation and health care.

But they can't even get those jobs. Meanwhile the temptation is always there. Take those drugs from your old high school buddy. Go to the corner. Sell them and make more money in an afternoon than you could all week working. Do it. Take the chance. Give up on a real life.

I went to see Peter Johnson because he told me he had found a way to provide as many as 60 ex-offenders with full-time work at considerably better than minimum wage. But there were problems.

He has been working with two black railroad construction contractors who came to him with a good idea. Archie Fleming of Fleming Construction and Billie Ray Heath of Railroad Construction Co. both have decades of experience working on railroad tracks. They went with Johnson to DART, our regional transit agency, and proposed to remove abandoned railroad tracks owned by DART and restore the right-of-ways to natural conditions in exchange for the salvage value of steel tracks, spikes, connecting plates, wooden ties and gravel that they would remove and sell. There would be no cost to DART.

Fleming and Heath would hire mainly drug-free ex-offenders of their choosing. Heath told me has a pretty good system for choosing them: "Give a man a claw bar and tell him to go over there and start pulling spikes," he said. "If he'll do that, he's ready to work."

Johnson said, "This program will be a model that we can use all over Texas. These guys will train the ex-offenders to operate forklifts and other heavy machinery, run welding machines, skills that they can use to earn good money for the rest of their lives."

It's easy to understand why Johnson, Heath and Fleming became committed to this idea. First of all, it was a business opportunity for the two contractors, who intend to make a profit scrapping old tracks. But for Johnson, who looks in the eyes of ex-offenders every day, and for Heath and Fleming, who have hired them and used them in crews for years, this was a chance to demonstrate a truth in which they all believe passionately.

"Anybody can be saved," Johnson said, "if you give him a job and a chance."

I'm sitting in Johnson's office in the Oak Cliff Tower Building, looking at him and all these leather-faced railroad guys around the conference table. I don't see any naive people. I'm thinking the ex-offenders might be more naive than some of these guys. I think these guys know what they're doing.

Johnson and the contractors firmly believe they can change people's minds about the whole question of what to do with felons when they get out of prison. Instead of a life sentence of non-employment and a whole series of destructive disincentives, they want to provide ex-offenders with a solid opportunity to live straight and stay straight.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze