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Mercy Corps: Not Just for Disasters Anymore

Mercy Corps Northwest

Most people think of Mercy Corps as the emergency aid organization that responds to crises around the globe, such as the ongoing civil war in Syria.

And that it is.

But did you know that Mercy Corps Northwest, the only domestic branch of the international organization, also runs reentry programs and training for prisoners transitioning back into society?

These programs are hugely necessary due to the serious barriers ex-offenders face in securing employment, housing and other basic necessities once released from prison. All too often, ex-offenders become re-offenders.

Douglas Cooper, assistant director of Mercy Corps Northwest:

I think just as a society, we are very unforgiving. And whether that’s an ethical evaluation or whether that’s in terms of pure economics, it’s really counter-productive.

That’s the focus of this week’s Community Voices on Portland Radio Project.

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In Oregon, there are roughly 15,000 state prisoners, and that number is slowly rising. Every month in Multnomah County alone, an estimated 150 prisoners are released from federal and state prisons.

But leaving prison is no guarantee for change. All too often, ex-offenders become re-offenders. In fact, Oregon’s rate of recidivism (the percentage of ex-offenders who are re-incarcerated) is about 30 percent, meaning that for every 10 prisoners released, about three will relapse and find themselves behind bars again. That’s often because, once out of prison, ex-offenders face serious barriers in securing employment, housing and other basic necessities.

Douglas Cooper, assistant director of Mercy Corps Northwest:

Over the course of time, you see patterns…The biggest obstacles are around finding a living wage job because once you have a felony conviction on your record, it’s difficult to find an employer who’s going to take a chance on you…Housing, for a lot of the same reasons… The natural tendency is for that application to go to the bottom of the pile…A lot of them are dealing with health issues, either mental health issues or physical health issues…And any mental health issues tend to get exacerbated with the stress and the difficulties of reentry. And then the other part of it is just physiological. Part of reentry is not easy.

Because reentry is so challenging, Mercy Corps Northwest launched a reentry class for female prisoners called LIFE in 2007.

The LIFE class is focused on teaching employment skills as well as more general life skills so that prisoners are better prepared upon release.

But even with the LIFE classes, Mercy Corps saw that once released, ex-offenders still faced serious difficulties securing employment.

That’s why, two years later, Mercy Corps opened a walk-in center offering one-on-one assistance with the employment and housing search, as well as access to computers and other vital resources.

For more about the LIFE class and the walk-in center, tune into our web stream throughout the week at PRP.fm.

Nicole Betancourt

Nicole Betancourt is a news/public affairs assistant at the Portland Radio Project. She can also be found making audio, video, and print media with Child Face Productions, a production duo she co-founded during Summer 2013. When not making media, Nicole loves to play sports and ride her bike to faraway places.

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