Featured photo by Ben Falik

I will always free associate Sam Marvin with wood pallets and wood pallets with Sam Marvin. In the days leading up to the opening of Repair the World’s Workshop space in 2014, one of Sam’s many tasks, as he tripled and quadrupled his part-time hours, was finding and arranging pallets to serve as the Workshop’s couches.

Sam has long since moved on from Repair the World. But the pallet couches — which have been greeting people and their butts with nary a splinter for five years strong — provide a passable metaphor for his current work.

Start with something that could easily be considered disposable, if not dangerous. Identify the tools and assemble the resources so that they can be assets rather than liabilities. Help others to see them as something stable, something with worth, something with integrity.

Sam works with — for, really — returning citizens. If you’re not familiar with the terms, think of “returning citizen” as a long-overdue reframing of “ex-con.” It acknowledges that people who were incarcerated are products of and once again members of our community. Their pursuit of self-sufficiency is in the community’s interest; their transition can be unduly complicated by entrenched policies and prejudices.

There are currently 2,500 parolees and 8,000 probationers living in Detroit. Through the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, Sam works from multiple angles to create opportunities for his fellow Detroiters:

1. Opening doors to opportunity. The focus here is on motivating employers to give returning citizens a “fair chance.” By way of example, Ban the Box has gained traction as a way for job applicants to receive due consideration by not having to disclose their criminal background on their initial application.

2. Reducing individual barriers to employment. Beyond sweeping statistics, every returning citizen has his or her own set of circumstances that can make hurdles ever higher, like access to stable housing, reliable transportation and vital documentation. (It can take weeks of wading through layers of bureaucracy and months of waiting to obtain copies of your birth certificate or social security card.)

3. Up-skilling job-seekers. Some 80 percent of people paroling back to Detroit were unemployed when they were incarcerated. Lack of access to quality education is a major part of the vicious cycle that leads people into the justice system in the first place and can trigger recidivism. The city and Michigan Department of Corrections have a range of partnerships that focus on remedial education, high school completion, post-secondary, vocational skills and soft skills.

Sam has learned through the course of his work that one of the big things standing between a returning citizen and a job is a job:

“Transitional jobs have very low barriers to entry and are ideally provided by a nonprofit or social enterprise with the sole purpose of supporting an individual’s transition into permanent employment,” he said.

“Buying clothing, food, bus passes and paying rent become substantially easier when a returning citizen has a transitional job. Large employers and public institutions can create these opportunities and my efforts are directed toward growing the number.”

He notes two nonprofit partners, among myriad programs providing a strong return on the public and private investments in returning citizens.

Goodwill Industries, in Detroit since 1921, provides more than 900 local businesses with a reliable workforce. Their Flip the Script program provides mentoring and job training that address the unique challenges returning citizens experience.

Center for Employment Opportunities, new to Detroit last year, provides immediate paid employment — caring for 100 parks and green spaces around the city — along with skills training and ongoing career support.

Many factors stemming from concentrated poverty conspire to create a pipeline into prisons.

The number of incarcerated individuals in Michigan is dropping, in an encouraging trend, but it will take a comparable conspiracy to manage the flow of people back into Detroit neighborhoods and suburbs.

Ultimately, people aren’t pallets. Their lives are messy. Both their problems and their potential can be powerful. Sam and his colleagues have seen all the constructive ways returning citizens can contribute to their communities — as long as they aren’t trapped under the weight of a debt to society they’ve already paid.