LEBANON, Ohio — When Amanda Hall started her prison sentence at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, she felt hopeless.
“I was embarrassed. I was devastated,” she said. “Like, man, I really messed up my life. I can’t believe this is where I ended up. It was lonely and scary.”
Problems with addiction took Hall down a bad path, she said, and the former honor student wondered if she would ever be able to get her life back on track.
Then Hall heard about JBM Packaging in Lebanon, Ohio. The family-owned manufacturing company hires people with criminal records after they have served their time, and JBM’s Fair Chance Program connects those employees with the support they need to rebuild their lives.
“When I walked into JBM, I felt accepted, and I felt excited for my future,” said Hall, 36, who began working at JBM as a machine operator in 2019 after she completed her prison sentence. “I just felt embraced and, you know, I felt hopeful. Completely different.”
Hall recently became JBM’s talent acquisition and training lead – her second promotion in less than two years. And Thursday she will help represent the company at the inaugural Beacon of Hope Job Fair at Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine.
The job fair aims to provide employment opportunities for people with criminal records by connecting men and women who have served time with companies like JBM, said Rayshun Holt, program director of the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance. Representatives from the Ohio Justice & Policy Center and the Hamilton County Office of Reentry will be there, too, he said.
The number of Greater Cincinnati companies willing to hire people who have criminal records is growing rapidly, he said, partly because of the tight labor market.
“As these companies seek talent in different nooks and crevices that might have been previously overlooked, there’s learning coming out of it,” Holt said. “And they’re finding that, ‘Hey, we maybe should have done this before.’ It’s really leveling the playing field for individuals and giving everybody a fair shot at real-life success and gainful employment.”
‘Fantastic’ for business
Nehemiah Manufacturing is among the region’s business pioneers when it comes to hiring employees who have criminal records, and its founders launched the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance that now is operated by the nonprofit employment organization Cincinnati Works. Nehemiah and JBM Packaging are among the job fair’s corporate sponsors.
JBM became interested in “second chance” or “fair chance” hiring about six years ago, said Marcus Sheanshang, the company’s president, CEO and owner.
“We had a problem, as many companies do out there, of finding enough team members,” Sheanshang said. “And we looked at a lot of different alternatives.”
During that time, Sheanshang became interested in the ministry work that his church, Crossroads, was doing at Lebanon Correctional Institution. The idea of hiring people right out of prison, he said, blossomed from there.
“Before all this I had no intention of working with people that had felony backgrounds or criminal backgrounds,” Sheanshang said. “The more we learned about it, though, it really struck me that this is going to be challenging for somebody to get back up on their feet. And we found that the people that we did get on board here – the more we learned and the relationships that we were able to form with them – they were very appreciative of having a new opportunity, a new role here.”
The company now has three production machines at the Pickaway Correctional Institution print shop so inmates can learn the skills JBM needs before they are released.
Out of JBM’s roughly 150 employees, he said, about 35 are people who have past criminal convictions. JBM calls them fair chance employees, and retention among that group is 11% higher than the rest of the workforce. The fair chance workers also have allowed the company to expand production by 20%.
The company has starting wages of $16 per hour for machine operators and $18.50 an hour for machine maintenance technicians.
JBM offers fair chance employees help to purchase cars and advice on budgeting and saving money. The company’s change coach is available to help any employee overcome hurdles preventing them from becoming “the best version of themselves,” he said.
“I’m a very conservative person. This is something that, if you would have asked me 10 years ago that we would be doing this now, I would have called you a liar,” Sheanshang said. “It’s been fantastic. My phrase I use a lot is that, you know, I don’t know where we would be right now without our fair chance program.”
From mess to message
Hall said she doesn’t know where she would be without JBM either.
“I didn’t think there was going to be a job out there for somebody with a criminal background – and that had everything that JBM had to offer,” she said. “When people in incarceration are coming back into society, we have all this fear and anxiety about the barriers that we face when it come to having a job, securing housing, paying off your fines, securing transportation.”
JBM’s Fair Chance Program helps employees knock down every one of those barriers, she said.
“You know, how do I take my mess and turn it into a message, because I really want to show that, yeah, you can mess up something in your life. I mean, you can mess up really big to the point of going to prison,” Hall said. “But that’s not the end of your story. You can really recover from that, and you can make something out of your life still.”
Now Hall has the family and “dream life” she has always wanted – a loving partner and their 11-month-old daughter, Kaiya.
“When I think about all my struggles, you know, all the trials and tribulations, everything I went through, I know that it was all to serve a greater purpose,” she said. “If I didn’t take all of those steps that I ended up taking and go on that path, I wouldn’t be with this wonderful man and have this beautiful daughter right now and have this fantastic job."
The starting point, she said, was having a company that was willing to give her a chance.
“Not everybody in prison is a bad person,” she said. “We just need somebody to believe in us and give us a second chance and show that we can redeem ourselves.”
More than 30 employers will be at the Beacon of Hope Job Fair from noon to 4 p.m. Thursday, June 10, at Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine. The event is free and open to the public. More information is available online.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.