From Behind Bars to Behind the Counter

Former inmates make the best of their second chance


With unemployment around 9 percent across the country, no one needs to tell those looking for work how truly tough it can be. 

Now try having a criminal record. According to various studies from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among this group soars into 50 percent. Fortunately, for many with convictions there are people like Miranda Pontes, the owner of Burger Up.

It’s a gourmet burger joint in Nashville, Tenn. Pontes' posh restaurant is frequented by celebrities and locals alike. It's her second successful business in the community and from the very beginning, she has made it her mission to employ and help rehabilitate former convicts.

"For somebody to have to basically wear a scar or a label of a criminal offense usually they're immediately disregarded. They're not even considered for a job," said Pontes. "I just thought, why not? Why not offer them a place that would foster non-judgment and opportunity if they were ready for a different path in their life. It would be a safe place for them to come and change the direction in their life."

Pontes has been a small business owner for the better half of a decade and about half of her staff has a non-violent criminal background. One of them is Keith Wilson. He says if it weren't for Pontes, he probably would not have had the successful transition out of the prison system.

"I'm blessed," Wilson said. "Somebody gave me a chance when a lot of people - a lot of people - won't even consider giving you a job."

Wilson was hired as a dishwasher more than a year ago but has since been promoted. Keith is now a cook at Burger Up with his own item on the menu.

"I feel good to have a job, I feel good to be able to pay my bills. I feel good to be able to feel responsible, call myself responsible and have a bank account," he said.

Pontes says it is fulfilling to see her employees, such as Wilson, transform into productive members of society.

"It's just about getting people out of the system," she said. "It seems to be this circle. Someone gets in trouble, they go to jail, they get out and look for work but get frustrated because they can't find a job and they make a bad choice and go back to jail."

Belmont University professor Andi Stepnick looks at Pontes as a success story. She encourages local businesses to include former inmates into a hiring pool of job applicants. She's so passionate about the issue, she even teaches one of her classes inside prison walls along side selected inmates. For years she's been teaching Restorative Justice, a course which is mirrored after a national program called Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. It's used across the nation. Stepnick teaches her students how to learn alongside men and women who are incarcerated. It's an open dialogue between those on the "inside" and those who are "out."

"Once people are in prison, they're going to get out of prison and so are we -- as members of the community -- going to help facilitate them becoming full and productive members of our communities," Stepnick asked. "When we look at the expenses of recidivism, the finical expenses of recidivism and when we look at the money and the resources that are going into upholding the prison system, we have to make choices as a society where do we put our resources."

There’s one last financial benefit to giving someone a second chance. The U.S. Department of Labor insures qualified former offenders bonding for a range of $5,000-$25,000 for up to six months. Employers may also be eligible for up to $9,000 in tax credits.

Pontes, who doesn’t accept any government assistance, says her motivation is in the results.

“It is so fulfilling to look back and see how many people come here and the community this fosters. It’s just the sweetest feeling,” she said.

Elizabeth Prann currently serves as a Washington-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). She joined the network in 2006 as a production assistant. Click here for more information on Elizabeth Prann