Once a prison guard, he’s bringing mission of reconnecting former inmates with community to Saturday event
As a correctional officer for nearly 20 years at the Stillwater prison, Antonio Espinosa knew the stereotype of guards versus prisoners, but he didn’t see it that way.
“I saw people,” Espinosa said of those incarcerated. “I saw people that were having problems and people with mental illness. I saw people change their attitudes and their behaviors with schooling.”
He’s carried that mentality beyond the prison’s walls and is joining with various organizations to host “The Welcome Home Party” in St. Paul on Saturday. The event is open to the community and specifically geared toward people who’ve been incarcerated, and their family and friends. There will be a job fair, free food, and face-painting and games for kids.
Amanda LaGrange, CEO of Repowered, a St. Paul business that recycles and refurbishes electronics, said the idea came about when she was talking to Espinosa about “showing our neighbors who are coming home from incarceration that they are welcomed back home.”
“Too often it feels like we are continuing to define someone by a poor choice, a bad mistake, their worst day, rather than all of the potential that they have to bring to our community,” she said.
Espinosa, founder and director of Art from the Inside, partnered with Ramsey County, Repowered and Ujamaa Place to host the event. The Ramsey County Workforce Innovation Board is sponsoring the Fair Chance Hiring Job Fair.
Espinosa pointed out that many employers are looking to hire and, at the same time, there are people who have difficulty getting a job because they have a criminal record hanging over their heads. And it’s those jobs that connect people back to the community, allow them to provide for their families and keep them from getting in trouble again, Espinosa said.
“Everyone needs an opportunity to succeed,” he said, adding that he encourages employers who are interested in taking part to contact Ramsey County Workforce Solutions.
Repowered, headquartered in the Midway area, uses the motto “Fair chances for people, planet and technology” to describe its business. Previously called Tech Dump, the company started 11 years ago and has prioritized hiring people who’ve come home from incarceration, LaGrange said. The company has a work readiness training program, in which participants are paid.
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“Our model today is really focused on eliminating barriers to employment and that could be transportation, housing, childcare, medical needs,” LaGrange said. “We’re also very focused on increasing people’s earning power and having new skills and additional certifications and solid resume experience. And then the third piece of our work is around … confidence, feeling like you’re part of the community, that you have a role to play and you have an impact.”
That’s also at the heart of Saturday’s event, said Espinosa, who is retired from the Minnesota Department of Corrections. He is a Bush Foundation fellow and a Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs policy fellow, aiming to bring about larger transformations in the corrections system and the community.
Espinosa continues to focus on his non-profit organization, Art from the Inside, which he started after his friend and fellow correctional officer, Joseph Gomm, was killed by an inmate. He said it gives people who are incarcerated a way to express themselves through art, and is intended to build connections and find healing through that process.
Ujamaa Place, a nonprofit based in St. Paul, provides transformational opportunities for young Black men through various social programs.
IF YOU GO
What: The Welcome Home Party is open to everyone in the community. It’s geared to people who’ve been incarcerated and their family and friends. There will be free food, music, entertainment for kids, a job fair and re-entry resources.
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Ujamaa Place parking lot, 1821 W. University Ave., St. Paul.
To RSVP: Organizers ask people to RSVP to the free event for planning purposes, though it’s not required: eventbrite.com/e/welcome-home-party-tickets-400886310747