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Cook County Jail Holds First Job Fair

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Cook County Jail Holds First Job Fair

Jackson: Most of these pretrial detainees will soon be free.

Many prisons hold job fairs to help inmates prepare for life after incarceration. On Thursday, the Cook County Jail tried it out.

Their uniforms look like scrub suits. But these women aren’t here to perform surgery. They stand accused of crimes such as prostitution, drug possession and, like 46-year-old single mother Sheila Branch, retail theft.

BRANCH: We need some help. No one wants to give us jobs because of our background. Somebody has got to step up and help us ladies.

The women have filed into a Cook County Jail auditorium. Lt. Gail Collier welcomes them to the jail’s first job fair.

COLLIER: Ladies, take advantage of these resources here for you today. Be honest. Everything is confidential.

The inmates scatter to tables of 18 nonprofit agencies.

BELL: What’s your work history like?

INMATE: I’m actually a certified medical assistant.

Yvette Bell of the Chicago-based Safer Foundation finds jobs for ex-cons.

BELL: It might not be in the field that they once used to be in -- the health care field, they might not be able to get back into health care -- but we can find jobs in retail, warehousing, telemarketing...

The fair’s coordinator is a jail superintendent named Joycelyn Jackson.

JACKSON: Some people just didn’t understand: ‘Well, why would you have a job fair in jail? These people are criminals or they’re going to penitentiaries.’ But we had to explain to them that these are pretrial detainees. And most of them are here because they can’t afford their bail. They have to go to court and be seen by the judge, but most of them will be walking out of here free and they won’t have records.

FASANO: There aren’t a lot of institutions anywhere in the country like Cook County.

Charles Fasano monitors jails for the John Howard Association of Illinois.

FASANO: Holding 10,000 inmates on any given day and with 100,000 admissions in a year and with decades of overcrowding, there’s a recognition that they need to try to do something to reduce the problem of recidivism.

When Sheila Branch gets out of jail, her first challenge will be finding a place to sleep.

BRANCH: I got a few pamphlets about shelter, job search applications -- I put in a couple applications -- some pointers for schools that accept me. Anything I can get to better my life that’s what I’m fighting for.

Jail officials say they’re planning to replicate the job fair for male inmates. I’m Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

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