Profile: Rafi Peterson

Reforming our nation's criminal justice system is critical to ending hunger and poverty in the United States.  Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World.

This story is featured in the 2018 Hunger Report: The Jobs Challenge

Rafi Peterson insists that no one should leave prison without a General Educational Development (GED), and preferably an associate’s degree. He earned two college degrees while in prison from 1983 to 1997. Since then, funding for prison education programs has been slashed, and most people leaving prison have no credentials that would help them get a job.

Peterson lives in Chicago and works for the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), a community nonprofit that operates in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. He works with men like himself who have spent 10 years or more in prison. One client had been imprisoned for 37 years.

With support from the Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN), one of SWOP’s partner organiza-tions, Peterson established a transitional housing program for ex-offenders, men whose only other options were a homeless shelter or the street. Adjusting to life on the outside is a process, Peterson points out. In prison, you’re focused on he dangers all around you, and after years of living like that, it takes time to adjust your reflexes.

Finding a job is one of the greatest challenges they face. Few employers will give someone who spent more than 10 years in prison a chance, even in a good economy. Peterson knows he can’t change the stigma of a criminal record and lengthy prison sentence. That’s why in 2007 he created Project Restore Industries, an idea he began developing while in prison.

Work is restorative and makes it possible for ex-offenders to contribute to their communities and their families. But because it is so difficult for them to get hired, Project Restore Industries’ approach is to guide the men in starting their own businesses. A collective self-help structure helps them assume responsibility for creating jobs for each other. Not everyone is an entrepreneur, but with some training, many ex-offenders in Project Restore have proven to be more successful at business than many people would think someone with a GED or less could be.

None of the men he has worked with has re-offended. “People recidivate because of hunger,” he says. “Hunger makes you desperate, and desperate people do desperate acts.”

“Work is restorative and makes it possible for ex-offenders to contribute to their communities and their families”

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