Stark contrasts confront the person who drives through Detroit. New restaurants and sports arenas have revitalized pockets of the city, but there is an abundant supply of abandoned factories, with unused land around them. One endeavor, however, is putting some of that land to use, harvesting food for diners and social good for everyone else.
Less than one mile outside downtown Detroit is a collection of tall greenhouses that belong to RecoveryPark Farms. There, an unusual workforce plants high-end produce, harvests it, and then delivers it within 24 hours to local restaurants, putting a new spin on “locally grown.”
While large cities and farms don’t often go hand in hand, Detroit is unique in that no other city has the same amount of land available for farming.
The farms are the first of several for-profit companies being launched by RecoveryPark, a Detroit-based nonprofit that seeks to create jobs for people returning to society from the criminal justice system or with other barriers to employment.
RecoveryPark was founded by Gary Wozniak, who began his career as a stockbroker in the 1980s. During the first few years of his career, Wozniak developed a drug habit and later served three years in federal prison for wire fraud after using clients’ money to support his addiction. Upon his release in 1991, he moved back in with his parents and began looking for a new job. After being rejected for an entry-level position, Wozniak took matters into his own hands. “I went home, looked in the mirror and promised myself that I’d never let anyone tell me no again,” he said.
Within six months, he opened a Jet’s Pizza restaurant in Hamtramck. Over the next two decades, he started seven different businesses before launching RecoveryPark in 2008. Wozniak knew that the factories in Detroit weren’t coming back, and people in the area, especially those with a record, needed new employment opportunities.
As Wozniak knows all too well, the statistics for returning citizens can be grim. For the person who finds a job within the first three months of returning, the chances of recidivism are extremely low. But after six months without employment, the recidivism rate increases to 30%. And after 12 months without work, the returning citizen is almost guaranteed to land back in prison. So, it’s critical that returning citizens find employment quickly.
RecoveryPark provides employment, but also much more. In addition to earning a starting salary of $11 per hour, employees have 100% of their health insurance covered. They can also get housing support, assistance in setting up a bank account and transportation to and from work during their first 90 days on the job.
“I want people who have never been in the system to hear our story,” said Wozniak while speaking at an America’s Future Foundation event in Midland. People across the state continue to hear his story, and through partnerships and outreach efforts, more are getting involved, hoping to change the future for former offenders. In October, Wozniak testified in front of the U.S. House Committee on Small Business, urging Congress to support legislation that would help them.
A job is the essential component to rehabilitating former offenders into society. And while groups like RecoveryPark are doing great work, they are often stymied by government rules and overregulation. But there’s hope. In recent months, Michigan has passed bills providing those who’ve committed a crime in the past but stayed out of trouble a chance to expunge their record. Lawmakers have lessened penalties for lower-level teenage offenders, giving them a better chance to stay out of prison and more easily reintegrate into society. And a bill package supported by the Mackinac Center would make Michigan a leader in providing second-chance opportunities by allowing individuals and businesses in licensed industries to hire people with criminal records. These steps would protect the public while giving everyone a fair shot.