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From jailhouse to job interview: Lynnwood nonprofit helps convicts stay out of prison

Phil Ramsey, left, and Dick Cinkovich, right, run Conviction Careers. They operate on a shoestring budget out of a small office in donated space at an former car dealership off Highway 99 in Lynnwood. They help people with criminal convictions like Jonathan Adams, center, get jobs. Adams now owns his own catering company and returns to Conviction Careers for help building his business. (Jillian Raftery/MyNorthwest)

He’ll say it himself: he’s one of those dangerous people who was not supposed to get a job.

“I used to sell a lot of drugs,” Jonathan Adams says. “And at one point in my life, I sold drugs to a minor. Which is a no-no.”

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Adams spent more than seven years in prison for drug trafficking and a sex offense.

That was 23 years ago. Now, he runs his own catering business. He’s married and he put his three children through college.

So what turned his life around? A small organization off Highway 99 in Lynnwood called Conviction Careers.

Phil Ramsey and Dick Cinkovich run the group out of an old car dealership, a small loft overlooking a room full of classic cars.

The two men believe that everyone who wants to work should be able to strive for a better future.

“We first met in prison,” jokes Cinkovich.Volunteering in prison, that is.

The two worked with inmates at the Monroe Correctional Facility. That’s where they saw the need for jobs.

Research from the Department of Corrections shows people who find work after incarceration are 50 percent less likely to re-offend than those who don’t have a job.

At Conviction Careers, they have a simple process to get you there, including helping clients with their resumes, and searching for jobs that match their skills. Then, they practice how to handle talking about criminal convictions in mock interviews.

Cinkovich wants his clients to give a business answer, not a therapy answer.

“If in an interview they get asked, ‘have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ they’ll go, ‘yes, I have a conviction, but while I was in prison or since then I’ve taken anger management, chemical dependency, parenting, and whatever other things’ – when they might not even have any of those as issues,” Cinkovich says. “And so they’re divulging things that they weren’t convicted of. And a lady actually gave me that answer one day, so I just interrupted her and said well, if I’m an employer, what did you just tell me? She said, ‘well, I was working to improve myself while I was doing time.’ I said no, you told me you have a drug or alcohol problem, an anger problem, and you’re a bad parent. And her jaw dropped because she said she was none of those things, she just took the classes for something to do.”

At Conviction Careers, they’ll coach clients to be honest, without telling their life story.

Cinkovich helps clients create unique resumes and turn what could be viewed as weaknesses into strengths.

“So, we want their personality to come across,” Cinkovich says. “So, like, I had a lady that had a little OCD and the first thing I put on her resume was ‘love to make order from chaos.’

The process might seem simple to someone who has been consistently employed, but Cinkovich has to start from zero with some clients who have never had a job.

Some clients can barely read and write. Others struggle with basic survival.

“We feed people a lot,” Cinkovich says. “Most of the people we see are legally homeless, so we started feeding people. We run up to McDonalds for breakfast during orientation, and then during mock interview day, we usually go to Sparta’s Pizza.”

They’ve also had clients like one man who graduated from Stanford University and worked in high-level scientific research, but who had a conviction that was keeping him from getting a job.

For all comers, however, they’re strict.

“A lot of people think that these guys just get us a job. It’s not like that. These guys are not just coddling us. We gotta do the work. And if you’re not willing to do the work, they’re not going to help you,” Adams says.

For example, anyone interested in getting help at Conviction Careers needs to make the call themselves. Cinkovich won’t schedule appointments made by someone’s mother or girlfriend.

And Adams says the first thing they tell clients is that they’ve got to get clean, or won’t be able to hold down a job.

And you’d better be on time.

“They tell you straight: if you’re not here at five, the door’s going to slam in your face and you just wasted bus money,” Adams says.

Phil Ramsey, co-founder of the organization, says he’s had to take some clients aside and coach them on basics like professional attire.

“I’m not afraid to address issues with them, OK. Because if we have a guy who walks in here and he’s sagging, one of the first things we do is approach them and say ‘do you have a belt?’ Because nobody’s going to hire you with your pants around your knees,” Ramsey says.

But if you work hard, Ramsey and Cinkovich will work hard for you.

Adams remembers getting a ride to a job interview at 5 a.m. Ramsey says he’s purchased work boots for clients who enter the trades. He’s also helped clients get connected to social services like housing and job training.

So far, they’ve helped 950 people get jobs in five years. With their targeted job search approach, some clients have had call backs in a day, though others have had to try and try again over weeks or months.

But, they will not turn anyone away.

“We’ve actually helped Jesus get a job. This gentleman had his name changed, it’s on his social security card” Ramsey says.

“That’s true! Jesus Christ Lord God. I said you’re not Jesus, it’s impossible for you to be Jesus, so I’m going to call you by your given name,” Cinkovich says.

Jesus had a long rap sheet, including in violent offenses, and was known for outbursts against other inmates and prison guards. Every time Cinkovich and Ramsey met with them, they had to make sure there was nothing in the room that could be used as a weapon.

But still, they took him on and succeeded.

“We made a straight connection. He was a sign waver! So, Phil loves to say that we found a job for Jesus – and it wasn’t as a carpenter,” Cinkovich says.


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