South Bend Tribune
SOUTH BEND — At a time in life when most people start dreaming about retirement, Patrick Regan, a former professor at the University of Notre Dame, started thinking about taking a giant leap into a new career.
As early as 2015, the professor of political science and peace studies started mulling a change. “I wanted to do something other than be an academic, something with a more tangible impact,” he explained.
And within a couple of years, Regan, 65, settled on a business idea that would satisfy two of his biggest passions — the need to address climate change and the importance of providing a second chance for those who have served time behind bars.
The first passion came from Regan’s research and writings as a professor; the second resulted from the time he spent teaching at Westville Correctional Facility in LaPorte County as part of the Moreau College Initiative — a collaboration between Holy Cross College and Notre Dame in partnership with the Indiana Department of Correction.
“By teaching at Westville, I learned that there are some very smart people in the prison system, who made some colossally bad mistakes but deserve a chance to get things right moving forward,” Regan said.
Experts say that offering good-paying jobs for those being released from prison is perhaps the single most important factor keeping them from returning to the system for the rest of their lives.
That’s why Regan founded Crossroads Solar in a nondescript building at 251 E. Sample St. After a couple of years of work, the business is now ready to begin producing solar panels for businesses, homes and even the RV industry.
Crossroads Solar will initially pay ex-inmates $16 an hour to build solar panels, using materials and specialized equipment that was sourced from around the world and was set up last summer with help from Notre Dame engineering students.
“My research abilities came in very handy for those purposes,” Regan said of the effort to find equipment and material suppliers.
But understanding his limitations, the former professor also was wise enough to partner with someone with considerable business know-how — Marty Whalen, who operated a small business for many years but now works in career services at Notre Dame.
Regan said Crossroads Solar aims to boost pay for employees to $17.50 an hour following a probationary period, and it also intends to contribute to a Health Savings Account to help defray health insurance costs for employees.
Initially, the business will employ about 12 people and is aiming to produce about 15,000 panels a year on one shift. If it’s successful in gaining contracts — perhaps with the RV industry in Elkhart County — it could double production and employment by adding a second shift.
“We’re by no means aiming to be a big solar panel producer or a low-cost leader,” Regan said. “Our goal is to produce a high-quality product in our region that’s made exclusively by former felons who are trying to move forward in a positive direction.”
That’s a goal that Regan believes many in the community will support when they start thinking about adding solar panels to their businesses or homes in the future. “We’re going to be paying taxes, and employees are going to be paying taxes,” Regan said.
That is a whole lot better than the opposite.
According to Jennifer Ortiz, an assistant professor of criminology at Indiana University Southeast, former felons face the most difficult obstacles when trying to land good-paying jobs. “They have all the things employers aren’t looking for — a criminal record, a big gap in employment history and sometimes lack basic items, like transportation, a cellphone or even appropriate clothing.”
Some might have an abundance of tattoos that were easier to acquire than they are to remove and can result in bad first impressions, Ortiz said. And the employment barriers might never come down for ex-felons interested in jobs that have anything to do with money or children.
Because of those factors, the unemployment rate for those with a criminal record is always substantially higher than the overall population. “Businesses are 50% less likely to hire someone with a criminal background,” Ortiz said.
And when they do get a job, those individuals are often forced to take the lowest wage positions — usually in food service or manufacturing — where they can barely support themselves, let alone a family, she explained.
It’s not hard to imagine why the recidivism rate is near zero for those who ultimately land good jobs and substantially higher for those stuck in low-paying jobs, Ortiz said.
That’s why opportunities such Crossroads Solar are so important.
“Those of us with a record do have issues gaining employment that isn’t $9 an hour,” a 46-year-old South Bend man who was working at the small plant on Thursday said. “Having family support and a good job are key factors.”
With a degree in computer science, the Crossroads Solar employee, who served about seven years in prison, feels a debt of gratitude to Regan for providing the opportunity. But eventually, even he might move on to a better opportunity in the community.
That’s OK with Regan.
For some, a job at the business might be a bridge to something better in the future; for some, the work might not suit their personality or skills. But at a minimum, a job at the business provides a path for those who want to put their past in the rearview mirror forever.
Though Regan likes the idea of the plant producing something that will provide clean energy, he’s even more proud of actually providing good-paying jobs for those who need a second chance.
“I’m into hiring people,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”
This article was made available through the Hoosier State Press Association.