Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
Thanks to our harsh criminal justice policies and anti-drug laws, an extraordinary number of Americans will spend some part of their lives in the prison system.
As a society, we’re finally starting to rethink the policies driving the explosion in imprisonment: the “tough on crime” measures that have shattered communities and families for over a generation. Some states have sought to cut prison populations to curb the massive cost of incarceration. Yet the economics of prison policy cut deeper than corrections budgets. The plight of those released back into society after doing time reveal the the underlying collateral damage: a gaping economic hole.
No one knows exactly how much mass incarceration has cost communities in social and economic losses, but there’s no doubt it has contributed to the unraveling of economically marginalized communities. Not only does incarceration take people out of the workforce, but for many, the sentence never ends: The prison system places shackles of stigma and discrimination on hundreds of thousands of people it releases each year. According to a 2010 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, incarceration lowers the total earnings of blacks and Latino men more severely compared to white men, and the economic drain is deepened by the forgone wages that may be irrevocably lost during years spent behind bars.
Once people get out of prison, staying out can be all but impossible. Since communities hit hardest by over-imprisonment typically suffer from low social cohesion, poverty and high joblessness, the formerly incarcerated return home to daunting hardships. And when they try to play by the rules and seek jobs, they get slapped by widespread hiring bias from employers. That’s on top of the overall setbacks to employability linked to long periods of incarceration, like a lack of up-to-date job skills and educational credentials.
That’s where the concept of transitional jobs comes in. Community groups in cities across the country are working to absorb formerly incarcerated workers into temporary work programs designed to move them toward permanent work through entry-level temporary jobs, coupled with training and guidance on adapting to the working life “on the outside.”
Research has shown that such programs pay public dividends, too, by playing a key role in reducing recidivism and thereby enhancing public safety and saving states in incarceration costs. A steady paycheck is a crucial connection to the legal economy that can keep people from resorting to crime to make ends meet. Though transitional jobs are by definition temporary, they can prove critical in the first few months post-prison, when people are especially unstable and may need intensive reintegration services.
The National Transitional Jobs Network–a coalition of groups working with the formerly incarcerated and other populations, like the homeless, who face barriers to employment – combines paid work with support services and training as a social intervention. Associate director Melissa Young tells In These Times these programs “are targeted at individuals who would not otherwise be working, and they keep people earning a paycheck to meet their basic needs. And this is especially important in weak labor markets like [the one] we currently have.”
In New York, the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) has developed a transition model inspired in part by informal day labor networks. About 30 years ago, the group’s former parent organization, the Vera Institute of Justice observed that when people returned home after prison, they routinely picked up odd jobs on the street. Advocates designed an institution to serve roughly the same function of connecting people to work, while also providing support and guidance to move them toward stable, long-term employment.
As a gateway employer, CEO puts clients in supervised work crews, which might help set up public venues for events or provide supplemental maintenance for city or state agencies. Participants are also coached on social skills that tend to rust in prison. In their personal interactions, CEO’s Executive Director Marta Nelson says, workers struggle to transition out of “all the behavior that’s reinforced inside… keeping your head down, doing as you’re told and not being particularly proactive.” Those behaviors might be an obstacle in regular workplaces where bosses expect job seekers to show “initiative” or project self-confidence. People need space to transition out of the mindset imposed by the prison environment.
Nelson noted that transitional jobs shouldn’t be confused with “make work” welfare jobs. “There’s an organization, be it the courthouse or a college or an event, and they have a need for something to get done by human beings,” she says. “And they pay us to do it, and they expect us to do a good job because they’re paying for it. … Our participants are as smart as anyone out there and they know real work from fake work.”
But advocates for the formerly incarcerated can’t simply aim to train people for entry-level jobs and send them into the labor market; formerly incarcerated workers face structural barriers that can only be overcome through institutional reform. The National HIRE Network advocates for policies to help remove such barriers, such as reforms to prevent employers from screening out people on the basis of a conviction record alone. The group focuses on restricting the use of the familiar obstacle found on many application forms: the check-box that forces people to disclose a prior conviction. Advocates say a checked box is too often seen as an automatic deal-breaker (despite restrictions in some states on blanket discrimination against people with criminal histories).
“Some [human resources] staff see the checked box, and the application is put in pile of ‘not considering,’” says HIRE director Roberta Meyers-Peeples. “Nothing else is looked at, the person’s qualifications and credentials aren’t considered.” She says that reforming the process to give the candidate a chance to talk directly to an employer about a past record, rather than just being automatically screened out, would “give people a chance to get a foot in the door, to be able to explain what’s on the record. Because typically what’s on paper doesn’t tell that person’s whole story.”
To activists like Meyers-Peeples, people who have served time deserve fair treatment in the labor market not just because they’re entitled to full social inclusion, but because society as a whole suffers when it prevents people from exercising their potential. Many people have obtained advanced degrees or learned trades through prison programs, only to find that once they’re released, their talents stay locked up.
“If they want to put in the work to rehabilitate and develop themselves personally,” Meyers-Peeples says, “it’s our job to make sure the opportunities are there.”