Locked Out of Jobs, Formerly Incarcerated Struggle to Reintegrate

Michelle Chen

To help the recently incarcerated overcome hiring bias, programs such as the Center for Employment Opportunities assemble them into work crews, paid at fair rates.
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.”

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.

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