Today more than 2.3 million men and women are incarcerated in the U.S. In the last 20 years, the prison population has nearly tripled, until now one of every 99.1 adults is behind bars.
But they don’t stay there. According to the U. S. Department of Justice, around 700,000 prisoners are now released from state and federal prisons each year. Many come out with no money—other than some nominal amount provided by the state for bus fare—and with little education, few “survival skills” conducive to living in free society, few if any prospects for employment, and no immediate access to unemployment benefits.
Many ex-prisoners lack even the basic skills to start hunting for a job. Nationwide, 70 percent of prison inmates function at the low end of literacy—meaning they are unable to understand a classified ad, fill out a job application, write a business letter, read a bus schedule, or perform many other common text- or number-based tasks.
Nationwide, as many as 60 percent of ex-prisoners are unemployed one year after release. In California, 80 percent of parolees have no jobs.
The outlook dims even more for minorities. Just as African Americans and Hispanics make up a disproportionate part of the prison population, they also are disproportionately represented among the unemployed. A 2008 report released by the Pew Center on the States revealed that one in 106 white men (ages 18 and older) is imprisoned, compared with one in 36 Hispanic men and one in 15 black men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (January 2010), the unemployment rate among blacks is almost twice the rate of unemployment among whites—16.5 percent versus 8.7 percent. Among Hispanics, the jobless rate is 12.6 percent.
Thus, a far greater proportion of blacks and Hispanics are imprisoned, and once they get out, a far greater proportion of them remain unemployed. This dilemma can wreak havoc on minority families and whole neighborhoods.
Effects of Joblessness
This signals pending disaster—not only for the ex-prisoners and their families, but also for the broader community. Without a source of income, many ex-prisoners have trouble finding housing. In California, for example, 10 percent of all parolees are homeless, but in urban areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, that rate leaps as high as 30 to 50 percent.
Handling the Prison Issue
In its H.I.R.E. seminar (Here Is a Responsible Employee), Prison Fellowship includes examples of how ex-prisoners have positively talked about their prison experience in job interviews:
“I am going to be the best cashier you have because of my time in prison. I really turned my attitude back to a positive one, and I learned how to handle negative situations, talk with a variety of people, be patient, listen, use a computer, and be more outgoing.”
“I consider my time in prison to be the most valuable education I had and one of the major reasons I am so qualified for this job. For two years I worked in all areas of auto mechanics, and I have proven skills to work on cars, trucks, vans, and construction equipment.”
“I spent five years digging ditches, picking potatoes, and cleaning floors in prison. You are looking for a dependable, hardworking employee who doesn’t drink and is not on drugs. I’m that person, and I believe I have as good or better experience and work record than anyone else applying for this position.”
The stress of unemployment puts people at higher risk of alcohol and drug abuse—particularly for those who already have a history of drug problems, as is true of 60 percent of prisoners.
Prisoners today serve longer sentences than in the past—one outcome of the “tough on crime” legislation and policies enacted in recent years. One result of longer incarceration is that prisoners become more distanced from the community life to which they will be returning. Unemployment only adds to this sense of disconnection—and those who feel disconnected from their community will likely have fewer qualms about harming the community through criminal activity.
Not surprisingly, then, more than 50 percent of released prisoners return to prison within three years. Re-arrests are most common within the first six months of release. And American taxpayers shell out more than $60 billion a year for this revolving-door debacle.
By contrast, employment provides prisoners with many benefits: income, of course, but also identity, opportunities for healthy social interaction and support, a sense of purpose, engaging challenges, and status. These help to promote a sense of well-being as well as a connection to the workplace and to the surrounding community. All of which cuts down on recidivism.
Reluctance to Hire Ex-Prisoners
Despite broad recognition that ex-prisoners need jobs—and are less likely to return to crime if they have jobs—many people are reluctant to actually hire them. One 1996 research study found that nearly two thirds of employers would not hire a person with a criminal record. A more recent study (2007) revealed that people with a criminal past are less likely to obtain employment than are those with chronic illness, those with physical or sensory disabilities, and those with communication difficulties.
What makes employers reluctant to give ex-prisoners a chance? One survey of employers found that 54 percent feared being victimized if they hired an ex-offender. Interestingly, however, victimization was not the employers’ greatest concern. More than 80 percent of them feared that ex-offenders might lack the necessary “people skills” for contact with customers. Many were also concerned that both customers and co-workers would feel uncomfortable if they knew that an ex-prisoner worked at the business.
Despite these concerns, 53 percent said they would be willing to hire an ex-offender, 44 percent said they were unsure, and only 3 percent said they would “probably not” hire an ex-offender.
Interestingly, 60 percent of the employers surveyed had experienced at least occasional social contact with ex-offenders. This interaction apparently helped to offset some of the stigma that might otherwise be attached to ex-offenders. As the researchers, Rachelle Guguere and Lauren Dundes, stated: “Perhaps those who have become acquainted with ex-convicts see them as people who can leave their mistakes behind. In contrast, those who do not know any persons who have been incarcerated may be less likely to see their potential for good.”
What They Say Versus What They Do
Even so, another research study showed significant discrepancies between what employers say they are willing to do and what they actually do. Nearly 62 percent of surveyed employers said they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to hire applicants with a criminal record (specifically a drug felony)—irrespective of race.
However, an audit of their actual employment practices revealed that only 17 percent of white applicants and 5 percent of black applicants with drug felonies actually received a call-back after the first stage of application process. These results contrasted sharply with the 34 percent of white applicants with comparable qualities but with no criminal record who were called back.
While this study alone does not prove prejudice or discrimination, it does show a disconnect between abstract attitudes and actual practices among many employers when it comes to considering ex-prisoners as potential employees.
Lessening the Obstacles
Prison Fellowship and other reentry programs for prisoners can help improve their likelihood of getting a much needed job. Through tailored programming—classes, small-group discussions, seminars, etc.—as well as one-to-one mentoring interactions, prisoners can develop necessary skills and character qualities that will make them more appealing to prospective employers. Reentry organizations can also help promote positive attitude change among employers that will translate into changed hiring behaviors.
Let’s consider three issues raised by the research: 1) prisoners’ lack of job-search skills, 2) prisoners’ real or perceived lack of people skills, 3) the stereotypes and stigma attached to prisoners.
- Job-Search Skills: Through tailored programming or mentoring relationships, prisoners can learn how to complete tasks essential in job hunting—such as writing résumés, filling out job applications, and participating in job interviews. Such practical skills are covered in Prison Fellowship’s seminar curriculum H.I.R.E. (Here Is a Responsible Employee).One job-search skill specifically tied to prisoners is addressing the question that pops up, in some form, on just about every job application—have you ever been convicted of a crime?
While it is tempting to conceal one’s prison record, this will only get the ex-prisoner in trouble if caught in the deception. Reentry programs can help prisoners address their prison time in a positive way that may prevent the employment door from automatically slamming in their face.
For example, instead of simply stating “yes” to the question, the person might add something like, “and I would like to discuss this in more depth.” In an interview, prisoners should be prepared to talk about the positive things they have learned and the positive ways they have changed during their prison experience (see sidebar). This shows that they used their time responsibly and constructively.
- Social/People Skills: As noted above, employers worry that ex-prisoners won’t have the people skills to deal appropriately and effectively with customers. Reentry programs and mentors can help them learn—and practice in role plays—such basic but highly important skills as shaking hands, making eye contact, smiling, treating people with respect and courtesy, using appropriate language (“yes, sir”; “no, ma’am”—not “yeah, man”). Some lessons in anger management might be helpful, too. Prospective employers should be able to see evidence of these skills in their own interactions with the ex-prisoner.
- Stereotypes and Stigma: As researchers point out, employers who have been acquainted with prisoners or ex-prisoners to some degree may be more likely to give other ex-prisoners an opportunity for employment. Reentry programs—and the individuals who work for them—can provide opportunities for business leaders to get to know real people who have been in prison and have grown from that experience. Some examples:
- Arrange to have some employers go into prison with you to observe/participate in your regular programming or a special event.
- Plan a job fair at a nearby prison, where prisoners can interact with prospective employers.
- Host a community event for employers where part of the program is having ex-prisoners share their testimonies of how they have changed.
- Get involved with community organizations—such as the local Chamber of Commerce or the Rotary Club—where you can explain your services to other members and help dispel some of their stereotypes about prison.
By taking seriously employers’ concerns and addressing them, we can help prepare prisoners to reenter the job market and help prospective employers be more open in giving them a second chance.
Giguere, R., & Dundes, L. (2002). Help wanted: A survey of employer concerns about hiring ex-convicts. Criminal Justice Policy Review 13, 396-408.
Graffam, J., Shinkfield, A. J., & Hardcastle, L. (2007, November). The perceived employability of ex-prisoners and offenders. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 1-13.
Pager, D. & Quillian, L. (2005). Walking the talk? What employers say versus what they do. American Sociological Review 70, 355-380.
Petersilia, J. (2000, November). When prisoners return to the community: Political, economic, and social consequences. Sentencing & Corrections. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
Petersilia, J. (2001). Prisoner reentry: Public safety and reintegration challenges. The Prison Journal 81, 360-375.
Sabol, W. J., Minton, T. D., & Harrison, P. M. (2007, June). Prison and jail inmates at midyear 2006. (Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin NCJ 2176753). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
Shinkfield, A. J. & Graffam, J. (2009). Community reintegration of ex-prisoners: Type and degree of change in variables influencing successful reintegration. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 53, 29-42.
Warren, J. (2008). One in 100: Behind bars in America 2008. Pew Center on the States, a program of the Pew Charitable Trust, Washington, D.C.