According to a late 2020 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are around 1.8 million people behind bars in federal, state, and locally run jails and prisons throughout the country. While this number has been steadily decreasing over the last decade, the United States still has the largest imprisoned population in the world.
With so many American serving time, what kind of life awaits them on the other side? For roughly 19 million people in America with felony convictions, finding stable work can be a tumultuous and draining process. Without a job, it can be all too easy to slide back into a past life and end up behind bars once again.
But how hard is it really to find a job, secure housing, or afford healthcare? Experts say acquiring these basic necessities can be a shockingly difficult process. On top of this many people leave prison with some amount of unpaid debt as well.
Beth Schwartzapfel is a staff writer at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit media outlet covering criminal justice issues. She says the cards are often stacked against inmates from the very start of the criminal justice process.
Court costs and fines and fees are charged to people at the time of their case and follow them around… In some states, there are deductions taken out of there already-meager pay, both for restitution but also to cover court fees and fines. And so your average prisoner leaves prison thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars in debt. Other financial obligations like childcare don’t stop while you’re incarcerated…. Those just accumulate and you come with years and years of arrears on childcare payments and other financial obligations.
Jeffrey Korzenik, an economic researcher and author of the book Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community, says job offers for former inmates are shockingly hard to come by, with a unemployment rate hovering around 27%.
For all people who have exited prison, it’s estimated that the unemployment rate is 27%. And that includes those who are still looking. Of course, there are others who have simply dropped out of the labor force that you’d add on to that 27% number. In the first year out of incarceration, the unemployment rate is thought to be north of 50%.
The period of time between leaving prison and reintegrating into society is crucial. Korzenik says there are government agencies and nonprofits that help ex-prisoners with this transition. These entities are now partnering with employers looking to hire from this talent pool.
…Those nonprofits have the ability to build longer-term relationship with potential employees, and can essentially attest to job readiness and to character. So these are really important components of successful models for businesses. These nonprofits do really heavy lifting, some really important work. Often helping people find housing, helping them with computer literacy, helping them with transportation, even clothing.
Find out more about employment after incarceration and the organizations doing their best to tackle the issue by visiting the links listed below.
- Beth Schwartzapfel, staff writer, The Marshall Project.
- Jeffrey Korzenik, economic researcher, author, Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community.
22-01 Employment After Incarceration
[00:00:00] Gary Price: Across the country, there are around 1.8 million people behind bars in federal, state, and locally run prisons and jails. This is according to a late 2020 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. While this number has been steadily decreasing over the last decade, the U.S. still has the largest imprisoned population in the world. With so many American serving time, what kind of life awaits on the other side? How hard is it to find a job secure housing or afford healthcare? Acquiring these basic necessities can be a shockingly difficult process. On top of this many people leave prison with some amount of unpaid debt as well.
[00:00:50] Beth Schwartzapfel: Court costs and fines and fees are charged to people at the time of their case and follow them around. So in some states, there are deductions taken out of there already-meager pay, both for restitution but also to cover court fees and fines. And so your average prisoner leaves prison thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars in debt, other financial obligations like childcare don't stop while you're incarcerated. And so those just accumulate and you come with years and years of arrears on childcare payments and other financial obligations.
[00:01:24] Gary Price: That's Beth Schwartzapfel, a staff writer at the Marshall Project, a nonprofit media outlet covering criminal justice issues.
[00:01:33] Beth Schwartzapfel: You start out in this really big hole, that's the first thing. And then you come out with a felony conviction, which makes it incredibly difficult to get a job. Studies have shown that when you'd start with a felony conviction and then you layer race on top it, Black men with a felony conviction got the lowest callback rates of any group in a kind of seminal study of people who are applying for entry level jobs. So the deck is really stacked against people.
[00:01:57] Gary Price: Without steady employment or access to education or training, it can be all too easy to slide back into incarceration. In a study published in September, 2021, the Bureau of Justice Statistics looked at the rates of recidivism over a 10 year span, between 2008 and 2018 across 24 states. Essentially, recidivism is when previously convicted criminals get re-arrested and re-enter the prison system. The report found that within three years, about two-thirds of former prisoners were arrested again. Within 10 years, this number jumped to 82%. Sadly about 61% of prisoners released in 2008 were back in prison within 10 years. For millions, the criminal justice system is merely a revolving door. Clearly something needs to change. Schwartzapfel says that one issue is the current state of work and education offerings in prison.
[00:02:56] Beth Schwartzapfel: Prisons pay prison workers little or nothing for their work. So, it's often prisoners who are doing the work of keeping the prison running; doing the laundry, you know, mopping the floors, filing papers, mowing the lawn... Pretty much anything that has to happen, besides for security, to keep the prison going, prisoners are doing. And yet they're paid, in a couple of states, $0. And in most other states, pennies on the hour. An hourly wage for a prisoner is between 14 and 63 cents an hour, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. And the way that prisons sort of justify that is to say, well, it's real world experience, right? They're learning to work, and they'll be released with whatever it is they did at the prison on their resume.
[00:03:43] Gary Price: But what kind of future work is this setting them up for? Are they really an asset to the current labor market with this kind of experience? There's been a lot of talk around the importance of rehabilitation in prison. Well, one aspect of this is helping prisoners gain access to long-term meaningful employment.
[00:04:01] Beth Schwartzapfel: Set them up with job training in a field where there's demand, right? And where there's a clear path to get out and pursue that work. I think training people to work in factories, you know, is all well and good, at least they're doing something productive. But, man, like that sets you up to get out and have nothing to do. Like, do you know any factories that are operating in your town? I don't, you know, I don't live in the Midwest or the Rust Belt, but still, it makes a lot more sense to think through what industries need workers in my area? And how can I use this as an apprenticeship or training program for a career that is realistic and is waiting and needing workers in my area?
[00:04:41] Gary Price: One advancement is the return of Pell Grants for prisoners, which are a form of federal need-based financial aid. Beginning July 1, 2023, eligible students can access aid and earn a degree through college in prison programs. However, in some cases, even with an education or relevant work experience, a criminal record is an automatic disqualification.
[00:05:05] Beth Schwartzapfel: When some states, anybody with a felony conviction, can't get a barber's license, can't get a cosmetician license. During the wildfire season, about how prisoners do a lot of the firefighting work in California. There's all these prison firefighting camps where prisoners do a lot of the work around fighting these wildfires. And yet there's a restriction against people with felony convictions working as firefighters. So here they're doing this extremely dangerous job that prepares them for a career that they are not allowed to have when they get out.
[00:05:35] Gary Price: Schwartzapfel says that one silver lining is that she sees a greater number of Americans becoming more aware of the harmful effects of mass incarceration. As a result, some in business are taking steps to hire from this population. This can range from local independent businesses to large corporations, like Kroger and JP Morgan, who are pulling from this pool of talent — especially right now, amidst a nationwide labor shortage.
[00:06:01] Jeffrey Korzenik: We simply don't have enough workers to fill all the openings that are out there. So this does create an opportunity for employers to look beyond their traditional hiring, which is a very, very good thing.
[00:06:14] Gary Price: That's Jeffrey Korzenik, an economic researcher and author of Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community. Korzenik says that there are currently 19 million Americans with a felony conviction. For many within this group, a job offer is hard to come by.
[00:06:34] Jeffrey Korzenik: For all people who have exited prison, it's estimated that the unemployment rate is 27%. And that includes those who are still looking. Of course, there are others who have simply dropped out of the labor force that you'd add on to that 27% number. In the first year out of incarceration, the unemployment rate is thought to be north of 50%.
[00:06:54] Gary Price: This period of leaving prison and reintegrating back into society is crucial. Korzenik says that there are government agencies and nonprofits that help ex prisoners with this transition. These entities also partner with employers looking to hire from this talent pool.
[00:07:10] Jeffrey Korzenik: The advantage that they have, and companies have, in partnering with nonprofits like this is those nonprofits have the ability to build longer-term relationship with potential employees, and can essentially attest to job readiness and to character. So these are really important components of successful models for businesses. These nonprofits do really heavy lifting, some really important work. Often helping people find housing, helping them with computer literacy, helping them with transportation, even clothing. So there's a whole mountain of obstacles that people typically have to climb coming out of prison before they can be work ready.
[00:07:50] Gary Price: The reality is that some who are formerly incarcerated are not yet fit to work, or shouldn't be working in a certain role. Through his work, Korzenik has had many conversations with employers who voiced concerns about hiring ex-prisoners.
[00:08:05] Jeffrey Korzenik: The standard objections are all the same. It starts with, there are really three of them, it starts with the safety liability. Are they incurring what's called negligent hiring liability, where they take on extra risk if something goes wrong because they've hired someone with a criminal record. Then there's concern about the quality of the product. Does second chance means second rate? And then finally there's a reputation risk. And there are effective responses to each. Ultimately, it relies on employers, not just opening their doors to people with criminal records, but doing it in a thoughtful ways that has processes, that selects who is appropriate for any given role, and also gives them the tools to thrive.
[00:08:47] Gary Price: Some of these tools may mean extra mentorship or taking the time to help develop professional skills, like communication and collaboration. Korzenik says that if more employers are going to access this talent pool, they need to be aware of some of the gaps that candidates may have. Another common mistake is blanket protocols on who exactly is hireable.
[00:09:09] Jeffrey Korzenik: Employers often fail to distinguish between someone who's just out of prison or someone who's been out for 20 years, and is well-established. They tend to have blanket prohibitions on hiring people with criminal records. Or even if they don't have actual prohibitions, will have a process that, in effect, excludes people with records from serious consideration. So someone who is 20 years out, or 10 years out, or even five years out, who's had stable employment, stable housing, stable transportation — that's really just another job candidate — doesn't need any special consideration. Yet, all too often, employers exclude them as well.
[00:09:50] Gary Price: Stable employment plays a big role in prisoner rehabilitation. A candidate that's a good fit for the position and the company benefits both parties and can lead to a more well-rounded workplace.
[00:10:03] Beth Schwartzapfel: Yes, the 21st century is when we finally realized that diversity of not just race, gender, you know, sexual orientation, but also viewpoints and life histories is what makes organizations strong and makes workplaces strong. Then men, these folks have been through the ringer and they have seen so much, and have so much to offer as far as, you know, wisdom and life experience. And I think more and more people are starting to recognize that.
[00:10:30] Gary Price: To find out more about this topic and our guests, Beth Schwartzapfel and Jeffery Korzenik, visit viewpointsradio.org. You can learn about The Marshall Project by visiting themarshallproject.org. Also, check Korzenik's book, Untapped Talent, now available online and in bookstores. This segment was written and produced by Amirah Zaveri. I'm Gary Price.
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