Ex-offender obstacles to re-entering the job market

Cobb County Superior CourthouseCobb County Superior Courthouse (photo by Larry Felton Johnson, Cobb County Courier)

An ex-offender gets hired

Stanley Robbins, 65, got his first job with the city of Barstow, California, in 1977. Robbins was an ex-offender, incarcerated for accessory to murder and first-degree robbery in 1970. Following his release in 1973, he believes the only reason he gained a job was that he had evidence that the city was doing something they weren’t supposed to.

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[epq-quote align=”align-left”]“It took me four years to find employment because I had a bad record” — Stanley Robbins[/epq-quote]

“It took me four years to find employment because I had a bad record,” Robbins said.

The city sent him a letter saying they could not hire him because he was an ex-offender. Knowing the letter was evidence of discrimination, Robbins was able to attend a city council board meeting and prove it. As a result, the city gave him a job.

The scope of the ex-offender re-entry challenges

Approximately 70 million Americans have a criminal record, according to a 2017 LinkedIn article by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. There are many, like Robbins, who will tell you that when they come across the criminal background check box on a job application, they are flooded with fear and doubt about how they’ll be judged for their pasts.

“They lose hope,” said Bennie McKinney, employment services supervisor at Cobb-Cherokee Career Center. “A lot of times their expectations are set too high. They fail to realize that their background is going to scare some employers away. They want things to happen really quickly and when things don’t happen quickly they lose hope and return to the type of behavior that got them in trouble in the first place.”

[epq-quote align=”align-left”]“They lose hope, A lot of times their expectations are set too high. They fail to realize that their background is going to scare some employers away. They want things to happen really quickly and when things don’t happen quickly they lose hope and return to the type of behavior that got them in trouble in the first place.” — Bennie McKinney, employment services supervisor at Cobb-Cherokee Career Center[/epq-quote]

In a 2011 NBC News article, Greg Bluestein reported that close to 40 percent of ex-offenders commit crimes within three years of being released. Many of these Americans are aiming for redemption, to prove not only to themselves but also to their families that staying out of trouble is possible. Unfortunately, they’re rarely given a chance to prove it.

“What kept me going [inside the prison] was sports,” Robbins said. He was pitching for a minor league baseball team in Sarasota, Florida, the summer he was arrested. “When I was in there I had about five major league teams trying to get me out, which didn’t happen, so I was looking forward to playing once I got out,” he said. “I was looking forward to playing baseball again.”

When Robbins was released from prison, baseball was no longer an option. It was time for him to find work. He said his thoughts when filling out an application was to just try and be honest. “I just told the truth,” he said. “But I figured that I wouldn’t get hired anyway.”

The stigma of a prison record

Cynthia McGarity, the director and organizer for Rehoboth Family and Community Services, founded her non-profit in Cobb County 12 years ago. The organization caters to returning citizens who are attempting to reintegrate into society. She emphasized that reducing the stigma of ex-offenders is significant when trying to guide society in seeing them as individuals and helping them move forward.

“We need to remember that not every person in prison is guilty,” McGarity said. “Not everybody in prison has been a direct player, perhaps, in something that has happened. We have all types of different scenarios,” she continued. “We need to treat people better because they’re coming home, and they’re going to be a part of our community.” [epq-quote align=”align-left”]“We need to treat people better because they’re coming home, and they’re going to be a part of our community.” — Cynthia McGarity, founder of Rehobeth Family and Community Services[/epq-quote]

“There’s a great push in the state of Georgia now to help people reintegrate [back into society],” she said. “A lot of changes have occurred within the business industry and some of the apprenticeship programs in terms of being more open. The goal of the state now is to help people and families become sustainable. So, we have to have realistic opportunities and number one is definitely employment.”

The argument from employers is that those who have been incarcerated tend to have less education and work experience, fewer cognitive skills, and more chances for substance abuse and other physical and mental health issues when compared with the general population.

McKinney said he sees overcoming personal obstacles such as drug addiction, financial shortcomings and poor coping mechanisms as the biggest challenge to ex-offenders.

Sgt. Denise Ford, a correctional officer with of 23 years and who currently patrols the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, recalls an exchange she had with an inmate who was repeatedly caught using drugs. She would warn him that every time a correctional officer caught him using drugs the consequence would be an additional six months. The inmate responded by saying, “It doesn’t matter to me. I’m a lifer.” Ford was confused. The prison she worked at during that time only held prisoners for up to 10 years; there were no lifers. He explained that he was addicted to drugs and that wasn’t going to change; so he’s going to keep getting caught.

The role of race in ex-offender employment

Race is a contributing factor when it comes to ex-offenders trying to obtain employment. The National Institute of Justice funded a study on ex-offenders and employment. The research showed that employers are hesitant to hire ex-offenders. In particular, in New York City, research showed having a criminal record reduced the likelihood of getting a call-back by almost 50 percent. The study also showed black applicants, both non-offenders and ex-offenders received fewer than half as many call-backs as white applicants.

“I’ve seen instances where I felt like race is a contributing factor as to why somebody can’t get a job with a background,” said McKinney. “I’ve had instances where I can have two individuals who have the same exact type of background and see a minority struggle harder than someone who’s not.”

[epq-quote align=”align-left”]“I’ve seen instances where I felt like race is a contributing factor as to why somebody can’t get a job with a background. I’ve had instances where I can have two individuals who have the same exact type of background and see a minority struggle harder than someone who’s not.” — Bennie McKinney[/epq-quote]

A renewed focus on rehabilitation

Ford says, in the past decade, prisons have been moving more towards rehabilitation because of the high return rates. For example, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation didn’t always have “rehabilitation” in the name. It was added in 2005.
With the change in name came a change in action. The CDCR, along with prisons across the nation, have implemented programs that can provide ex-offenders with education and credentials that’ll be useful once they reenter to society.

The CDCR website says that since 2005 the return rate has dropped from 67.5 percent to 44.6 percent as recently as 2011.

Robbins believes workers inside the prison play a large role in the fate of a prisoner. “They can treat you bad. In other words, they don’t care about you; you’re just a number to them,” Robbins said. “Then there are some that try to rehabilitate you.”

In his case, he got involved with a program in prison which taught inmates how to cook professionally. He would cook for the other inmates and the staff in prison. When he finally got the job for the City of Barstow, he also cooked for the city council board members.

Now in retirement, continuing to hone the cooking skills he picked up as an inmate is one of Robbin’s favorite pastimes.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, along with the growing education of inmates, may still not be enough to make employers less reluctant. What some employers are implying is that everyone is being treated lawfully and fairly, but what the ex-offenders’ experiences show is the opposite.

“I think more employers can be a little bit more open-minded when giving ex-offenders an opportunity to prove themselves. Employers find crafty ways to get around it,” McKinney said. “They take everybody’s applications but not everyone is going to get an interview. I’m not sure it’ll ever stop.”

The need for inmate education

Ford believes if there’s any chance for change, it’s through education of the inmates.

“They’re not coming out with just a certification saying they’re discharged. They’re coming out with knowledge on how to do a skilled profession,” Ford said. “They work eight hours a day. The pay scale is 10 cents, 25 cents and if you’re a clerk for a lieutenant it’s one dollar an hour. If an employer would just give an ex-convict a chance, they might see that the ex-convict might work harder than three employees there; because their livelihood depends on it.”

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Tyhi Conley
I graduated from Norcross high school in Gwinnett County. I’m a senior journalism student at Kennesaw State University. I also write for the school newspaper The Sentinel.

1 Comment on "Ex-offender obstacles to re-entering the job market"

  1. Shanda ONeal | June 18, 2018 at 8:47 am | Reply

    Very Good and imformative article.

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