Inescapably, one of the first questions asked when you meet someone is: “So, what do you do?” or “Where do you work?” The answer seems to define who you are as a person: I am a doctor, or I am a lawyer, or I flip burgers at that fast food joint, etc.
Of course, what we do is not the only thing that defines us. We are each unique and complex individuals, with varying situations, pasts and dreams. But that question is always there—looming—“What do you do?”
Finding a good job, a job which defines you, can be difficult. Sometimes finding any job can be difficult. And finding work, when you were formerly an inmate, can be very difficult.
There are a number of reasons why getting a job can be difficult for former inmates. One of the biggest reasons is employers.
Employers and Former Inmates
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which deals with unlawful employment practices, does not prohibit employers from asking questions about your criminal history.
There is no law which forces an employer to ignore a job applicant’s criminal history, even though that individual has completed their sentence and paid their debt to society. A large percentage of employers do discriminate against those with criminal records even if they claim not to.
A 2004 study, by Harry J. Holzer, Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll, found that over 40 percent of the employers they surveyed would “probably not” or “definitely not” hire an applicant with a criminal record. A large percentage of surveyed employers said it “depends.” The study also found that the companies which were most willing to hire former inmates tended to offer unskilled jobs that had high turn-over rates and little customer contact.
Since 2004, the unemployment rate has dropped considerably and the prison population has increased, and, because of this, more and more reports are finding that pulling from the former inmate pool is the way to go. That doesn’t change the fact that former inmates have a much harder time finding work than others.
According to a 2017 study, among the five million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States, 27 percent are unemployed–over five times the national unemployment rate for 2017.
Employers are often hesitant about hiring former inmates, and, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, the ones which are willing to do so are far more likely to hire those who had committed substance-related crimes rather than financial, violent or sexual crimes.
So, what can a former inmate do to have a better chance at getting a job? Same as anyone: nail the interview.
Preparing for the Post-Prison Interview
In an interview, employers, as with anyone, are looking for good references, a solid performance record and training in relevant skills—all things which are difficult to obtain while incarcerated. But not impossible.
Pre-prison employment experience is something which will help an inmate when reentering the work force. In a 2008 brief, the Urban Institute surveyed a large number of former inmates and found that 70 percent had held a job for at least one year prior to entering prison.
While that experience is helpful, former inmates are still going to have to explain why there is a large gap in their employment history. The 30 percent who did not have employment prior to being incarcerated will have an even harder time. That is why in-prison programs and work release options are in place.
Former inmates must give an honest account for their time in prison to a potential employer. The National Institute of Justice has found that, while giving this honest account, it is good to have some prepared things to say.
An applicant should be able to acknowledge the factors that led to their criminality and describe how the prison experience has made them stronger and better able to contribute to society. They should acknowledge responsibility for their past and demonstrate a commitment to change.
Along with heartfelt contrition, having taken the initiative to be a part of a work program does show an employer that a former inmate is committed to changing their life. Educational programs are also often available to inmates, which can aid an inmate in finding work after release.
Any certificates, diplomas, documents demonstrating completion of training, workshops or seminars which were obtained in prison are helpful and should be clearly listed on a resume.
How Technology Helps Inmates
Expanding and strengthening a social network is very important for former inmates seeking employment. Family members, former co-workers, parole officers, social services providers, and acquaintances without criminal records can all assist in an inmate’s job-search, not to mention make for solid references.
Telecommunication infrastructure in jails can make a big difference here.
Prison communication technologies aid inmates in maintaining those relationships with their social network, and in the future, job postings could be sourced from online job boards and filled out by inmates before they’ve even completed their sentence.
So much of the job searching process today requires familiarity with computers and the internet. Applicants will have to do things like create email accounts, use search engines and job search sites, fill out electronic forms, and format both resumes and cover letters. The fact is, many jobs now require some working computer-use knowledge.
Even so, incarceration could provide the computer-training resources inmates need in order to be viable members of the workforce.
Gaining certification in various areas can also be accomplished by inmates online. Prisons often do not offer college courses, and some do not even offer work options or GED programs. However, there’s no reason why this can’t change.
Prisoneducation.com has compiled a list of over 35 college correspondence programs which allow prisoners to enroll. Not only does college education help inmates in finding a job, but it gives them a chance to find a job doing something they really want to do.
According to the 2008 Urban Institute brief, there is research which suggests “finding and maintaining a legitimate job can reduce former prisoners’ chances of reoffending, and the higher the wage, the less likely it is that individuals will return to crime.”
Former inmates should also prepare themselves for the reality of the situation; they will probably receive a lot of rejection and disappointment. But with preparation, contrition, tenacity and courage, inmates can find placement after incarceration.