Back to Work: Why it’s Hard to Hire Former Inmates

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. 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.

Correctional Insights

Incarceration’s Affect on Inmates’ Children

Last year, childcare costs per family averaged $8,772 nationwide. Parents across all tax brackets will feel this increase, and many will rely on dual income sources to finance their childcare expenses. The children of inmates are especially vulnerable to these kinds of rising costs, because in most cases, there is no second income to support them.

In fact, the children of inmates are more likely than their peers to experience a whole range of disparities related to education, wealth outcomes, and family contact. These disparities may seem like insurmountable challenges, but jail administrators and prison officials can make a real difference in the lives of the children of inmates.

Pursuing an Education

For kids with parents behind bars, it’s harder to pursue a post-secondary education. Researcher Joseph Murray found that the unintended consequences of parental imprisonment included the “diversion of funds away from schools and universities.” In part, this means that family earnings and wages aren’t invested in the next generation. Instead, those funds are redirected to provide for the incarcerated parent.

If jail administrators can find ways to reduce the costs incurred incarcerated parents, that money could instead be used to fund the child’s education. For officials looking to go the extra mile, setting up a scholarship fund for inmate children could also be an effective way to support their educational aspirations.

Short-Term Family Wealth

When a parent is first incarcerated, their children are almost immediately financially disadvantaged. According to Professors Amanda Geller, Carey Cooper, Irwin Garfinkel, Ofira Schwartz-Soicher, and Ronald Mincy: “The incarceration of a father, even when parents are no longer romantically involved, often leads to decreases in household resources.” Because children with incarcerated parents are more at risk for economic and residential instability than their peers, it may be harder for them to build assets of their own as they mature.

To combat this reality in Ghana, researchers Kwadwo Ofori-Dua, Kofi Osei Akuoko & Vincent de Paul Kanwetuu made the following recommendation: “Economic problems are major challenges facing families of incarcerated persons. Prison authorities should enhance the ability of inmates to work while in prison so that they [can] remain economically active and remit their families at home.” While this recommendation pertains specifically to the prisons of Ghana, making similar adjustments here in the US could provide more funds for the children of inmates.

Maintaining Family Contact

In addition to the educational insights presented in his work, Murray also found that “Ninety-five percent of women reported that family contact was extremely important to them, but only 67 percent of imprisoned mothers were visited by their children. The absence of visits appeared to relate to practical difficulties of travelling, distance between prison and home, the cost of travel, and visiting times.” It is important to note that these practical difficulties have nothing to do with the intent of the child.

Often, it is not the child who decides whether or not to visit their incarcerated parent, but the child’s caregiver. Researchers Julie Poehlmann, Danielle Dallaire, Ann Booker Loper, and Leslie Shear write that “[Caregivers] need support for dealing with their stress and concerns about visitation. The financial and logistical difficulties of arranging visitation, as well as the increased burden presented by the demands of child rearing can affect the caregiver, who often serves as gatekeeper in terms of his or her willingness to facilitate contact.” For caregivers, arranging transportation, shelter, and all the other considerations that go into a physical visit can be overwhelming. However, jail and prison officials can take direct actions to reduce these logistical and financial burdens.

How Officials can Help the Children of Inmates

Simply by modifying their facility’s community-facing messaging, jail administrators can entice caregivers to schedule visits, instead of rebuffing them. Prominent, easy-to-read visitation rules and availabilities are key to inspiring confidence in caregivers, and a confident caregiver is that much more likely to schedule a visitation for their child. An incarceration facility’s website is also critically important. Jail administrators should hound their webmasters into making their sites as user-friendly as possible.

Finally, if increasing parent-child contact in your facility is important to you, consider partnering with a socially conscious video visitation provider. Make it a priority to find one that offers a secure, standalone solution to enable frequent teleconferencing between children and their incarcerated parents. No child should ever be denied the opportunity to visit their parent because the hotels, gasoline, or time off of work is too expensive. With a video visitation solution, jail administrators can keep families close, and in frequent contact.



Correctional Insights

The Real Constituency Impact: Inmate Family Finances Post-Release

Shopping for a new inmate telecom service provider can feel like walking through the shampoo aisle of your local supermarket; way too many options, and not nearly enough time to try them all out. As a jail administrator, you’ve got a whole community relying on you to make a reasonable choice when it comes inmate phones and video visitation platforms. That can feel like a lot of pressure. However, many of the best incarceration officials see it as a challenge. “How can I make the absolute best choice for my county?” they ask themselves, surrounded by desks stacked with RFPs and proposals. Choosing a new provider is tough, especially when so many vendors only differentiate themselves based on commission rates. Perhaps the best approach to selecting an ICSP involves stepping back and considering the end-user—and especially the family finances of that end-user.

In a previous article, we discussed the pressures inmate families face while their loved ones are incarcerated. The piece explained that in most cases, law-abiding inmate family members are responsible for covering the healthcare, economic, and communication costs related to incarceration. One factor that article failed to adequately address was the post-release impact inmates have on family finances. This may come as no surprise, but returning inmates face a number of economic challenges in the free world. Consequently, their families face those struggles as well.


Employment opportunities for former convicts are underwhelming. Not only is the inmate’s relevant job history depreciated, their individual skills and competencies may have decayed during their time spent in prison. Social networks dwindle without attention, and contacts who could have provided career references or job search assistance are likely gone by the time the inmate gets out. All of this is compounded by the fact that a criminal record on a job application is a serious limiting factor.

Regrettably, these limitations are exacerbated by other problems, as detailed by researchers David J. Harding, Jessica J.B. Wyse, Cheyney Dobson, and Jeffrey D. Morenoff: “Low levels of human capital, poor health, and lack of work experience also pose barriers to former offenders’ economic stability and mobility. Forty-one percent of those released from prison lack a high school education, and 73% have a history of drug and alcohol abuse.”

This economic insecurity isn’t limited to the released inmate. Any income hardships inmates face after release will trickle down to impinge family finances. To put it bluntly, when former inmates can’t afford to put bread on the table, their families will have to pick up the bill.

Public Aid

Since ex-inmate earning power is so underwhelming, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is ample government assistance for former inmates and their families. The truth is another matter. Researchers Harding, Wyse, Dobson and Morenoff go on to state that “former prisoners face considerable barriers to attaining economic stability and integration. One important set of barriers includes legal and policy restrictions on former offenders. Many states have banned those with felony convictions from benefits such as food stamps, TANF, SSI and residence in public housing, either permanently or temporarily.” This means that the people with the worst long term economic prospects also receive little public assistance for their basic survival. With no help from the state, inmates can only turn to their family, and as a result family finances take another hit.

Debts and Fees

Sitting in jail can be very expensive, but not just in terms of opportunity cost. While on the inside, inmates can rack up debts and fees related to all sorts of things, and those obligations don’t just disappear after release.

According to a report published by The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, “the costs of calls, visitation, commissary, health care, and other costs are borne by individuals with convictions and their families. This study found that it is family members, predominantly women in the family, who primarily bear responsibility for the financial costs of maintaining contact. For a number of these women, including many who were mothers, these costs put them into debt.”

It’s obvious that taking on debt with the prospect of decreased future earnings is a recipe for disaster as far as family finances are concerned. Yet inmate families do it anyway—which in some ways is a testament to how important contact with loved ones is. Despite that, it is in this area that jail administrators can provide the most immediate relief.

Ella Baker Infographic.
Image Courtesy of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Relief for Inmate Family Finances

When inmates are released back into society, they’ve done their time in the eyes of the law. At this point, it’s no longer necessary to extend their punishment through reduced employment opportunities, inaccessible public aid, or excessive debt. In light of these factors and others, the Ella Baker report reached the following conclusion: “We need to shift our sentences to focus more on accountability, safety, and healing of all individuals involved rather than punishing those convicted of crimes.” They couldn’t be more correct, especially about accountability. The reality is that law enforcement groups, citizens, politicians and businesses all need to hold each other to a higher standard if criminal justice reform is going to stick. We’ve all got skin in this game, and we can all contribute in our own ways. For jail administrators, consciously considering inmate family finances is the best way to make a real, positive impact.

Correctional Insights

The Real Constituency Impact: Families Share the Burden

When a jail administrator sits down at the bargaining table to pick a new inmate phone service provider, it’s a daunting task. Hundreds of variables between dozens of companies must be considered, and after all is said and done, there’s virtually no recognition. But on the whole, jail administrators do a pretty good job at evaluating what companies present to them. Like any good public servant, they meticulously weigh the pros and cons of each provider to secure the most efficient solution for their county. Unfortunately, one critical factor is often lost in the noise surrounding inmate phone contracts and RFPs (requests for proposals): The costs passed on to inmate families.

These families have a hard lot in life. They are often already under significant pressure even before their loved one is incarcerated. Worse yet, the costs related to their inmate’s health lost wages, and communication falls squarely upon their shoulders. These are law-abiding citizens who cover these costs, paying capital out of their communities and into the corrections industry. At some point you’ve got to ask yourself: Does a higher commission rate justify that?

Who Pays for an Inmate’s Healthcare?

Healthcare is already a vast piece of the average family’s budget, but a single instance of illness can break bank accounts quickly. With that in mind, consider that incarceration facilities concentrate people with infectious and chronic diseases. While in jail or prison, inmates are covered by the state. But when a person is reintroduced to society after living in the superbug incubator that is an incarceration facility, they bring with them any number of health problems. According to researchers Nicholas Freudenberg, Jessie Daniels, Martha Crum, Tiffany Perkins, and Beth E. Richie, “people leaving jail may contribute to health inequities in the low-income communities to which they return.” After release, the most immediate point of contact for inmates is usually their family.

Just because inmate healthcare is covered by the state, that doesn’t mean families aren’t sending money to buy Tylenol or other incidental over-the-counter drugs from commissaries. These comfort/quality of life products can be an inmate’s only option when it comes to relieving their immediate pains. Meager prison wages can’t always cover the costs of such products, especially if an inmate uses them regularly. Thus, inmate families are again left footing the bill, in addition to the healthcare costs when their inmate returns home.

Who Pays for Depressed Economic Development?

It’s obvious that families lose income when a mother or father is incarcerated. However, the broad macroeconomics of the situation is less obvious. When a community supplies a large number of inmates to the corrections industry, “human capital in the community is generally depleted or in the case of the ex-offenders, developed in undesirable ways,” according to researchers Harold Watts and Demetra Smith Nightingale.

Significant reductions in a community’s labor force can lead to problems for area businesses, as well as decreased revenue for inmate families. None of that is right for economic development. When local companies struggle, it can strain the community as a whole. So in addition to spending more to support their loved ones in jail, the families of inmates are losing money in the form of lost productivity and a potentially worsened economic environment.

Who Really Pays for Inmate Phone Services

In the corrections industry, contact between inmates and their families is frequently touted as a recidivism-reducing force. But there’s a flip side to that: according to Cheryl Leanza, “[t]he costs of telephone calls to incarcerated people in the United States are often extraordinarily high—well beyond what most people in our country pay for telephone service. It is often cheaper to call Singapore at 12 cents a minute from a cell phone than it is to speak to someone in prison or jail.” These high rates are usually the result of inmate phone contracts with oversized commission percentages, not to mention the outrageous fees charged by some inmate phone providers.

“The high rates are a terrible burden on the friends and family members of incarcerated people—who often have to choose between basic needs and communication with someone they love. And the high telephone rates undermine social networks that can help inmates reintegrate into society,” as Leanza goes on to state. All of this is counterproductive to the goal of reducing recidivism, and unfortunately is standard practice for most inmate phone providers. Once again, the families of inmates pay for these inflated service costs.


There has to be a better way for jails and prisons to provide inmate calling services to constituents. Make no mistake, inmate families are the end consumers here. They are the tax-paying community members who just want the ability to speak with their incarcerated loved ones. Families already bear additional health and labor costs, not to mention the psychological stress involved with missing a family member—after all this, they shouldn’t be left to the mercy of inmate phone companies.

However, in this area jail administrators can make a huge difference, because they’re the ones sitting at the bargaining table. Jail administrators can ensure that exorbitant costs aren’t passed on to their constituents. They hold all the power in the phone contract relationship. If a jail administrator says “Jump” inmate phone companies ask “How high?” Enormous economic relief for hundreds of the most vulnerable inmate families across a constituency could be as simple as switching providers.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this: The highest commission rate shouldn’t be the determining factor when selecting a new inmate phone company. When it is, inmate families pay the price.