Prison employees help released offenders find work

Official: "Jobs are difficult for people without records and they are twice as difficult for people with records"


Andrew Carr
The Sentinel

CARLISLE, Pa. — Finding jobs in a tough economy can be difficult for many individuals. For those with criminal records, it can be nearly impossible.

Many work applications require job seekers to disclose felony convictions and many employers will run background checks on prospective employees. This creates additional pressures for men and women who have been convicted of a crime and are attempting to find work — and the ability to turn their lives around just gets that much harder.

“It is a critical issue,” said Anne Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “Jobs are difficult for people without records and they are twice as difficult for people with records.”

Hurdles

There are many hurdles those with criminal records need to surpass in order to gain employment.

“With work, there (are) three things,” said Jose Resto, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Bureau of Community Corrections. “Very simply put it is look, get and keep. There is a challenge in each one of those.”

Sue Bensinger, deputy press secretary with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said it is a tough time for all job seekers, especially those with criminal records.

“In the economy right now, the same as everyone else looking for a job — it is a slow market,” she said.

For many released inmates, a condition of their probation or parole is that they are currently employed. Many inmates are finding a struggle in order to gain employment, she said.

“It is everything from not having the skills to meet the demand for what kind of jobs that are out there now, to only finding minimum-wage jobs to finding employers who will not even look twice because a person has a record,” Schwartzman said.

Many employers will look at a person’s background before considering their application. It is important to disclose this information at the start in order to keep from having problems down the road, Bensinger said.

“You definitely need to be forthcoming and say, ‘Yes I was in jail, I was convicted of a felony,’” she said. “It isn’t necessarily a bar to employment.”

A 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management says about 69 percent of organizations reported they conduct criminal background checks on all of their job candidates. The top two convictions that weigh heavily in the decision not to extend a job offer are violent felonies, 96 percent, and nonviolent felonies, 74 percent. However, about 58 percent of organizations allow job candidates to explain the results of their criminal checks before a hiring decision is made.

“In Philadelphia we do have the Ban The Box ordinance, that hopefully people can get their foot in the door before an employer can actually screen,” Schwartzman said.

The ordinance does not apply elsewhere in the state and Schwartzman said that just because someone has a felony on their record or spent time in prison does not automatically exclude them from employment.

Another major hurdle for convicted individuals returning to the outside world is retaining employment.

“Getting that job is one huge hurdle, but in addition to that, keeping that job is also a huge hurdle, in part because people are not used to the work environment,” Schwartzman said. “Or they might not know how to deal with superiors or have anger management issues.”

For some, this may be the first time having a steady job.

“Most of our inmates get out, get into a Community Corrections program or are released on parole into the community, they do have viable employment,” Bensinger said. “They need to keep that employment. They need to get up every day and go to work, as much as we hate to.”

Resto said helping offenders find suitable, life-sustaining work is a challenge.

“Some offenders frankly have not worked in the past, because they were very young when they got incarcerated, or it just was a lifestyle choice,” he said. “It’s not something they’ve done. If they have worked, they’ve done self-employment, finding work where they can for the day, day laborer, things like that.”

Retention is also a problem, Resto said, as many people will simply quit a position if the conditions are not perfect.

“Quitting a job because you don’t like the boss or you don’t like the coworkers, you don’t like the hours, is not a good thing to do. Although that might motivate you to leave that job, but you have to leave that job for something else,” he said.

Working with employers

In order to provide work opportunities, Bensinger said it is important for employers to be willing to take the chance on someone newly released or who has a criminal record.

In order to accomplish this, Community Corrections Centers work within their surrounding communities to educate employers and help them understand the benefits of hiring a person with a record.

Resto said the challenge is convincing employers to take the chance on a person with a record, but many employers will actually seek out individuals with certain skills.

“If the person is trained and able to do the job, then they are looking for that training first,” he said. “Some will take that chance. Others are a little more resistant. They will take a chance on one guy, see how that works out.”

Many of the programs offered inside the prison walls allow inmates to get these skills and certifications, which help ensure a decent living when returned to the community.

“If the guy is a good roofer and he can perform the job, the fact that he is an ex-felon is really secondary to the fact that he can get up there and do good work,” Resto said.

Charla Plaines, reentry coordinator for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency, said there are a few inherent benefits of hiring a person who has just been released from prison.

“Well certainly you are going to have someone who is under supervision,” she said. “For the most part when folks are coming back, they are under parole or probation, so you are going to have someone who is drug-free since they are checked regularly, probably has a curfew that he needs to be in the house or in bed or somewhere he can get some rest, and the expectation is that they do need to find employment, so you have someone who is going to show up for work. There is a lot of pluses to hiring someone who is either on probation or parole and is under supervision.”

Schwartzman agreed, saying most of the time, these are the people with the most to lose.

“They have a lot at stake. They need to provide for their families, they need to provide housing and food on the table,” she said. “In our experience and what we have heard from a number of different employers, that when you do hire somebody who has a record, and they met all the right criteria for the individual job, are often the best employees because they want to prove that they really can do the job, that they are going to be a good risk, that the employer make a good decision in hiring them.”

Importance

The importance of offering these skills and programs is to help ensure that when an inmate is released, they become a productive member of society instead of falling back into crime and repeating the trend of recidivism.

“The state Department of Corrections is basically revamping their programs right now and focusing a lot of people who are reentering soon, and we are hoping through the Justice Reinvestment Fund that different community groups can provide more programing that people can really use, whether it is life skills, job readiness or different ways to be ready to make sure you are what employers are looking for,” Schwartzman said.

Finding life-sustaining, suitable jobs, helps newly released inmates reach their full potential, she said.

“Yes people can get very low-level introductory jobs, and for a lot of people that is very good, a very good start and a good way to learn to get up in time and make sure you are doing the job well and find out what demands are in the employment world, but people also need to have jobs that can cover costs of housing and cover costs for their family and really provide stability and sustainment so that over time maybe they will get a promotion,” she said. “Without strong employment many individuals find that they can to make it out on the street.”

She said it also helps make productive citizens of those former inmates.

“We really want and think that people should get jobs and employment so that they can help their families, help their neighborhoods, help the tax base,” she said.

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