Larry Thomas is an ambitious guy. In hopes of becoming an electrician, he spent two years studying nine hours a day, five days a week, providing electrical repairs for free to gain experience. Recently he’s celebrated his one-year work anniversary at Frischhertz Electric, in New Orleans, where he works as an electrician apprentice.
From this vantage point, Thomas’s story looks like the American dream—small-town kid works hard to build a better life for himself and his kid. Thomas, originally from Marrero, Louisiana, has performance reviews filled with descriptions like "hard worker," "quick learner," and "eager to advance himself." Though he has four more years of apprenticeship before he can become a full electrician, his future looks bright.
If you look closer, however, a different—and arguably more important—story is playing out. Just a year ago, Thomas was serving time on a burglary conviction at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which is the largest maximum security prison in the nation. His years of study took place behind bars, his teachers were other inmates certified to do so, and his hands-on experience came from rewiring prison security cameras. Now he is a model employee, at the forefront of a new program that connects inmates directly to trade positions on the outside. Frischhertz Electric and more than two dozen other local businesses are clamoring for more employees just like him.
Thomas’s experience couldn’t be more different from that of most former inmates. Though the U.S. incarcerates more of its residents than anywhere else in the world, it is arguably one of the hardest places to find employment if you have a criminal record. Of the 650,000 people released from state prisons each year, up to 75% will still be unemployed a year after their release, often despite applying to hundreds of positions.
Though blanket bans on hiring people with criminal records are technically illegal, companies large and small routinely treat a criminal record like a scarlet letter. These automatic disqualifications function to keep ex-offenders at the fringe of the labor market for the rest of their working lives. The damage of this discrimination is compounded by the fact that a disproportionate number of ex-offenders are black and Latino men living in communities that already struggle with widespread unemployment and household poverty.
The question America needs to be asking itself is whether it's tenable to keep such a large and growing proportion of its population at the fringe.
Nearly 70 million people in the U.S. have some kind of criminal record, which means that the "need not apply" philosophy most companies employ is not only bad for former inmates, it’s an enormous drain on local and regional economies. To put it in a national context, the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that the U.S. economy loses $57 to $65 billion each year because of the underemployment and reduced output of people with felonies and prison records.
Add to this that many of the industries that could provide entry-level, career-track jobs—such as construction, manufacturing, and health care—are currently struggling with labor shortages, and America’s incarceration epidemic has become a recipe for a stagnant economy.
But what if employers’ long-held assumptions about the risks of hiring those with criminal records are wrong? And what if connecting former inmates to good jobs was not only a way to stem high recidivism rates but a way to shore up the nation's economy?
These are the critical questions that will decide whether Thomas's story remains an exception or one day becomes the rule. Grappling with these issues is a small pilot project in New Orleans that is looking to turn the toxic relationship between incarceration and unemployment on its head.
On a map of state incarceration rates, Louisiana has to be assigned its own category because its prison population so outstrips the rest of the country. The state is infamous for imprisoning more people, per capita, than anywhere else in the world, and nowhere are the effects of this over-incarceration more severe than in New Orleans.
Over-incarceration and drug law enforcement in minority communities disproportionately affects people of color such that they make up 60% of the nation's prison population. In New Orleans, 1 in 14 black men are behind bars. And when these men return home, they are relegated to temporary, part-time, and informal positions that pay poorly and inconsistently and live in communities where as many as half of the adult men are out of work. One survey found that even with identical qualifications, having a criminal record reduced the chance of a job callback by 50%. For African-American applicants, that number jumps to 65%. Men who have served time earn 40% less on average per year than their peers who have not been incarcerated.
This was the state of affairs facing Kenneth Polite when he was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana (which includes New Orleans) in 2013. As soon as he took office he set out to find examples of programs that could help break down the stigma around hiring the thousands of inmates released into the Louisiana labor market each year.
"We estimate that we’ll have 80,000 skilled labor jobs available in Louisiana in the next three years, but local industries are struggling to find in-state talent," says Polite. "We are simply casting away a big percentage of the population who want to join the workforce and become productive, tax-paying citizens."
Polite and his staff found inspiration a thousand miles due north, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where two local businesses were spearheading an initiative that would enlist 30 companies to each employ two former inmates for two years.
Today this "30-2-2" program has placed 100 employees at 19 companies, all of whom are having their wages, attendance, and performance tracked in hopes of arming local business leaders, policymakers, and advocates with the hard data necessary to make the case for employing "returning citizens."
"We want to prove to the broader business community what we already know here: employing returning citizens works," says Kenyatta Brame, executive vice president at Cascade Engineering, one of the two companies leading the effort.
While companies like Cascade want former inmates to thrive, the 30-2-2 program was born not out of a moral mission, but an economic one. Following skilled labor shortages in the post-recession economy, another Grand Rapids company, Butterball Farms, launched the program as a way to tap into the 12,000 Michiganders released from state prisons each year.
"Unless we cultivate a successful pool of candidates, we won’t have enough talent to manage our businesses," Brame says. "That means taking the barriers to employment facing many residents seriously, and learning how to give them the tools they need to live up to their potential."
In 2014, Polite launched a similar program, which they called "30-2+2," in the New Orleans metropolitan area with these lessons in mind. The program was linked to an existing reentry program at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola that provides select inmates with job training, mentorship, and life skills. It was through these two programs that Larry Thomas was able to go from prisoner to career-track professional.
Today 25 businesses have signed on to Polite’s program and many others have expressed interest. The employers who have hired the eight former inmates placed to date have given overwhelmingly positive feedback.
"Employers were hesitant at first, but the workers have been so excellent that now lots of people are calling," says Jason Schumm, executive director of the South Louisiana Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association. Schumm represents two electrical contractors working with the 30-2+2 program. "These workers have a lot of the soft skills that you used to see years ago: They’re enthusiastic, they want to do a good job, they take pride in their work, they’re punctual—that’s refreshing for many of our employers," he says.
Though these programs require an initial investment—a hard sell in states like Louisiana that have seen chronic budget shortfalls—Polite now hopes to use data on worker performance and recidivism collected during 30-2+2 to make the case for the cost-effectiveness of investing in preparing inmates for work and connecting them to local employers.
Thomas was one of the lucky ones. Had he not been connected to the Angola reentry program and then to 30-2+2 and the local electrical worker’s union, his chances of finding a decent, steady job upon release would have been slim.
Stigma, discrimination, and insufficient job experience make it hard work for those reentering society to gain an economic foothold. An explosion in the popularity of online background checks has only further exacerbated the problem. Today more than 90% of employers run background checks, but instead of using this information as one ingredient in the applicant’s candidacy, many companies use it to summarily dismiss a candidate.
Despite a slew of lawsuits challenging these exclusionary hiring practices, some of the nation’s largest employers still use overly broad background check requirements, according to the National Employment Law Project—Bank of America, Lowe’s, Accenture, and Aramark, to name just a few.
Consider the experience of Jahaun McKinley, 34, of Grand Rapids, who was released after 19 years from prison in 2009 with no job experience other than janitorial work in prison. He picked up short-term manual labor wherever he could to build up his resume, but rejection after rejection piled up. One hiring manager even crumpled up his application in front of him, without reading it, and tossed it into a nearby trash can.
Locked out of most labor markets, banned from ever receiving welfare or food stamps, those with a record like McKinley are often doomed to live paycheck to paycheck, struggling to feed and house themselves and their families.
A chance at stable employment, of course, helps them beat the odds against them. For McKinley, this chance came in the form of an entry-level job at Cascade Engineering, where the company's on-the-job training and mentorship unlocked McKinley’s potential as a worker. Six years and two promotions later, he is a manager overseeing six plastic manufacturing plants, and one of Cascade’s best employees.
So what’s going right in Grand Rapids and New Orleans? Both programs would not have succeeded if they were only about employing ex-offenders. What was required was cultivating their broader potential through training, mentorship, and in some cases, logistical support.
Cascade has a full-time case manager on staff to help employees troubleshoot issues with transportation, housing, and child care that can lead to absenteeism, especially for those still getting back on their feet post-incarceration. Hiring a case manager, whose salary is split between Cascade and the Michigan Department of Human Services, has dramatically decreased costly turnover and missed work. Cascade also partners with local community organizations that provide preliminary job training to recently released inmates to prepare them for the workplace and trains its own employees to be mentors to new hires.
In New Orleans, the 30-2+2 program is pulling candidates from the Angola reentry program, where inmates receive an impressive array of hard and soft skills—two years of vocational training in real-world trades such as welding, automotive repair, and the culinary arts; intensive cognitive behavioral therapy (including anger management); parenting and substance abuse counseling; and more than 100 hours of other soft skills training.
This program completely changed the trajectory of Thomas’s future. "Three years ago I could have never seen myself where I am today," he says. "I just kept doing the right thing, taking advice from my mentors, and now I see I can go somewhere, I can be someone, I can be an asset to my company."
Thomas is just one of millions of American workers with a criminal record trying to build a stable life in the face of stigma and discriminatory policies. And how the nation handles the future of these workers—whether we continue to banish them to the sidelines of society or choose to empower their potential and talent—has enormous ramifications for our success as a nation.
While America’s incarceration problem commonly makes headlines, its post-incarceration problem receives far too little attention. The nation spends $70 billion on prisons, probation, parole, and detention per year. In return, this investment has given us abysmal recidivism rates, billions of dollars in lost productivity and tax revenue, and a large and growing population of "unemployable" workers that stymie economic growth and prosperity at the community, regional, and national levels. But advocates like Polite and Brame are convinced it doesn’t have to be that way.
Just this month, President Obama acknowledged the importance of supporting prisoner reentry into the workforce with a new program to support community advocates who are helping former inmates "rehabilitate and reintegrate." Last week the President proposed a rule that would "ban the box" on all federal job applications, meaning that employers would have to consider a job candidate’s qualifications before asking about criminal history. More than a hundred cities and counties representing 21 states have passed similar "ban the box" policies thanks to ongoing advocacy campaigns. Scaling localized initiatives like Angola’s reentry program and 30-2+2 could expand access to life-changing pathways to job training and job placement.
For Polite, shifting the narrative around the talent and potential of former inmates is the crucial first step in the road to recovery. Polite says he can make a moral case for why this is important, an economic one, or a workforce one, but it all boils down to the same truth: "We are not safer as a country, we’ve doomed the same people to cycle through the prison system, and we’re robbing ourselves of potential workers."
Courtney Hutchison is senior communications associate at PolicyLink and a N.Y.C.-based writer. She produces stories for the PolicyLink America’s Tomorrow newsletter, which highlights campaigns, leaders, policies, reports, and local models that build an equitable economy.