Out of Prison, Out of Work
By Jerrica James and Gabrielle Washington
Raheem Cheers was beating the odds. He had graduated from Bolivar Central High School on time, didn’t have any children, and had never been arrested. He spent his days working at a local factory and constantly checking up on his mother and godmother. He and his fiancé, Bre’yosha Mays, were on the verge of celebrating their three-year anniversary when the world turned upside-down.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” Cheers, 21, recalls. He’s referring to the time he got his first felony charge for a stolen military weapon.
Cheers had purchased the weapon after fearing for the safety of his family following gang-related activity in his neighborhood. “I knew about the gangs. I was in one in high school. I just never thought that they could be trying to come for me or my family,” he says.
The gun was purchased from a friend who told him that it was registered and legal. That same friend turned him in to the police and Cheers was soon wrapped up in a whirlwind of lies and court dates that cost him everything he had.
Cheers automatically knew that getting back on his feet would be a challenging task. “It was a struggle for me knowing I was in jail for something someone else did, knowing I had a felony and wouldn’t be able to take care of my girl or my family,” he explains.
His fiancé had dealt with similar issues with her father and understood firsthand the hardship that came with having a record. “I knew he wouldn’t be able to find a decent job once he got out. I knew he wouldn’t want to settle for McDonald’s. I knew he wouldn’t be able to take care of me, but I wasn’t going to leave him by himself either,” she said.
Cheers’ predicament isn’t unique. According to the Urban Institute, only 30 percent of newly released inmates find legal employment after two months out.
One reason the issue has become so pressing is the large and growing number of Americans with criminal records. According to the Columbia University School of Public Health, nearly 68 million Americans have a record and many of them are effectively shut out of the job market.
The inability to find employment or steady, lawful income can lead to cutting corners. Some men and women may have credentials, but on a typical job application, the first thing an employer might notice is that someone is an “ex-felon.”
Jacqui Mc Bride, an accountant at Memphis’ daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, said, “Asking this question is a necessary evil for employers. Not asking this question or putting [it] on an application could mean putting the company and its employee in a very compromising position.”
Denise Dates, CEO of The Webber Paralegal Firm, confirms the information is routine: “Asking applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime or a felony is appropriate and legal in most states. However, inquiring whether an applicant has ever been arrested is considered discriminatory because an arrest does not constitute wrongdoing.”
In Memphis, companies such as St. Jude and FedEx require applicants to check the box and describe why they were in custody. But at the University of Memphis, administrators say they are focused on hiring anyone who is willing to work.
“[We] do not have the box labeled for those who have been in jail,” says Kristil Davis, assistant director of workforce management at the university. “[Employment] appointments will be based on merit as it relates to the position requirements.”
The Commercial Appeal’s McBride agrees that employers should look beyond someone’s history: “If they are a good fit for the job, the determining factor shouldn’t be based solely on something that happened in their past.”
Cherelle Hanslock, a superviser at a Memphis-area McDonald’s, says that she is not allowed to deny applicants a job because of their status with the law. “In short, we cannot and do not discriminate on any basis. To do otherwise would be inconsistent with our own strong convictions as a company to not tolerate discrimination against anyone, for any reason,” she explains.
Yet former inmate Robert Porter is unconvinced by this rhetoric and calls Hanslock’s response “generic.”
“It’s amazing how corporations use jargon to distract and shy away from answering the most commonly asked questions that are brought to them. Nowhere in writing [does it say] if they do or don’t, but what I do know is that I’ve never gotten an interview and I’ve applied several times when they had the ‘now hiring’ sign on their door.”
And Cheers knows firsthand that finding work isn’t easy for those bearing the label of a convicted felon. “I tried everything,” he said. “I could put on my best suit, give a great interview, and still end up jobless if I even got a call for an interview.” Dates, the Webber Firm’s chief executive, agrees that it’s a common dilemma, one that most people with criminal records never quite escape.
“There have been several people that I have encountered in my lifetime who [have] been discriminated against due to a felony conviction. The employer shared with them that because of the felony conviction, they would be unable to go forward in the hiring process. I believe a person with those types of stigma [may] feel possibly like a second-class citizen. Most people make mistakes and to be judged on a mistake is unfair,” said paralegal firm CEO.
Ex-offender Cory Thomas shared insight on how having a felony on your record could, fair or not, haunt you long afterward.
“I was hired for a job and had been working [there] for about four years. I’ve received multiple bonuses, out-performed co-workers that had been employed with the company longer than I have. Despite that, after I got into an altercation with my girlfriend, she called my job and told them that I was arrested and convicted. Despite the fact that I didn’t go to jail and was going through a diversion program, the company immediately fired me.”
“Ban the Box”
Some states have tried to minimize the employment problems with legislation known as “Ban the box.” According to an article on the website fivethirtyeight.com, these laws don’t eliminate criminal-background information; they simply remove it from the first round of the application in order to give individuals more of a chance to prove themselves:
The laws aim to block employers from using criminal records as a blanket screen against hiring; employers can still ask about a candidate’s record, but not until later in the hiring process, at which point, at least in theory, prospective employees are more likely to be given a chance to explain themselves.
Hawaii was the first state to ban the box in 1998, while California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Minnesota and Rhode Island and the District of Columbia have banned the box for most state jobs. Both Delaware and Nebraska have passed legislation to “ban the box” from application forms for most state, city and county jobs.
But progress is slow, and public opinion polls show most American employers won’t consider hiring someone with a felony, despite the fact that what sometimes separates it from a misdemeanor is the amount of money involved in the crime.
Trying to Help
For those living in Tennessee where such laws have not been passed an additional option is a work-readiness program. In Shelby County, those seeking employment can apply for the Second Chance Program with the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Re-entry. It is a private/public partnership between the City of Memphis and local businesses that is designed to connect ex-offenders who are willing to work with employers who are willing to hire them.
“During the nine-month program, those accepted receive assistance in job training, with the job search and with interviewing,” explains program assistant Jamie Thomas.
While these programs aim to help ex-offenders, some people can get turned around due the application process. “We try to help as many people as we can, and help them keep jobs. Because the program is so long and intensive we have to put a cap on how many we can accept during each cycle,” says Thomas.
However, those who participated in the program have seen its successes. “The Second Chance Program saved my life and I do mean that to the fullest degree,” said Kahlisa Webber, ex-offender and graduate of the SCP. I didn’t think that one mistake could practically ruin your chances of getting the job you qualify for until it happened to me. Now that I’m certified from the program, I’ve had a consistent job for about 7 years.”
The training includes an emphasis on individual accountability. Participants engage in 160 hours of intensive instruction during which they break personal barriers to self-sufficiency, obtain new job skills, develop résumés and career plans, and practice interviewing techniques.
Thomas Snow of the Tennessee Prison Outreach Ministry says his program will have a similar purpose in Nashville. “We are trying to help as many people as we can. We want to reconcile [ex-felons] with God, their family and their community,” he said.
The program, headed by Snow, will be 12 months long, and assist with multiple aspects of the job search. “We will help with job training, placement and mentoring so that they can get back out in the community.”
Mays thinks that the best option for Cheers is applying for job training. “I think that the skills he will learn from it will be a great experience and help him build his confidence.”