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Could former inmates solve the labor shortage?

Though millions of positions are open, prisoners still face employment barriers

Former Rikers inmate Neftali Thomas Diaz (left) talks with a case manager at the Fortune Society, a New York nonprofit helping inmates reenter society and find jobs, in 2017. Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig, file

Could former inmates solve the labor shortage?

Donald Thieleman left prison on June 3 last year with a $50 check and a bus ticket. Officials dropped him at a Houston station 10 minutes before his bus left with no time for him to buy food or cash his check. He boarded the Greyhound at 9 a.m. and arrived at 1:30 the next morning in Austin, where Texas Reach Out, a local Christian re-entry ministry, picked him up at the station. That organization took the former inmate to get an ID and began to connect him with employers.

Thieleman spent 18 years in prison, some time on parole, and then five more years behind bars on burglary charges. Once a journeyman electrician, he no longer can get a license. Now he works for a company hired by businesses in downtown Austin to keep the city clean as a supervisor at Austin’s newest park.

Thousands of men and women who were once behind bars struggle to enter the workforce. Many, unlike Thieleman, receive little to no support. As industries struggle with ongoing labor shortages that peaked late last year, prisoners could play a key role in filling open positions. But even with unemployment at record lows, former inmates still face significant obstacles, and many companies officially committed to second-chance hiring don’t put it into practice.

In what has come to be known as the Great Resignation, more than 47 million workers quit their jobs in 2021. Many left low-wage service roles for another position with higher pay, leaving companies in the lurch, desperate to attract people back into the workforce. Employers posted 11.3 million jobs in February, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and the national unemployment rate declined again in March to a new pandemic-era low of 3.6 percent — 6 million Americans.

Though millions of positions are open across the country, former prisoners still have difficulty finding employers willing to give them a second chance. More than 650,000 inmates are released from state and federal prisoners each year — 10,000 a week. In 2018, the Prison Policy Initiative estimated an unemployment rate of over 27 percent for the formerly incarcerated, and recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data confirms the persistently high rate of joblessness among former prisoners.

Samuel Perez is grassroots director at Prison Fellowship and also a former inmate. He served time in a Virginia prison from age 19 to 26. Eleven years later, his criminal record still held him back. After getting a master’s degree in professional counseling, he wanted to obtain national counseling credentials. The board turned him down. “Whether the employment rate is high or low there’s a permanent stigma that you live with,” he said.

Former Louisiana probation officer Scott Peyton has witnessed the results of this stigma. Prisoners have paid their debt to society, he said, but society continues to hold them accountable for their whole lives. “If we don’t have a criminal justice system that provides hope for redemption … there’s no motivation to want to do better,” he said.

Second-chance hiring not only helps former inmates overcome stigma and live productive lives, it can also be good for businesses and the economy. Each year, unemployment of formerly incarcerated people creates a loss of about $78 billion to $87 billion in the national gross domestic product, the organization Right on Crime estimated in a 2020 report. “This is an opportunity for employers to build the workforce of the future,” Peyton said.

Investment strategist Jeff Korzenik agrees. He wrote the book Untapped Talent: How Second Chance Hiring Works for Your Business and the Community. One study estimates that more than 19 million people have felony convictions in the United States.

“The workforce shortage is not going away,” he said, and former prisoners make up a “huge pool of potential talent.” Second-chance hiring can provide companies struggling to find employees with a loyal and productive workforce. But, Kurzenik warned, “to make this work, employers need to go into this with intention.”

Successful second-chance employers need a selection process. How should employers assess people with such different experiences than the average applicant? Korzenik encourages companies to partner with a nonprofit like a faith-based re-entry program or a local church that has gotten to know the former inmate and can help identify his or her strengths and weaknesses.

Once a company hires an ex-prisoner, it needs a support process to ensure the employee can thrive and add value to the business, Korzenik noted. Employers should provide financial and social education and gain a better understanding of the criminal justice system. Many employers have a no show, no call, no job rule. But an employee might be showing up to work late on Thursdays because he has a meeting with his parole officer. An employer also might ask an employee to leave the state without realizing that this will violate parole.

Many companies say they are committed to giving everyone a fair chance but don’t have structures in place for second-chance hiring, Korzinek said. Success requires direction from the top of the company and accountability systems to ensure that it’s actually happening.

Now Peyton, the former Louisiana probation officer, works with Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform initiative, to destigmatize hiring people with criminal backgrounds and provide tools for employers. He is advocating for a Louisiana bill that would require licensing boards to evaluate whether someone’s criminal record would affect his work and explain how a crime relates to his denial.

Perez of Prison Fellowship said that second-chance hiring reflects the gospel: “Heaven is full of people who have received a second chance. We are called to be a people of second chances.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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