Monday, December 9, 2013

Second Chances, an American Fantasy for Former Inmates



‘I’m finally free! I’ve learned my lesson. I will never end up back in here. I am ready to get a job and be a productive member of society.’ Most former inmates have expressed similar sentiments. However, the fantasy of getting a second chance oftentimes does not measure up to the reality that hardly no one wants to hire an former inmate. Here are my worthless two cents on the frustration faced by my fiancé and myself regarding his struggle to overcome his past to find employment. If you do not read anything else I write, please be sure to read this one. It is time to change how we as a society view those who have made mistakes and are trying to change.

Just Forget About It
The love of my life, James (name changed), has been out of jail for over a year and he has made a number of wonderful changes that make me so proud of him. He has completely cut off all of his former contacts in the streets, he began to study the Bible and was baptized, he stopped smoking cigarettes and marijuana, he stopped running drugs, he left behind his quick temper, and he stopped fighting. When I say he is a changed man, he really is. If you met him, you would say he is the nicest and most helpful person, and you would be shocked to learn how he was.

Then what is the problem? Employment. Background checks. Money. That is the problem. James has applied to dozens of employers where we live. The first thing the employer does is deny the application when he honestly answers that he has been in jail in the past five years. But James is not just a former inmate, he is the worst kind of former inmate – a former felon. That reduces his small chances of finding employment to almost 0.

Why doesn't he apply for a menial job, you may ask. That is what he has been applying to! These rejections are not coming from him applying to be a vice president, account executive, or bookkeeper - he knows he will not get those positions - they are coming from applying for such titles as janitor, electrician’s helper (which pays ten dollars per hour and is not as glamorous as it seems), warehouse worker, dishwasher, busboy, and auto detailer. He has also applied to many jobs on Craigslist which is the most promising avenue because of its 'General Labor' section.

The funny part is that he has a harder time finding work than an illegal immigrant who may also be an former inmate, unbeknownst to the employer. The rigors of finding even the lowest of the low jobs as far as labor over complexity is concerned is why many former inmates say, Just forget about it, and return to their former way of life to put food on the table. Those of us who have never been to prison probably feel like that is just an excuse for these ones to return to their life of making fast money, but it is very true. Sure, there are some like that who only want fast money, but for the most part, they, like the rest of us, want to work hard to earn their keep and becoming an upstanding member of the community. How can they support themselves and their families when people will not even give them the most basic of jobs?

What Employers Can Do
If there are any employers out there, I invite them to research why companies such as Dunkin' Donuts, American Express, and Best Western are willing to give former inmates a chance. Many employers, like most of us, fear being around inmates because they imagine they or other employees will be attacked or robbed. That is a groundless fear. The fact is that former inmates know that their chances of finding another job are low, so when they do find a job they are often the most productive employees.

I found a lovely article at http://www.inc.com/catherine-rohr/why-you-should-hire-ex-cons.html that lays out nicely why giving former inmates a second chance in the workplace is a sound business move.

What Former Inmates Can Do
James is still in want of a permanent full-time job, but one thing that he has done to keep himself afloat is take on temporary jobs. He has even used staffing agencies to help him find work which I think is a good idea because it helps to have a second pair of eyes looking for work.

Temp work has its pros and cons. The cons are that the employer can fire you even after a very short period of time, a staffing agency takes a cut of your money to pay for their services, and you will most likely be ineligible for the bonuses, promotions, and raises that permanent employees are eligible for regardless of how hard you work. The pros are that you are getting a paycheck (any money is always better than no money), you have a better chance of being hired as a permanent employee than an outsider since you already know the job, and when you use a staffing agency that recommends you for a job, it is like having an automatic professional reference.

However, I do have one word of caution about working a temporary position whether it is directly through the company or through a staffing agency – be careful with money. Since these jobs are less secure than a permanent job, it is wise to save as much money as possible in anticipation of being let go. Sometimes a former inmate, or anyone for that matter, can be overcome with his desires to get all the things he wants like fixing the house up, buying a car, getting an expensive cell phone with an expensive contract, signing up for the internet, etc. What has a great chance of happening is that the temp job ends (after all, it is temporary), and the individual has all of this debt to take care of and no savings. Working a temp job is the time to be prudent, not a big spender. Live as simply as possible, and you will be able to maintain your lifestyle based on your savings during periods of unemployment.

James has been in and out of work as the temp jobs start and end, and his longest period of unemployment has been five months. That is why he decided to go back to school at our local community college full-time, possibly for free if he can get the full Pell Grant. A degree of practically any kind boosts the chances a former inmate has of finding a permanent full-time job.

Another word of advice to former inmates is to use the good connections you already have to help you find work. Family, friends, and sweethearts may be in the position to give you a job or to let you use them as references. This step may be awkward based on the circumstances and some former inmates may be reluctant for legitimate reasons to go down this route, but the others who just do not like asking for help need to ask themselves, Which is more important, pride or a job?

I also want to mention that a parole officer may be helpful in finding a job, but James' particular parole officer does not offer that service.

More Second Chances Needed
There is a need for more second chances, especially for former inmates. Oftentimes, we as a nation are more interested in judging a person’s character based on what he has done than in being understanding, reasonable, and helpful. How many of us have done something we regretted and would like nothing more than to get on with our lives? Maybe we did not go to jail for it, but it was still bad. That is all of us because none of us are perfect. Yet, while we know that, we collectively have decided to deal roughly with those whose transgression(s) are written on a legal form in black ink. Am I the only one who sees something wrong with that?

I encourage all former inmates to work as hard as they possibly can to keep their past behind them. People will try to fling it in your face but do not let them. You are the only human who knows the ins and outs of what you did, if you did anything at all. You also know your accomplishments and goals. Keep reaching towards the positive things and do not let a close-minded society drown you in negativity.

How do you view former inmates? If you are a former inmate, how have you dealt with the trial of finding employment and facing the judgmental glares of others? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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