You Serve Your Time, Earn Your Freedom, Then the Job Market Shuts the Door in Your Face

This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

When I was in prison on a nonviolent drug offense, all I could think about was getting out, even though I had a life sentence without parole. I worked hard to learn welding and cooking, skills I was sure would help me find a job to support myself if I were ever released. I imagined that I would have a chance to build a new life, and after I’d spent 16 years behind bars, my dream came true. President Obama commuted my sentence.

In August 2015, I walked out into freedom. I was ready to get a job and start living. I’d heard that it’s hard for those who have served time to find work, but I was confident because I thought I had the skills I needed to get my life back on track and become a productive member of my community. I had no idea that the job market is barricaded against people like me.

After I left prison in Oklahoma, I was placed in a halfway house run by the federal Bureau of Prisons in Dallas for a year before I would be completely on my own. I wanted desperately to find a job. I felt confident about my skills and started to look.

The first place I applied was Whole Foods because I’d heard they hired ex-felons. I told a cashier that I wanted to talk to the manager about a job. The cashier said that if I wanted to apply for a job, I had to “go over there,” and he pointed to a wall. I didn't see anyone, so I said, “Nobody is over there,” and he said, “I know, you apply through a computer.” All my enthusiasm about getting a job drained out of me because I didn’t know how to work a computer. When I went to prison in 1998, computers weren’t everywhere the way they are now. And the halfway house didn’t have any computers for residents to use.

I went over to the computer and tried, but I couldn't figure it out. I left sweating and discouraged. But I kept going, walking into every business I could find. Every place was the same thing: computer after computer.

Then I tried temp agencies. The man at the first one didn't mind that I had a drug conviction. "Oh, that's no problem. Everyone goes to jail for drugs nowadays.” But then he asked how long I’d been in, and I said over 17 years. His eyes got big, and he pushed away from the table. He said, “I’m sorry but I’m not going to be able to process your paperwork.” I asked why, and he told me that if people find out how long I was in prison, they will not feel safe around me, nor will the customers. I said, “It was a nonviolent crime,” and he said, “There is no way you can get that much time for a nonviolent drug crime.” There was something, he insisted, that I wasn't telling him.

I tried for a month to find employment. I filled out application form after application form that asked about criminal convictions, and as I checked the box marked “yes,” I knew that I would never hear from that employer. It tormented me: How could I convince someone to give me a chance at a job?

I decided I had to prove to the next potential employer that I’m worthy. On my next interview, I took the actual piece of paper with the executive grant commuting my sentence that the president gave me. When the interviewer asked me about my conviction, I showed her my executive order. Next thing I know, she is calling other people into the room, and they are looking at me and my clemency paper. The interviewer told me she would talk to the manager and tell him to hire me because she knows how hard it is for someone who has served time to get a job. Her brother was in prison, and she’d seen it happen to him. The manager agreed to hire me as a welder, but I was unable to get the job because I didn’t have a driver’s license. Mine had expired after 17 years, and it was going to take a month to take a driving test.

I brought out my executive grant at another interview, and it worked. I was hired at last as a welder.

I know, I’m incredibly lucky to have that piece of paper — and even with it, it wasn’t easy, but this country has tens of millions of people who have served their time and won’t get such a document. What about them? They all deserve better odds at getting the jobs they need to support themselves and their families — jobs that are critical to staying out of prison for good. There is a misconception out there that most formerly incarcerated people don’t want to work. That’s not true. Many of us do, but we face roadblocks that prevent us from getting work and settling back into our communities.

I’m in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with lawmakers and attend an event at the White House. I hope my story will help them better understand the importance of passing laws that would stop businesses from automatically screening out former prisoners when they’re hiring. I’m thankful the president commuted my sentence, but he can and should require all businesses that contract with the federal government to ban the box indicating a criminal record from their employment applications, just as he ordered federal agencies to do last November.

My good fortune doesn’t end with my commutation by the president. I was able to get some job training while in prison, but programs like those are few and far between in jails and prisons across the country. It’s time to treat those who are serving time like future employees and productive members of society instead of future felons. 

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Kris wuthrich

Thank you so much for your efforts at increasing awareness in this issue.

Anonymous

Please address how said proposal would protect the ability of employers to protect the people they serve from dangerous felons? You don't want a day care center to hire a pedophile, a bank to hire a robber, and so on and so on. Employers need to be able to keep dangerous people out of their workplaces. Employers should never be forced to take even a miniscule risk that the person they're hiring is an unstable individual. The harm to ex-felons is not worth the harm that would occur from workplace to workplace if they're not allowed to definitively keep these people out the door.

Stacy

Anyone operating a facility which cares for children should perform a background check. This is NOT the same as barring employment based on a felony conviction. I myself have a felony conviction for a nonviolent crime. Algorithms used to sort online employment applications discard applicants who ADMITTED to a felony conviction. Applicants are very rarely given the opportunity to explain the circumstances surrounding this conviction thus being permanently barred from employment. THAT is what needs to change. We as Americans are afforded certain unalienable rights. The right to pursue happiness, for one. If working is what makes us happy then these unjust hiring practices are certainly a violation of that right.

Anonymous

YES BUT IF IT'S A NON-VIOLENT DRUG OFFENSE THERE REALLY IS NO WORRY. PERHAPS A LAW TO PROTECT THOSE SENTENCED WITH NON VIOLENT OFFENSES

Anonymous

Feeling sleepy behind the wheel I pulled off the freeway and took a nap. A few hours later I was awakened by what looked like a heinous crime had been committed. I was in handcuffs and being hauled off to jail being charged with attempt grand theft. Apparently, the place where I chose to pull off and nap was having theft problems, so of course I was there to steal according to the police. My bail was set at an alarming amount of 75,000.00. Oh I am a flight risk because I was born and raised and still have immediate family in another state. I have no criminal history mind you, I don't have or I don't even know anybody that has access to this kind of money for bond. So just before my first appearance in front of the judge the appointed council tells me ...you can remain in custody for about 5 or 6 months and if what you are saying is true then your case will get dismissed or you can bond out or you can sign a guilty plea and be released on 3 years felony probation today. Well needless to say, I had a job, I was a student, I had a life and what I didn't have was 5 or 6 months to wait on a trial date while sitting in jail for something I did not do, so I signed a suspended sentence and was released on probation that day. I have since moved and my probation has just expired in Feb of 2016, I finished school, got my degree, but guess what.....nobody wants to hire a felon, especially one that they think is a thief. So here I am no career that I worked hard in school to have all thanks to Riverside County police in Riverside California. This was done to me,I can not imagine how many others this sort of thing has happened to. What's a person to do? Its not right and I USED to think our justice system was fair and just. Now I know it is broken down and no good.

Ann Williamson

What about those who have not committed a crime yet or haven't been caught? You walk and work with them everyday and don't even now it, so your argument is moot. Besides there are specific areas where they can't work, but welding is not one of them.

Anonymous

"Employers should never be forced to take even a minuscule risk that the person they're hiring is an unstable individual". This way of thinking is what fuels the discrimination of those with criminal records. As a society, we have the tendency to lump ALL criminals as being dangerous, so its just easier lock them out of the mainstream society just b/c they are considered to be a risk, along with the notion that they will never change their ways. Come on. Of course a pedophile will never be hired where children are or a thief at a bank. Trust me I can argue this too but not going to b/c it is a whole new paragraph).
Facing parole/probation restrictions and collateral consequences after released, how can we expect ex-felons to not recidivate when there are no adequate resources or opportunities in mainstream society. Not all felons are dangerous, I mean did you not read the story, there are so many individuals who are in prison for non-violent offenses or simply for drug use. Individuals just need an opportunity to contribute to society for their well-being and their communities. Please note, that mass incarceration did not develop because of rise in crime but rather poor tough on crime policies enacted. Today, parole/probation should focus on high risk and dangerous felons. So in response to your question, while an employer has the ability to not hire a dangerous ex-con to protect current employees, they can not foresee the future of them offending or making the workplace unsafe just b/c of their criminal history. And this way of thinking perpetuates the stigma of the prison label and continues locking them out of mainstream society. Proper monitoring, providing support, and building a plan for dangerous ex-felons can help them turn their life around. As a society, we need to give them an opportunity and see criminals as HUMAN BEINGS. If given the opportunities they would feel that they are contributing and a part of something. And that something is society.

Anonymous

Not only that there are simple jobs that doesn't require any special skill or training like cleaning the streets of local cities or cleaning the floors in building etc. I've been out of prison for over eight years and I want to work but it seems as if the systems wants me and other former inmates to go back to crime. It's like double jeopardy .

April Schwartz

I feel that there should be a change with laws, I unfortunately made a poor choice five years ago, and that choice has been why I am working on my Bachelor of Science in Psychology, but that choice I made has interfered with possible employment while I finish my studies. I had one lady from Human Resources tell me that my charges will be with me, and my reply to her was, "yes I made a poor choice, but I didn't ask for my son's health to take a turn for the worse, and I didn't ask for him to be molested by a family member. So yes I made a poor choice by drinking and driving, and my son with me, but I believe God will use anything that is bad for your good." I feel if you have turned your life around, than why must your charges follow you, especially if you only had one incident on your record, if you demonstrate that you are being productive, than why should it be held against you the rest of your life. There should be a statue of limitations.

Anonymous

I agree. I have a charge from 15 years ago. The thing with that is I was young & plead guilty because I just wanted to get it over with, pay the fine etc. I never in my wildest dreams thought it would come back to prevent me from getting my grandson from the custody of cps. I sit here and ask myself why on earth I plead guilty when I was not. Just to get it over with? Now it's following me for life.

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