A note to our readers: the names of formerly incarcerated men and their families in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
“My whole life, I never had a job.”
At the age of 51, William Bennett was one of the oldest people in California who could claim that. But in June 2013, eight months after leaving prison, that was about to change.
“Either Monday or Tuesday I’ll be working on the freeways,” he said. “580 or 880. Picking up trash. First job ever.”
He enrolled in the Golden State Works Initiative, which provides job training and placement services to parolees in Oakland. On the last day of his training, Bennett and I met for breakfast. I asked him to tell me the most challenging part of reentering.
“Employment,” he said. “Finding employment. Being able to get paid enough to survive. Will this job allow me to continue working and be able to pay my rent? Or will I find a job that will lay me off? That’s just a fear I have, you know, of the unknown.”
A criminal record lowers earnings and limits opportunities
Bennett introduced me to many parolees who had similar questions and fears. People like John Porter. Porter and I met in April at the Berkeley Rose Garden.
“I can find jobs all day long at $10 an hour,” he said. “You know, $10 to $12 an hour, easy. But to actually find a good job that’s going to pay some money, that’s been roughest part.”
Like Bennett, Porter had taken part in the GSW job training program. But he was having trouble finding work that paid a living wage.
“Because if it’s not anywhere between $19 to $25, you know, it’s really hard to live because you’re just going to be working to pay your rent,” he said.
According to a 2010 study, serving time reduces annual earnings by 40 percent on average.
“One barrier is having a criminal record, and another barrier is just having many years of incarceration where you’re out of the job market,” says Katherine Katcher, executive director of Root & Rebound, a reentry advocacy center in Berkeley. “Even if people are involved in training programs inside of prison or educational programs inside of prison, when they get out, there’s a huge stigma against them, and because they’ve committed a crime, especially if it’s a violent crime, they’re going to find it extremely difficult to get any kind of gainful employment.”
Nearly one in three working-age Americans has some kind of criminal record. About half don’t find jobs the first year out. Some local governments have made it illegal for city contractors to ask an applicant about their criminal record on an interview form. But current state and federal law allows potential employers to reject formerly incarcerated people. Katcher says it can happen at any point.
“In the application review, in interviews, in hiring, in promotions, and in termination decisions,” she says. “Technically, they are supposed to do a kind of nexus test where they look at how recent that conviction is, and the relationship of that kind of conviction to the job. But very few employers actually do that work.”
Porter told me he’d recently been turned down from his old job as a school bus mechanic because of the felony on his record. He was getting frustrated.
“I’ve been applying at AC Transit, the Port of Oakland, Muni, the city of San Francisco, the city of Oakland. You know I’ve been applying everywhere trying to get a decent job,” he said.
While waiting to hear back, Porter was working several part-time jobs. As a mover, an installer, a welder, and a part-time ceramics instructor. He’d also started making pottery in a prison arts program. In May, we met up at Creations in Clay, a ceramics studio in Oakland. He showed me bright tall vases with blue, orange, and mother-of-pearl glazes displayed in the studio’s small gallery. This was one place where he was not judged for his past but admired for his skill as a teacher and artist. The job, however, did not paid enough money to live on.
Like Porter, Bennett worked part-time jobs while looking for permanent work. He worked two to three jobs that paid minimum wage or up to $10 per hour. Some days, he drove a truck from 3pm to 5am. On other days he transported cars for a car rental company, washed uniforms and rugs for an industrial cleaner, and worked as a security guard at night clubs. But he kept networking – talking with contacts and handing out business cards.
One day, he told his story at a fundraising event and impressed the Chief Executive Director of Westside Community Services, a mental health agency in San Francisco. He got hired, and started as a receptionist.
“It’s a big office,” he said. “It has a copy machine, lots of nice chairs, pillows. I have a nice chair. It has cold water. Pictures of giraffes like in the jungle on the wall, magazines, a little table and chairs for kids when they come in.”
The job turned out to have surprising challenges. In prison, Bennett had no access to the Internet. So things like searching for online information, managing passwords, and using smart phones were completely new to him.
Studies show that many formerly incarcerated people have significant educational and employment deficits. Roughly half lack a high school degree and many depended on illegal income prior to incarceration. When they get out, they have a lot of catching up to do.
To reveal or hide the past?
Eventually, Bennett transitioned into a role as a community liaison. Part of his new role included reaching out to local parents and youth.
We drove to Wallenberg Traditional High School in San Francisco. Bennett came here to speak to a group of students about his experiences growing up and in prison.
About 20 students and their teacher, Kachiside Madu, gathered in the school library for their last ‘men’s group’ meeting of the year. The room became quiet when Bennett began his speech.
“The reason why we’re here today is because we’re giving back to society,” he said. “I was one of the first juveniles in the state of California to be tried as an adult. I was 17 years old, like a lot of your ages.”
Bennett has found a job that lets him pay his bills and tell his story. Porter hasn’t been so fortunate. He decided to stop telling potential employers about his criminal history. Now, he says, he’s close to landing a job as a full-time driver – not what he wants to do, but better than nothing. Yet he’s anxious a background check could end his employment at any time.
To listen to part one of this series click here.