For ex-cons, help breaking into the workforce
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.
On Dec. 7, after spending 10 years behind bars, Dwayne Eckhoff, a former drug addict and convicted burglar, left a South Dakota prison with $50 in "gate money" and 30 days to find work or risk going back.Skip to next paragraph
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His quest for work was long, but it paid off: On day 30, a telemarketing firm hired Mr. Eckhoff to conduct opinion polls. Three weeks later, the welding certificate he earned in prison helped him get a job a metal shop.
"Most people don't have it that easy," he says. "Most of the time ... people find out you've been in prison and they put your application on the bottom of the pile. There were times I thought it'd be easier just to go back in."
This year, a record 630,000 inmates, an average of 1,600 a day, will walk out of US prisons and back into society, according to the Urban League.
For most, the journey to social reentry turns on finding and keeping a job. That, say experts, is a tough task made tougher by a US economy only beginning its recovery and still-high unemployment.
The mainstreaming of ex-convicts depends upon more than prevailing economic conditions, however, says Todd Clear, a criminal justice professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. They need a degree of social acceptance. "It's about community and jobs," says Mr. Clear.
Employer attitudes represent one hurdle. The ex-con's job prospects are legally restricted as well. A report co-authored by Jeremy Travis, a senior researcher for The Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, says at least six states permanently bar "ex-offenders" from public employment, and most cut them off from education, legal, real estate, and medical professions. Unions often keep ex-cons from their ranks as well.
"Many types of jobs are barred to ex-convicts, and, surprisingly, it's not just professions," says Clear. "In Indiana, ex-cons can't be barbers, and in some states they can't be truck drivers.
In 1996, a survey of employers in five US metropolitan areas showed two-thirds to be unwilling to hire someone they knew was an ex-offender.
"So besides a tough economy, they deal with a combination of wary employers, unions, low skill levels, low job prospects, and low job training," Clear says.
They also must cope with the prospect of backsliding. Some 40 percent of ex-cons return to prison within three years, the Bureau of Prisons reports.
For those who make it into jobs, fitting in can be hard. The typical ex-con or parolee lacks job references, a stable work history, transportation, housing, a telephone, or work clothes.
Succeeding in a workplace means adapting to a new social order. It can also mean learning even the most basic workplace skills. (Eckhoff had never sent an e-mail, and was just learning to use a cellphone.)
Even in a healthy economy, job-hunting ex-cons swim against a current of prejudice. And their reality is cyclical: Staying out of prison depends on finding employment. But past incarceration diminishes employment prospects and wages. Even if a parolee or ex-con finds work, a recent Princeton University research paper suggests his incarceration will confer a "wage penalty" of 10 to 20 percent.
"There is a lifetime employment tax that comes with being incarcerated," says Mr. Travis. "Ex-inmates over a lifetime are less likely to have jobs in general, and less likely to be paid well or be promoted."
Participating in vocational training or work while in prison seems to elevate an ex-con's ability to get a job and earn a slightly higher wage, says Gerry Gaes, director of research for the US Bureau of Prisons. He and other proponents of prison work programs argue that job details enhance prisoners' skills.