For ex-cons, help breaking into the workforce

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

Legal limits on careers

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.

But many inmates, including Eckhoff, say they are tantamount to slave labor. Others point out that "lifers" often are placed in the best work programs to keep prisons from having to train a constantly changing short-term inmate group.

One result: Those prisoners headed for release into society tend to get shortchanged.

The role of firms, individuals

To remedy that, some communities are stepping up job-placement programs. In Boston, for instance, probation officers, religious leaders, and employers have come together to help ex-inmates find employment opportunities.

In Texas, a program called RIO (Re-Integration for Offenders) last year placed 23,351 ex-inmates in jobs, according to Joan Goodwin, a RIO program specialist who herself served a short sentence for distributing marijuana.

Nonprofit groups like The Safer Foundation in Chicago and the Center for Employment Opportunities in New York provide similar services.

While some companies work hand in hand with job programs, many are hesitant to advertise them. RIO officials, for instance, keep the names of their participating employers secret.

That policy took effect, says Ms. Goodwin, when a florist shop in Fort Worth watched its sales plummet by half when a newspaper article drew attention to the fact that it had hired an ex-inmate.

Ex-convicts themselves sometimes find they can help ease reentry for others. John Sweeny is a soft-spoken man who spent 17 years in prison for robbery and kidnapping (a man was restrained during the robbery).

He now runs Hope Ministries and helps South Dakota ex-cons rebuild their lives. He shuttles them to job interviews, suppliers of donated clothes, churches, halfway houses and counseling sessions.

His was, in fact, the first face Dwayne Eckhoff saw as a free man. The clothes that Eckhoff wore during his Monitor interview were provided by Sweeny.

"People expect these guys to go out and get jobs right away," says Sweeny. "But first they need the basics. For most of these guys, being out here is a completely different reality. In a way, they're like children."

A clean slate, and tattoo-free

As a staple of prison culture, tattoos are often markers of identity and affiliation. But once beyond prison walls, they often are unwanted markers – and barriers to job offers.

Some states are trying to lessen the stigma by removing convicts' body art. In South Dakota, state officials have mounted a mobile laser device in a van that travels to area penitentiaries. Chris Hart, one tattoo-zapping physician, says the device can serve 30 to 40 inmates a day.

The program is especially designed for gang tattoos, but Dr. Hart says she is also asked to remove designs ranging from the merely decorative to the profane. "Everyone seems pleased to get them off," she says.

Not everyone is pleased about the removal programs, however. One California Congresswoman, Lois Capps, recently came under fire after landing $50,000 from the Justice Department to support a tattoo-removal program in her district.

Critics on radio talk shows and in newspaper editorials chided the move as government waste.

Ron Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, calls the program the epitome of monetary mismanagement.

"I'm sure that people who have tattoos wish they didn't, but is this really a federal responsibility?" he asks. "Couldn't they spend that money on drug addiction and counseling?"

Advocates maintain that the tax money is well spent if it can keep even a small percentage of ex-inmates from heading back into prison.

An aide says Rep. Capps is no longer commenting on the issue. On Jan. 10, she defended her actions, though, saying the program "has broad community support, ranging from the Sheriff's office and probation department to local hospitals."

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