The first thing employers are going to ask me when I get out of prison and start applying for jobs is, “What’s this extraordinarily lengthy gap on your résumé?”
People returning to society with a felony on their record often struggle to find employment. Little wonder that these same people struggle to escape the post-release debt trap of endless probation and parole fees, and are reincarcerated for technical violations—as the system intended.
When we talk about decarceration, we have to talk about ways to make postsecondary education accessible for people still in prison for felony convictions, and then making employment accessible once they’re out. CEOs tout their companies for giving second chances to people with records, but they usually mean people with misdemeanors. The truth is, those of us who went to prison and have felony records have face a much steeper mountain to climb.
To learn more about the landscape of post-release employment, I spoke with Harley Blakeman, founder and CEO of Honest Jobs—the largest company in the United States dedicated to connecting employers with formerly incarcerated workers. Like most people who work with him at Honest Jobs, Blakeman has first-hand experience navigating job-hunting with a felony record.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“You have to have a multi-step mentality, what we call the ABCs: a job; a better job; a career.”
C Dreams: Alongside employment, what do you think are the most critical resources people with criminal records need for successful and meaningful re-entry?
Harley Blakeman: The most important thing is psychological and physical safety. If you’re going to live under a bridge, it’s going to be very difficult. Even if you’re going to a friend’s house, if it’s a challenging environment people tend to make decisions that aren’t in their best interests.
I was lucky enough to be able to move several states away and live with a distant relative, surrounded by positive influences and people who affirmed my positive thoughts of what I wanted to do.
The second would be social capital. You might not find yourself around people who can actually connect you with great paying jobs or with mentors to help you start your business or get into college. Social capital is really, really valuable; it’s how people get letters of recommendation and introductions to employers. Even things like getting a house or getting into college.
“If you can save a few thousand dollars, you’re hedging your bets in a major way in terms of not violating parole or probation.”
What advice can you give recently released people beginning their job search?
Blakeman: First off, you need gainful employment not just to support yourself, but to stay out of trouble. When I was incarcerated, people always said, “Idle time is the devil’s playground.” When I came home, I was a dishwasher for over a year, I was a line cook for two years. And over the course of five years, I was still making $13.50 an hour at my best job. Even after graduating from college, I still struggled to find jobs but I always had a job, and because of that I was able to put some money in savings.
That’s crucial—if you can save a few thousand dollars, you’re hedging your bets in a major way in terms of not violating parole or probation. If your car breaks down, you’re not going to get fired because you have the money to fix it.
It’s also important to know that an entry-level job, your first job, is not your last job. When we talk to people coming home, we might get them a job making $14 an hour. But we say, “This is just a job. Now we’re gonna help you find a better job. And then you’re gonna find a career.”
We call this the ABCs: a job, a better job, a career. If you don’t think that way, nine times out of 10 you’re going to be irritated and angry—and your probation officer, parole officer, judge, whoever’s looking at you, is also going to be irritated and angry. So you have to have a multi-step mentality. It goes a very long way.
“How long do you have to go without a job before they feel comfortable giving you a job?”
Lately it feels like there’s more public support for hiring people with records, and more companies proudly declaring to do so. How do you see employers falling short here?
Blakeman: Often, just the fact that you were recently released [is a barrier]. It isn’t that you don’t have skills! So an employer might say, “You interviewed so well, you’re perfect for our company, you have the skills. But you were just released three months ago, so unfortunately we’re just not comfortable.”
And that creates a really big problem. How long do you have to go without a job before they feel comfortable giving you a job? The longer you don’t have a job, the more likely you are to go back to prison.
It’s all a Catch-22. If no one will give you a job, you have to rely on government assistance or on crime. Those are the two options. When people are mad about, “Oh, the government charges so many taxes and people are milking the system”—people aren’t sitting home not applying for jobs. They are actively looking for jobs. That’s why they are counted in the unemployment numbers.
The reality is, a lot of people literally can’t find a job. Anywhere from 12 percent to 25 percent of the workforce has a challenge finding a job because of a record. The only way to really fix that is to get employers to give them a chance.
Fortune 500 companies will put out reports bragging that they’ve hired 20 people with felonies over the last two years—but they’re an 8,000 person company. Then there are the companies saying, “We hired 3,000 people impacted by the criminal justice system. But they’re also saying, “One in three Americans have a record.” Which is inflating the reality. Two-thirds of those people don’t have a felony.
So if I just hire from that population, I don’t have to hire anyone with aggravated assault, no one was murdered, no one with the sex offense, none of the charges that are actually the charges at the crux of the issue. It gives companies this really easy win that doesn’t move the needle. If you’re counting everyone with a traffic ticket, stop patting yourself on the back.
Photograph via State of Ohio