Trading Your Cell in for a Cubicle — Inmates and the Workforce

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by Adam Lovell

It’s no secret that inmates are being released just as fast as they’re being incarcerated. It’s also no secret that the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country. In fact, one in 10 American men can expect to be incarcerated at some point in his life. Ex-offenders are all around us, but are they employed? Research shows us that they have their work cut out for them — just in finding work — much more so than the American who hasn’t had a run-in with the law. Many employers are reluctant to hire ex-felons, although with so many Americans having a criminal record nowadays, this reluctance may slowly diminish, but until it does, ex-offenders are disadvantaged when it comes to finding work.

Inmates coming home who have friends and family on the outside supporting them are much more likely to find employment after incarceration. An inmate sitting in a cell with little to no access to the world at large will face hurdles that could more easily be overcome with a strong support system on the outside. In “From prison to home: The dimensions and consequences of prisoner reentry”, authors Travis, Solomon, and Waul documented “a few key hurdles to successful reintegration — namely, finding a job, finding housing, and getting access to needed health care services. Most returning prisoners who found a job within the first month following their release were either re-hired by former employers or had help from family or friends. Relatively few found new jobs on their own, often because they lacked the skills to conduct an effective job search or could not find employers who would hire ex-offenders. Few parolees reported receiving help from their parole officers.”

Here are some critical how-to tips that we at recommend for overcoming the label of “ex-prisoner” and rejoining the workforce:

1. Create a list of essentials that you’ll need in finding work. First, check with Goodwill or the Salvation Army for affordable or even free professional dress attire. [Editor’s note: See also organizations like CareerGear (men) and Dress for Success (women).] Secure a state ID card. You will need identification, and while a driver’s license is preferred, a state ID card will suffice. A few states, such as Missouri, have a reentry program to help with obtaining a state ID. Don’t show up to a job interview without identification. Make sure you have a permanent address and phone number to give to employers, or at least a reliable phone number of a friend or family member who can get a message to you quickly. Collect letters of reference to include with your job applications. Ask that they be addressed “To the Prospective Employer.” Save the original, and submit clean photocopies.

2. Read the want ads. Scan the classified section of the local paper for job postings; visit job-related Websites regularly. Post your skills, profile, or resume online, according to the employer’s requirements. Contact your local Department of Labor and make regular inquiries.

3. If you’re just coming out of prison, don’t expect to automatically possess good interviewing skills. Practice interviewing with your friends and family. Ask them to make a list of mock questions and throw them at you randomly. This practice will help prepare you for a line of questioning that you’re not used to. Research the company where you’re applying for work. The human-resource director will likely ask why you chose this organization. Although “I need any job” is an honest answer, employers will appreciate hearing that you actually know something about their mission statement, products, services, customers, and more. [Editor’s note: See our extensive list of job interview questions and interview tools and resources.]

4. Don’t shy away from manual-labor offers. Take whatever job you can get initially. Because you have a criminal history, we recommend that you don’t apply for jobs where you are likely to work with children or the elderly. They will typically be very unlikely to employ you. Try to find a job paying you “above the table,” in which you are documented as a real and legal employee. Doing so will contribute to building good credit and Social Security for when you’re older. Many inmates report taking “under the table work,” and if it presents itself, it may be a good temporary fix, but you should seek real employment on your off time from that job because a better job will be essential to rebuilding your life.

5. Once you’ve secured employment, get back in school. Visit your local community college, and explain your situation to a counselor. Even if you don’t have a GED (perhaps, especially if you don’t have one), start working toward a higher education. Many classes at affordable costs are available to accommodate all people. Building a strong educational background will only look better on a resume and give you the knowledge and skills to seek better jobs. Many ex-offenders have had no formal education, and many colleges work with people just like that every day. Talk to a college representative to see what your options are. So many people believe — incorrectly — that they aren’t eligible for college. Attending college in the United States is more accessible than it’s ever been.

6. Join a civic group, such as the Rotary, Kiwanis, or Lions Club. You will need to be sponsored to join such a group, but being upfront with the groups can open doors. These types of organizations seek to strengthen their communities, and they will recognize your eagerness to improve yourself. Making connections there can often lead to new opportunities.

7. Learn to use social-networking media like Facebook. Even if you don’t own a computer, you can use one at the library and establish a network of friends. Ask for suggestions and references. You can cover a lot of ground with Facebook. If spelling, grammar, and punctuation are not your strong points, learn to use spellcheck and other tools to present yourself in the best light. Although many Facebook users take a casual approach in their writing, make yours the best it can be. Never post anything you wouldn’t want a potential employer to see. Even though these sites have privacy settings, someone can still take a screenshot of your postings. Use social-networking media as a tool to advance yourself, not a source of entertainment or distraction.

8. Get a cell phone. Companies now offer affordable “disposable” type cell phones for people on a budget. If you can’t afford a regular cell-phone plan, or if a family member is unwilling to add you to theirs (adding a line to an existing plan can be the best bargain), look into getting your own number with one of these types of phones. You’ll want the ability to give a prospective employer a reliable number where they can reach you.

9. Find a mentor. Perhaps you remember a favorite teacher or a former boss. Not everyone will say “yes” when asked to serve in this role, but many people are honored to do so. This person might be only a good listener or sounding board, but finding someone you trust to hear your thoughts can be more helpful than you might imagine. A mentor role can’t be assigned or volunteered. It has to be a “good fit” between two people; you’ll both probably recognize fit instinctually. Naturally, do not seek a mentor from the old lifestyle that once put you on a path to prison. If you can’t find a mentor right away, find a support group, which could be as casual as joining a local softball team in which you make friends and connections or checking with the local mental-health clinic to see if any group sessions are offered. Encouragement from a positive source can keep you moving in the right direction.

Final Thoughts
Once you get a job, keep it. Show up early, stay late when necessary, don’t complain about minor inconveniences, take off sick only when you’re sick, and accept every opportunity to improve your job skills. These are tough times for finding employment, and it’s even harder for those just getting out of prison. But that’s the important thing to remember — it’s only harder, not impossible.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

WriteaPrisoner's Adam Lovell Adam Lovell founded in 2000. Various prison ministries were the first to use the Internet to find pen pals for inmates. Lovell conceptualized as a site that would allow free-world adult citizens the opportunity to connect with inmates while offering full disclosure of the reasons for incarceration. The site is Lovell’s passion, and he dedicates all of his efforts to anticipating changes in technology and the needs of society, which includes inmates, their friends and families, and the free-world adult citizens that support the site’s mission. Read his full bio.

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