One of the biggest challenges for individuals who have been incarcerated is successfully reentering the workforce. It can be challenging to transition back to employment when you have a criminal record, an employment gap, and don’t have the skills you need to easily get hired. With a criminal record, getting hired, obtaining an occupational license, and accessing educational opportunities can be difficult even though workers with a criminal background may be reliable employees. However, research shows that individuals with criminal records have a much longer tenure and are less likely to quit their jobs voluntarily than other workers. How can people who have been incarcerated overcome the challenges of finding employment and getting their lives back on track? One of the best ways is to participate in a workforce reentry program, which can help them get the credentials needed to get hired, build a career, and move forward with their lives.

What Are Workforce Reentry Programs?

Workforce reentry programs are designed to assist previously incarcerated individuals compete for jobs, attain stable housing, support their families, and contribute to their communities. There are hundreds of organizations that help those returning from prison in attaining the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully reintegrate into their communities. Resources vary depending on the organization, but programs may include training, employment assistance, job placement, transitional housing, counseling, mentoring, and other support services. In a phone interview with The Balance, Jamar Williams, founder of Pittsburgh-based organization Re-Entry Living on Purpose, said, “After release, formerly incarcerated individuals are connected to a person or organization in the community who can help. The program may include one-on-one or group assistance, along with peer support.” In addition to equipping participants with the skills required to succeed in the workplace, these programs help provide hope—and a chance for a better future. Williams said, “Don’t believe everything that someone tells you, and don’t believe that nobody will give you a chance.” These programs are designed to give those who have paid their debt to society a chance to start over.

Know Your Rights

It can be difficult to get hired when you’ve been incarcerated. “Ban the Box” legislation is one of the most important steps toward making it easier for individuals who have been incarcerated to reenter the workforce. Over 150 U.S. cities and counties and 36 states have passed Ban the Box legislation, which prohibits employers from asking about convictions and arrest records. This levels the playing field so applicants are considered based on their qualifications, not their criminal history. For example, in New York, it is unlawful to ask an applicant or employee whether they have ever been arrested or had a criminal accusation filed against them. In California, meanwhile, it’s illegal for most employers to ask about the criminal record of job applicants before making a job offer. This includes mentioning criminal records in job postings, job applications, and job interviews. Ban the Box legislation varies by location, so check with your state department of labor for information on what’s legal for employers to ask in your location and what isn’t.

Hiring Programs and Incentives

According to Williams, there are many opportunities to get hired after being incarcerated. “Consider training programs, pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeships, and paths to build a career [versus] just getting a job,” he said. “Many training programs are paid, you can get connected to them as part of the reentry process, and many programs will cover expenses like getting a driver’s license and transportation.” The federal government offers incentives to employers who hire individuals facing barriers to employment. The federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) encourages employers to hire applicants from targeted groups that have difficulty getting hired, including people with criminal backgrounds.

Preparing to Reenter the Workforce

There are opportunities to participate in educational programs while in prison. All federal prisons offer literacy classes, English as a Second Language classes, adult continuing education, and library services. They also offer vocational and occupational on-the-job training as well as post-secondary education in vocational and occupationally-oriented areas. Some states also provide training and education opportunities. These programs can provide a foundation for starting a new career after incarceration and also offer the opportunity for work experiences and skills that can be included on a resume.

Tips for Starting a Career After Incarceration

Despite the challenges, it’s possible to start over and build a career. Mark Drevno, founder and executive director of nonprofit organization Jails to Jobs, told The Balance via phone, “It’s not unusual for formerly incarcerated people to think that they are limited, but that’s not the case.” Drevno suggests taking career assessments and inventories, considering possible job options, and creating a career trajectory for where you’d like your career path to go. Training programs—including workforce reentry programs, pre-apprenticeships, and apprenticeships—are available for people who want to move forward with their lives. Many offer paid training, good wages, benefits, and a solid chance of getting hired after you complete the program.

Finding and Landing a Job After Incarceration

“Your first job may not be the perfect job, but it can get your career started,” Drevno said. Once you succeed in your first role, you’ll be off to a strong start. Taking some time to prepare for a job search will make the process easier.

Starting a Job Search

Before you start a job search, review Jail to Job’s New Entry Job Hunting Plan. It’s a step-by-step guide to managing your job search that you can use to get started.

Compile Information for Job Applications

It’s a good idea to compile a list of all the information you need to apply for jobs. Having all the details ready will save you time when completing job applications.

Write a Resume

Depending on the job and type of company you’re applying to, you may need to write a resume. You can include the jobs you held while in prison, education and training, the skills you’ve acquired, and volunteering.

Find Available Jobs

Consider applying directly to employers who have committed to hiring formerly incarcerated people by signing the Fair Chance Business Pledge, which was instituted by President Obama in 2015. Some of the top job sites have lists of Fair Chance employers and job openings, including:

  • Glassdoor: Fair Chance Pledge Reviews
  • Indeed: How to Find Fair Chance Employers
  • LinkedIn: Fair Chance Jobs
  • Monster: Companies that Have Signed the Fair Chance Pledge

Visit CareerOneStop’s Find Openings information for more ways to find jobs to apply for.

Ace the Job Interview

Even though it can be difficult, it’s better to be honest when talking about your criminal record and possibly lose the opportunity than to have to explain it if your conviction is discovered through a background check. What’s most important during a job interview, according to Drevno, is making eye contact and showing the interviewer that you’re sincere. “Ask yourself how you can show an employer that you’ve learned a lesson, made amends, and can be an asset,” he said. Tell your story in a way that’s not charged. Make the truth attractive and positive.

Resources for Getting Assistance

Here are some additional resources you can use to help get your new career on track:

  • Call or search online to find local assistance with training, employment, food pantries, affordable housing, and support groups.
  • American Job Centers: There are nearly 2,400 American Job Centers (AJCs), which provide free career and employment-related help to job seekers.
  • Clean Slate Clearinghouse: Get up-to-date information on criminal record clearance and mitigation in your state.
  • Find a Training Program: CareerOneStop has a list of state and local organizations that focus on helping people with criminal records.
  • Jails to Jobs : Jails to Jobs is a nonprofit organization that gives formerly incarcerated people the tools they need to find employment. In addition to a wealth of advice, you can access directories to find free interview clothes and tattoo removal programs.

Basak Gurbuz Medicine / Getty Images Supported by Dave’s Killer Bread. VICE News retains complete editorial independence. As Leah Farrington sat at a conference table on the first day of her new job as a law firm receptionist, she imagined all the clients she would help to navigate the confusing and intimidating legal system that she, as a formerly incarcerated person, knew all too well. A justice studies major, she had recently made the dean’s list and was applying to grad school. It felt like her hard work was finally paying off. The woman handling new employee orientations asked Farrington why she decided to go back to school. Without hesitation, Farrington told her story: “While I was incarcerated, I realized that people really need help understanding the legal system.” As Farrington spoke about her career goals and harmful legislation that she hoped to someday change, the woman reached out and dragged her offer letter back across the conference table, silently tucking it beneath a folder. “Her whole demeanor changed,” Farrington remembers, her voice growing tight. “I had that job. I thought they were going to give me a chance. I was going to be the best reformed felon there is.” Most formerly incarcerated people report that it’s nearly impossible to find a job after prison, citing employer prejudice as the most significant barrier. In spite of a labor shortage, a network of nonprofits and federal initiatives like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit that rewards employers when they hire someone with a felony, and campaigns to “ban the box” – the yes-or-no job application question about having a criminal record – formerly incarcerated people struggle to find work after serving time. The U.S. has the largest prison population per capita in the world: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three Americans––over 100 million people––have a criminal record that impedes them from finding gainful employment after incarceration. Sheena Meade, director of the Clean Slate Initiative, explained that the problem is even worse when you count the millions more who have never been convicted, but who face similar stigmas when their arrest record pops up in background checks for a new job. For example, if you are mistakenly arrested and released without any criminal charges, that arrest alone can jeopardize your job prospects. Black and brown Americans, who are disproportionately targeted by police, can have their job opportunities diminished regardless of whether they’ve ever been found guilty of a crime, relegating them and their families to a life of poverty and shorter lifespans. In recent years, second chance employers, who advocate for hiring people with criminal records, have promoted formerly incarcerated people as a viable solution for the country’s labor shortage. “We don’t have a labor shortage. We have a second chance shortage,” says John Koufos, the former executive director of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, who now works on policy reform. Before serving time in prison for a drunk driving accident, Koufos was a criminal defense lawyer. Second chance employers agree with him: According to the Second Chance Business Coalition, a group that includes companies such as McDonald’s, Home Depot, Microsoft, and Koch Industries, “more inclusive hiring” strengthens the local economy and breaks cycles of poverty. Citing a study from the Charles Koch Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management, the Second Chance Business Coalition concludes that employees with criminal records are more likely to stay in their jobs and work harder than their coworkers. But while formerly incarcerated people are eager to find work wherever they can, they’re also extremely vulnerable to exploitation. From access to housing, education and employment, the added barriers created by a criminal record haunt people long after they have served their sentences. Several employees with criminal records told VICE News they accepted low paying positions out of desperation, and felt they could not advance professionally no matter how hard they worked. Even after being released from prison, they are far less free than their coworkers, have few options and more to lose if they quit a job, and may not feel financially secure enough to report workplace abuse or join unionizing efforts. In her first job after prison, Leah Farrington was sexually harrassed by a coworker, but she couldn’t quit without permission from her parole officer. She put up with the harassment, knowing that if she left her job, she risked arrest and returning to prison because like most parolees, employment was a condition of her release. Farrington also says it was humiliating that all her coworkers knew she had been to prison, and that it was impossible to keep her status private after a parole officer randomly arrived at the office for a mandatory check, wearing an intimidating gun and uniform that frightened the business’ clients. This stigma against formerly incarcerated workers, and their vulnerability to abuse, was illustrated when Florida state senator Jeff Brandes introduced a bill earlier this year proposing to pay people with criminal histories less than minimum wage. Sheena Meade accurately predicted that the bill would not pass. But it was a harbinger: Companies like Goodwill already pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage, and employers are allowed to pay workers who are younger than 20 years old $4.25 per hour. A sub-minimum wage for formerly incarcerated workers is not an impossibility. At Unloop, a Seattle-based coding school for people who have survived the carceral system, executive director Martin Lawson and partnerships manager Troy Osaki provide training for jobs in tech, a lucrative industry with well-paid jobs. Osaki said that one program participant went on to study data science, and others connect to mentors for UX design or project management (though Osaki recognizes that not everyone can become a software engineer, and not everyone wants to). Many formerly incarcerated people report only being able to get hired by a business owner they know personally. Victor Sauceda, a web developer who studied computer programming in prison and graduated from Unloop’s bootcamp, remembers that when he first got out, “I was applying to McDonald’s, Burger King, any company that I thought would be willing to hire me. I just kept getting shot down. And the same thing happened with housing.” Sauceda is currently working on an app to help youth access community resources, similar to a program he built for Santa Barbara County. He recently started his own company, Victory Code, where he plans to hire other formerly incarcerated developers, creating opportunities that he wishes he had had when he was younger. “Before Unloop, I didn’t really have a sense of direction. I didn’t have any professional experience prior to prison. I had all these doubts like Am I going to be able to emerge in the tech industry?’ With the criminal background, being Hispanic, having gang affiliations, and all these things stacked against me, I was wondering if people were going to accept me.” Sauceda said that he would like to see tech companies publicly report data on how many formerly incarcerated people they employ. “In terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, I think the justice-impacted population gets overlooked. There’s so much untapped human potential,” he said of his fellow coding bootcamp graduates. “They just never get afforded the opportunity.” “We are much more than what we did wrong,” Leah Farrington said after her twenty-fourth job interview. “When are we going to allow people to redeem themselves? When is punishment enough? When is it okay for you to come back to the workforce?” Farrington acknowledges that she is lucky in many ways –– she has a supportive family and a safe home. Others, like Casey Sullivan, had no other option after prison than living in a South Boston homeless shelter where every person, including him, caught COVID-19. Each morning at 5am, Sullivan and the other shelter residents walked three blocks to a staffing agency that hired them as day laborers. Many of the workers in their 50s and 60s, they did grueling construction projects for $100 a day. “You get caught in poverty and it’s hard to get out,” Sullivan said. For three years following his release in 2018, Sullivan worked while living in the shelter during a series of COVID outbreaks. Last year, Sullivan was hired as a boat deckhand, a job he learned growing up as a kid on Lake Michigan. But on his second day of work on a new boat that paid better, his job offer was retracted. Sullivan says there is no nuance to how employers and landlords view criminal records: His non-violent charges are treated the same as someone with a more dangerous history. “I can see in certain situations where it might be important. I wouldn’t want to hire some guy who ripped off a joint or something like that,” Sullivan said. “I have no problem telling people I did something and I went to jail for it. I paid my price. I want to start over and do something different, but I feel like they just don’t care.” After the arduous interview process, Sullivan’s new deckhand job with better pay actually cost him money in the end. He is caught in the same trap as many formerly incarcerated people who try to advance their careers. He is looking for work again and remains optimistic. Most formerly incarcerated people agree there are certain jobs they wouldn’t offer to a violent offender. But they all advocate for a legal system that doesn’t punish people for life even after they’ve served their prison sentence. Ineffective one-size-fits-all job background checks treat premeditated murder the same as a teenage shoplifting charge; or view violent assault equal to a bounced check. And although the Florida subminimum wage bill did not pass, there are no legal protections against discrimination or pay disparity for the third of Americans who have criminal records yet still need to support themselves and their families. “I understand there are professions where you can’t hire someone with a criminal record,” says Leah Farrington, who is a non-violent white collar offender. “But to get rejected time and time again, it’s really tough. Because when I got out, I wanted to help people who went through the justice system.” Farrington is continuing to interview for jobs where she can help people. She is applying to grad school to become a licensed therapist, and wants to be a counselor for women who have survived trauma, especially after incarceration. In one year Farrington will be eligible to petition for expungement. Her future and the career she has fought so hard for largely hinges on the decision that a stranger will make about her petition. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed. There’s no guarantee. It’s just perseverance, right?”

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By signing up, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy & to receive electronic communications from Vice Media Group, which may include marketing promotions, advertisements and sponsored content. While you may run into resistance from employers after getting out of jail, there are steps you can take and programs in place to help you overcome employer misgivings about hiring ex-offenders. A number of agencies and organizations are available to help you gain job skills, put together a resume and find work. You also can utilize government incentives to entice employers into giving you a chance. Unemployment benefits for released prisoners may be another option to consider while looking for work, suggests the Felony Record Hub.

Seek Assistance

Can you get a job after going to jail? Yes, a variety of agencies are set up nationwide to help you find work, but landing a job may take you longer than the average job seeker. PBS reported employment after incarceration statistics of 73 percent as of 2021, which is much lower than the employment rate of the general population. To improve the odds, seek assistance from anyone offering to help. Getting out of jail is not the time to let pride stand in the way of reaching out for assistance. Goodwill Industries partner with local agencies in most cities to provide re-entry services to former inmates, according to Jobs for Felons. They provide everything from skills training to resume creation and clothing to go on an interview. America Works is a staffing agency created to find jobs for hard-to-place populations like former inmates. Talk to your re-entry counselor, parole officer or use a JobLink app to find an agency in your community that targets job placement for ex-offenders.

Explain Tax Credit

Apply for jobs on your own for which you’re qualified. When you land an interview, explain the tax benefits of hiring you to the employer. One of the most popular employer benefits is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. Employers who hire felons within one year after their release can receive tax credits up to ​$2,400​ per new hire as of 2022. The amount depends on your wages and the number of hours you work. There’s no limit to the number of ex-offenders an employer can hire, and the tax forms are easy to fill out. Carry a brochure about the tax credit to give to potential employers.

Become Bonded

Potential employers may not trust you with a history of criminal activity. A convincing argument that you changed your ways may not be enough. To bolster your credibility, offer to become bonded through the Federal Bonding Program. With an application, you can receive a commercial Fidelity Bond to provide your employer with insurance against theft, larceny, embezzlement and forgery up to $25,000. Most bonds, which are free of charge, are issued for $5,000. They stay in effect for six months, after which you are eligible for a regular commercial bond if your employer requires one.

Clear Your Record

It is legal for employers to turn you down for work based on your criminal record, but you can take steps to clean up your record if you meet certain state requirements, as explained by the Collateral Consequences Resources Center. Eligibility for expungement varies from state to state. In North Carolina, for example, you can only get one arrest expunged in your lifetime, while in Rhode Island, only first-time offenders may get their criminal records officially removed. In Michigan, you cannot get your record expunged if your offense was punishable by life imprisonment, even if you received a lighter sentence. While you can apply for an expungement on your own, an attorney helps make sure you meet specific waiting periods and filing restrictions and that you complete all the forms correctly. BI Graphics_Undividing America_800x100_Post Gerald Alvarez was a few days out of prison and feeling nervous. Newly free after about two years, he worried he wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything. He worried he’d go back to his old lifestyle of dealing drugs. The outside world was a culture shock. He says he «almost felt more secure» in prison. He knew how things worked there, and when the meals would come. He was right to be concerned. Having a criminal record makes it difficult for many to get good, stable jobs in the US. In his first month out, he got jobs scrubbing toilets for $30 a day at City Hall and Queens College through a program for parolees called Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), which provides immediate employment services in various industries including maintenance, construction, and landscaping to help those with recent criminal convictions regain the skills needed find and retain employment. He went on three interviews through the program, according to data from CEO, and found employment with a corporate moving company. He started out as a helper and today, eight years later, he’s a supervisor at a warehouse in the Queens branch. He also started his own business last year with the help of a group called Defy Ventures, which offers entrepreneurship training and leadership development, financial investment, and business incubation. Alvarez said he felt both programs helped him move forward professionally — through learning the necessary skills to get a job or start and run a business — and helped him stay focused and confident when things looked bleak. Several others who had gone through the programs and spoke with Business Insider said the same thing. But even now he still doesn’t have benefits or a retirement fund. «When it’s over, it’s over. I have no 401(k). I have no pension. I have nothing,» Alvarez said. «All I’ve been looking for is a job with a pension. Something I could do for 20 years or something, and at least be able to retire.»

‘It still haunts me’

Alvarez is one of the lucky ones. Government agencies and nonprofit organizations help the formerly incarcerated to find employment after prison, but many others still find it difficult to get and hold down stable jobs. Several studies have shown that when companies receive two job applications that are identical, except that one candidate has been in prison and the other hasn’t, the formerly incarcerated candidate is less likely to get an interview. In some states, those who were previously incarcerated are even legally barred from a number of jobs. «I was rather young when my crime happened. I feel like I’ve done my time, but yet, to this day, it still haunts me,» Alvarez said. «Just to transfer jobs, or anything of the sort. Everyone says, ‘Oh, if you have a felony, we’re not interested. We’re not interested.’» How people like Alvarez fare after they’re released affects the whole country. When ex-convicts land a job, it anchors them and their families and cements their place in their communities. Plus, finding employment soon after getting out of prison reduces recidivism, or a person’s relapse into criminal behavior. A study by the Manhattan Institute found a 20% reduction in return to crime by nonviolent offenders, who make up the majority of incarcerated people. That suggests investing in helping people find jobs out of prison can lower the crime rates in the future. Prisoners work at computers after a graduation ceremony from a computer-coding program at San Quentin State Prison in California, April 20, 2015. The program, called Code.7370, was administered by Silicon Valley’s technology business community. Robert Galbraith/Reuters There have recently been a slew of «ban the box» policies aimed at removing the tick box on job applications that ask about a person’s criminal history. The thinking is that removing the box will stop employers from discriminating against felons. Evidence about those policies’ effectiveness has been mixed. One study sent 15,000 fake online job applications to employers in New York City and New Jersey for entry-level and low-skill positions before and after such policies were adopted. It found that «ban the box» policies improved the situation for those with records but also led to an uptick in racial discrimination by employers. On the other hand, a study by AEI’s Daniel Shoag and Stan Veuger found that «ban the box» increased employment for residents in high-crime neighborhoods by up to 4%, with increases particularly in public sector and lower-wage jobs, that black men benefited from the changes, and that the employers responded to the measures by raising experience requirements. But even if someone finds employment, that’s not necessarily the end. While in prison, one of Alvarez’s friends was trained to become a plumber and eventually found work after he got out. But two years ago he was arrested for carrying a knife. Alvarez said it wasn’t being used as a weapon but was among his various plumbing tools. He’s now incarcerated for that charge. «They sentenced him for two to four years for carrying something you could buy at Home Depot. It wasn’t a weapon. It was for work,» Alvarez said. «Just because of his record he was sentenced. A man with two kids, a wife, works for 60 hours a week. Horrible, you know?»

America versus the world

The US is an outlier when it comes to putting people behind bars, with the second-highest incarceration rate in the world. The number of Americans in prison jumped over the past 25 years. That’s correlated with the tough «war on drugs»-era tough-on-crime policies. But high incarceration rate policies have two key problems: They don’t create alternative and better opportunities for those living in communities with high crime rates, and they don’t address the question of how people should create new lives once they’re out of jail. There are no official statistics on the number of people who have spent time in prison, but it’s likely that given the large increase in incarceration rates, there’s been a corresponding increase in those who were incarcerated, according to a paper published by the Council of Economic Advisers under the Obama administration in 2016. Taking that a step forward, several pieces of research have suggested there’s a potentially large number of people belonging to this group who aren’t jumping back into the workforce, which can then hurt their economic and financial futures. Neftali Thomas Diaz, left, talks with his case manager, David Rodriguez, at The Fortune Society in New York. New York City is betting that Diaz and other low-level offenders like him are right about the salvation in second-chance employment, April 20, 2017. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city will spend $10 million a year on a “jails to jobs” initiative that will guarantee all Rikers inmates serving sentences of a year or less a chance at short-term employment once they do their time. Seth Wenig/AP Photo Many of the people from Alvarez’s neighborhood just «go immediately back to what they know» once they’re out of prison, he said. That’s generally selling drugs. He’s one of a few who’s managed to hold down a job. «It’s rough. Everybody wants a good job. We all would’ve probably gone to school earlier, [if we] had the right guidance in our lives to actually put us through that route. It might’ve worked out better for us,» Alvarez said. «Unfortunately, a lot of us, for myself, I was raised by the streets from very young. From about 15 years old. I knew nothing but the kids in the neighborhood and I followed what was going on,» he continued. «We all got into things together. I had no father figure, a male figure, to steer me in the right way.» Nowadays, one of the things Alvarez is most passionate about is keeping his three sons on track. And he credits them as the reason he’s managed to stick it through his job, even though the post-prison work-situation hasn’t been ideal. He hopes all kids can be so lucky. «My community is mainly Puerto Rican and black. I think [the children] just need to see more professional people that actually look like them that are not out there doing drug deals and robberies.» Editor’s Note: Alvarez originally estimated he went on 80 interviews through CEO. However, the program’s data shows it sent him on three. The post has been edited to reflect this.

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