People Coming Out of Prison Need Good Jobs, Too

Like Anyone Without Recent Employment Experience, They Want More Pay, More Stability, and More Upward Mobility

California, and other states open to reform, can help formerly incarcerated people secure quality employment—and not have to settle for just any job, writes scholar David J. Harding. Illustration by Elizabeth Sanduvete.

This piece publishes as part of the Zócalo/The James Irvine Foundation public program and editorial series, “What Is a Good Job Now?” which investigates low-wage work across California. Register for the event “What Is a Good Job Now?” For the Formerly Incarcerated on January 24, 7PM PST.

What’s a good job for formerly incarcerated people?

When people in the corrections field are asked that question, you often hear this mantra: Get a job, any job. The idea is that work will reduce your risk of going back behind bars. As a result, people coming out of prison feel pushed to take crappy jobs that have difficult schedules, low pay, no benefits, or poor working conditions.

That’s bad advice. In my research with other scholars, we’ve found that formerly incarcerated people just churn through jobs like that. Indeed, taking a bad job doesn’t protect you from recidivism or the other struggles too often faced by the formerly incarcerated. In one study, looking at formerly incarcerated young men in Michigan, over one-quarter of people coming out of prison experienced persistent desperation and struggle, including periods of homelessness; another one-third had intermittent periods of desperation, and struggle for survival.

Instead, we need to think of work for the formerly incarcerated the same way that we think of jobs for anyone without a lot of recent work experience or education. That means formerly incarcerated people need the same things from jobs that everyone does: a living wage, a job ladder to allow for the acquisition of skills and promotion, and stability, especially in scheduling.

When you understand this, you can see why we’ve made only slow progress in employment for formerly incarcerated people.

There have been some gains. Largely due to a tight labor market, we’re getting more incarcerated people in the door. Employers need more workers, so some businesses have been more open to hiring people with criminal records. Also, governments and nonprofits are offering more reintegration programs that include job training.

Changes in laws may have helped, too—like “ban the box” laws that prevent employers from asking job applicants on their applications whether they’ve ever been convicted of a felony. These laws were a response to a surge in harsh sentencing laws and mass incarceration during the 1980s and 1990s.

But “banning the box” isn’t enough. First, employers can still conduct background checks—they just need to wait to do so until later in the hiring process, usually once a provisional hiring decision has been made. Second, when formerly incarcerated people do get jobs, they can have trouble holding onto them. This is partly because formerly incarcerated people often end up in the least desirable jobs, which experience considerable turnover among all employees, not just those with criminal records. The formerly incarcerated often face other barriers to stable employment, too, like housing insecurity, health problems, and parole supervision by a punitive justice system.

We need to think of work for the formerly incarcerated the same way that we think of jobs for anyone without a lot of recent work experience or education.

And even when formerly incarcerated employees manage to settle in and succeed in their jobs, moving up is tricky. Going up a job ladder is difficult for people with criminal records. Indeed, even moving laterally or diagonally can be challenging within a company, with different bosses having different attitudes. It’s even harder when getting ahead means changing firms. The standards and scrutiny of a candidate with a record are different for entry-level jobs than for supervisory positions. Sometimes, skills training or licensing programs, which people must complete to advance, maintain prohibitions on those with criminal records.

Changes in corporate structure also make upward mobility difficult. It used to be more common for people to rise from the entry-level to upper management of a company. Today’s most profitable and dynamic companies often rely on high-skill or high-education workers. Formerly incarcerated people who work at such companies might well start out working for contractors, as janitors or cafeteria workers. What is their path to becoming employees and rising?

Companies need to do more to support formerly incarcerated workers and create internal job ladders. There are also many ways public policy can assist formerly incarcerated people in their job paths and career trajectories. California’s openness in this area makes it an important laboratory.

I’ve seen possibilities in the research I’ve done with other scholars, based on huge data sets on thousands of young men in the state of Michigan during the 2000s. We tracked these young men for many years after they left prison.

Our findings suggest that California, and other states open to reform, can help in many ways: through greater housing supports (to prevent residential stability), through mental health and substance abuse supports, and through changes to harmful parole systems that often prioritize surveillance and punishment over reintegration. Indeed, my research suggests that people who do best after leaving prison combine multiple sources of support—including employment, public benefits, and support from their social networks and families.

States can make parole less intrusive and more flexible, to meet the needs of workers. Too often, parole involves surveillance and mandatory check-ins that can disrupt job schedules. It also can impose short-term custodial sanctions—like being sent back to jail temporarily—that cost the formerly incarcerated their jobs, housing, and income.

California and other states also could do more to integrate formerly incarcerated people into higher education. Formerly incarcerated people understand the importance of education for success in the labor market. In our Michigan study, we found that more than one-quarter of the young men enrolled in college sometime after leaving prison.

Higher education doesn’t just help with employment. It provides intellectual development, opportunities to establish pro-social peer groups, new social identities, and a sense of belonging and purpose. Research shows it also reduces the likelihood of recidivism.

Changes being made within prisons provide new reasons to be optimistic. Incarcerated students are now eligible for Pell grants from the federal government, making it possible for community colleges and other post-secondary institutions to create new college and training programs in prison. And organizations like the Petey Greene Program, where I serve on the board, are pioneering new educational programs to help those serving time in prisons and jails prepare for college-level study.

When they come home from prison, formerly incarcerated students need more support services, such as academic and financial counseling to succeed, just like other low-income and first-generation students. Colleges should also open eligibility for campus housing or work-study programs, which sometimes bar students with records. Community colleges could help by incorporating more job skills into classes and integrating paid internships since formerly incarcerated students often have to support themselves and their families while they go to school. Also, parole should treat college attendance like employment, making parole less onerous and shorter for people who complete degrees or certificates.

Making such commitments will enrich colleges and universities. At UC Berkeley, where I teach, the Berkeley Underground Scholars, an organization of students incarcerated or impacted by the justice system, have excelled in academics and leadership. More universities have begun similar programs for formerly incarcerated students.

The goal of all such policies is to help formerly incarcerated people find the right job, and not have to settle for just any job.

David J. Harding is a UC Berkeley sociologist who studies poverty and inequality, including the lives of incarcerated people. He is co-author of After Prison: Navigating Adulthood in the Shadow of the Justice System and On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration.


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