Category Archives: education ex-offenders

Can you get professional license with a felony?

 Q:  I committed a b-felony arson in 2004 when I was having psychological issues from undiagnosed bipolar. I am clear and in college again, but I didn’t continue pursuing my psychology I started before the incident because I assumed I could not be licensed with a felony. I am currently in Computer Information Technology at Purdue and am not sure I wasn’t better off in psychology. What are the options for a felon being licensed in a state like Indiana? Haven’t found any straight answers online. What do you recommend? CIT is a more in-demand degree, so I figured I’d have a better shot in a field in need like computers. I liked psychology, but I want to get a degree I will have the best chance of getting a job with. I’m not sure where I want to focus my efforts.

A:   First of all, congratulations for moving on with your life and continuing to pursue your education!  That’s no small accomplishment and you should take pride in the fact that you’ve addressed your own issues and remained focused on the future.

As to your question: if psychology is what you love,  don’t give up your dream.  Getting licensed as a psychologist, even with a felony, is not impossible.  Dr. Paul Fauteck, an ex-offender turned forensic psychologist, who has answered questions on this blog, is living proof of that.   I also checked with the Indiana State Psychology Board and although drug offenses might be a bar to getting licensed,  there are no specific provisions in the statute that would automatically disqualify someone with your record.   Further, officials also consider how much time has passed since a conviction and what you have done since then. To get more information, I’d recommend  sending them a note detailing your specific circumstances at the email address provided.     

Note that  licensing requirements for psychologists and other professions vary by state.  In Texas, for example, a felony would bar you from practicing as a psychologist.  In California, a felony might get in the way as well, unless you have obtained a certificate of rehabilitation.  So you might want to check out the National Directory of Psychologists for information about licensing requirements in other states.

That said,  whether you stick with Computer Information Technology or go back to psychology is entirely up to you.  They’re both good options.  Certainly, CIT is a hot field and if that’s what you prefer, it may be easier initially to find a job.  But there are plenty of positions out there for psychologists, as well.   I guess what I’m trying to say is that — no matter how bad the economy is — finding a job quickly shouldn’t be your main criteria. I’m  no career counselor, but as someone who went into accounting because it was practical, I can attest to how miserable it can be to work in a field you don’t enjoy for the sake of money or security. 

So my advice would be to follow your heart on this one.  Good luck and please let us know what you decide.

And readers, have any of you struggled with these kinds of choices, or licensing issues?  How did you handle them?  What’s been your experience?

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Finding a job with a felony: a success story

What does it take to get a job with a record?   When I teach, I allude to factors like  knowing your strengths, having a plan, dealing with setbacks and never giving up.  But it’s not often that I get an opportunity to show this in action.

Recently, however, a reader wrote in with a story that allows me do just that.  Although he didn’t want his name used, this man, who I’ll call Thomas, agreed to let me share his experiences on the chance that they might help someone else.

When I first heard from Thomas he admitted he was desperate:  

 I’m hoping maybe you can suggest something that I’m overlooking ….I ‘ve now been a year and a half with no job.  I can’t even get a reply to my Pizza Hut delivery driver application.  Right now it is 4:25 AM and I can’t sleep because my nine year marriage is about to collapse primarily because of the job situation…..

Thomas had been convicted nearly 20 years ago.  He’d done his time, made reparations to the victims and then moved overseas.   There, miraculously, he says, he was  hired at the second place he applied for a job, even after he’d told the employer about his  conviction.  Within two years he’d been promoted to supervisor and then to a more senior position.  This led to a better job at a Fortune 500 company. 

His troubles began when he moved back to the U.S.   Even with his work experience, no one would hire him.   When he wrote me he’d given up on his former profession and was considering going to truck driving school.   He’d found a cheaper program in a nearby state and  gotten a small veteran’s scholarship and a  loan to pay for part of it.  Yet he still wasn’t sure how he could afford living expenses.  He wasn’t writing to ask for money, but to see if I had any ideas on how he could finance it.  

I sent a note of encouragement and some suggestions.  He thanked me and I didn’t expect to hear from him again.   

Two days later, he emailed.  He’d called the school and gotten an offer of work study.   He’d contacted parishes and re-entry organizations in the area to find leads for a place to stay. He figured he could cut meal costs by relying on local food pantries, use free internet at the library and cut travel costs by using http://www.gasbuddy.com   He’d also investigated trucking firms to see which ones were receptive to hiring ex-offenders.  His only concern was he might have to hold off till the next class sesssion because time was running out and he didn’t want to set himself up for failure.   So he also got in touch with some former colleagues he hadn’t talked to in years and three of them agreed to be references.  Then he began looking for jobs.

Two weeks later, I received this note:

I got a job offer yesterday.  After reading a study that said 90% of people would not consider hiring someone with a violent felony conviction, I was getting pretty discouraged, but then it dawned on me that if 90% don’t that still means 10% do…so logically then it is just a numbers game.  Assuming that the study was accurate, that means that submitting 100 applications will result in 10 people who are willing to give an ex-con a try.  I have to admit, that after 30+ “No” answers, it takes a certain amount of determination to believe that the “Yes” is still lurking out there…but it was.  Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to go all the way to 100.

 It turned out the position for which he was hired hadn’t been advertised.  He’d simply seen a new business opening and gone to apply.   “The job was one that I had no direct experience with,” he said, ” but I decided to apply anyway because what is the worst they could do…tell me “no”?”

Obviously, things didn’t happen overnight for Thomas.  But what I like about this story is that even when he was asking for help, he was helping himself. He was  researching possible options before asking for suggestions, and he kept on doing his homework afterwards.  When truck driving school seemed like it might not work, he went to Plan B, contacting references and looking around for potential jobs.  He also went beyond employment ads, contacting companies directly and ultimately finding a job that hadn’t even been advertised yet. 

My hat is off to him, and to everyone else  out there who refuses to give up.  

 Is there something you can do to jumpstart your job search today?

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Take a journey of hope

Today I’m over at Journey of Hope,  talking with host Rodney Mathers about, among other subjects:

  • Answering tough interview questions
  • How to handle gaps in your resume
  • Whether recent discrimination lawsuits and action by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will make it easier for people with criminal records to get a job.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the site, Journey of Hope is a terrific weekly podcast that deals with issues affecting ex-offenders.  Mathers started the program after he was released from prison and learned just how difficult it was to start over. His goal was to help others in this situation by offering somewhere they could  turn for help and encouragement.  On previous shows he’s dealt with everything  from job scams that target ex-felons to finding financing for further education or to start a business to dealing with the stresses of reintegration.

It’s a great resource, so check it out.  You can hear my interview here.

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Helping women start over….

 I was happy to see  the National H.I.R.E. Network  devoted its 5th Annual Policy  Conference last week  to one of the most overlooked groups of ex-offenders.

You guessed it  – women.

The advocacy organization, which is dedicated to helping individuals with criminal records,  focused some much needed attention on the fact that , as I’ve noted, women face unique challenges in starting over after incarceration.  At the same time, most reentry programs and efforts are devoted to the needs of the men.   There’s a lack of understanding about the female experience behind bars, as well as what their needs are after release.   There’s also a stigma.  

I also think H.I.R.E. came up with some interesting  recommendations for change:

Within facilities

  • Improved discharge planning, including reinstating Medicaid and obtaining a state identification card and birth certificate prior to release.
  • More higher education opportunities for women.
  • Placement for mothers within reasonable distance from children to encourage visitation.
  • Improved medical and psychiatric care, and an increase in trauma-informed corrections and service provider staff.

Reentry

  • A shorter, less-invasive process for securing a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.
  • Improved communication between criminal and housing courts to reduce problems women have trying to reunite with their children upon reentry.
  • More transitional and affordable housing; too often women manage to reunite with their children only to wind up in a shelter.

Readers, how about you?    Are there any services you’ve seen that have helped women?  Anything you would add?

By the way, you can more about the conference here.

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Is it time to go back to school?

A former student recently contacted me with news that he was returning to school.    Yay!   As I’ve said  before, gaining additional education or skills is a great way to  boost your value in the job market.  Particularly these days,  when a surplus of applicants means employers can afford to be picky, and decent-paying  jobs you can get with just a high school diploma are fast disappearing.  

If you follow this blog, you know this is one of my favorite drums to beat.  If you’re new here, you might want to check out:  Five reasons training may be the answer for ex-offenders and others looking to make a fresh start.

That said, with the unemployment rate at 9.6 percent (and well into the double digits  in some sectors and  parts of the country),  training alone won’t guarantee you a job.  I’ve worked with a number of people with criminal records who’ve complained their certificates and additional degrees haven’t opened the doors they expected.   So before you jump back into the classroom, here are some things to consider  to help ensure you do it the right way:  

Look for programs that offer work experience or require an internship. 

The best way to get hired is to show an employer what you can do. Perhaps that’s why some of the strongest training and degree programs require that you do on-the-job training or an internship.   A 2008 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found companies offered jobs to nearly 70 percent of their interns.   In addition, nearly a third of the new college graduates that employers hired in 2007 were from their internship programs.  Even allowing that the recession has likely brought those numbers down some, that’s still a pretty good plug  for the benefits of getting your foot in the door early.  And even if an internship doesn’t lead to a job, you’ve still got a solid professional reference to use to find your next position.   

Do your homework

Don’t sign up for the first program that turns up in your junk mail or on the wall of  a subway train.  Ask a career counselor or job placement expert at your local state employment or CareerOneStop center for recommendations.  Look at accredited colleges or universities, or certificate programs offered by legitimate education and training firms.  Many online courses are also good, but be aware that online scams abound, so do your research.  Don’t be afraid to ask how a school’s  students  have fared. What are their job placement rates?  Can you talk to previous students about their experiences?   Make sure you know what you’re getting for your money.  The FTC, for example, has identified a number of scams that entice you to by software to train yourself for  a new career in medical billing and coding.  What they don’t tell you is that without connections or certification, you typically can’t find clients so it’s difficult to make money.     So again, buyer beware.

Be realistic

Can you devote the time you need to taking a course right now?   Can you afford it — both in terms of time and money?  Do you have an adequate understanding of the work your class(es) will entail and the number of years you might have to labor at lower levels before your training pays off?   When you’re eager to get started, it’s easy to overlook these questions, but doing so can lead to disappointment. Additionally, many people  coming out of the legal system  must contend with financial obligations like fines, court costs, mandated child support or restitution, which can make paying for and/or attending training impractical in the short-run, even if you can obtain a grant.  My former student had to work two jobs for nearly a year to pay his debts before he had enough money to consider taking a course.  But since he took the long-term view and didn’t expect everything to happen instantly, things worked out.    

Put the work in 

My sister recently started training to become a medical assistant.  Right off, she ran into fellow classmates copying others’ answers, failing to do the homework or simply not putting the effort in.   This won’t cut it come test time,  and it’s certainly not going to work when you’re being asked to assist a doctor in a medical procedure.  What’s more, when instructors hear of possible employment opportunities, they’re going to mention them to the hardest working students, not the slackers.  So if you’re too busy with work and other obligations to concentrate on a course now, or you’re simply not interested in the subject matter, do yourself a favor and save your time and money.

Readers how about you?  I’d love to hear from folks who have gone on to get additional training.  How did you do it?  What’s worked for you?  Is there anything you now would do differently?

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Just out: a nationwide guide to reentry programs

If you’re looking for help starting over, you might want to check-out this great new guide reentry programs.

The searchable database was the brainchild of  the Council of State Goverments Justice Center with support from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA.

The goal of new online Reentry Programs Database is to provide a comprehensive catalog of  initiatives to help former adult and juvenile offenders and those with criminal records.  It’s a great idea, and the CGS is enoucraging agencies to update their data so that users will be able to locate the most current information on reentry.

When I took a look at the guide this past week, it was simple enough to search by entering your city and state and the type of assistance you were seeking.  The idea is very similar to a resource offered by the National Hire Network, which also offers a state-by state listing of reentry and other helpful resources.

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Recognizing those on the front lines of reentry

If one of these folks  has helped you rebuild your life, this is the week to let them know.   And feel free to share your stories here.

Over the years, I’ve volunteered in probation offices in both Indiana and Virginia,  doing interviews and presentence reports, counseling and helping manage caseloads.  In both places,  I’ve been struck by the dedication these always overworked and typically underpaid professionals bring to their jobs.  I know probation and parole officers are often viewed as one more legal  hurdle by those convicted of crimes.   Some of my students have talked about how they feel their P.O. is out to get them and eager to send them back to jail.  But the P.O.’s I’ve worked with work hard to help their clients succeed, and see rearrest, or imprisonment as a last resort.    

For more information,  you can check out the American Probation and Parole Association website.  There’s a lot of great info there on the history of probation, as well as the latest on what’s working in community supervision.     

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The humility challenge

A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.

— writer and feminist Gloria Steinem

The student was a young woman, not long out of high school.  And she seemed extremely sure of herself, which might have been why she was struggling with this particular job interview question.

“But I don’t have any weaknesses.”  She looked me straight in the eye.

In previous classes, we’d discussed the reason employers often ask about what you consider your strengths and weaknesses during interviews.  We’d talked about how everyone has weaknesses and how bosses often look for a measure of self-knowledge and maturity in your responses.  The key to answering this question, according to most career experts, is using it to highlight an area or trait you know you need to improve, and hopefully to demonstrate how you’ve either worked to correct it, or learned to compensate for your shortcomings.

A classmate, for example, had offered that she had struggled on occasion to learn things from manuals.  “But I’m very hands-on and I’ve demonstrated repeatedly that I learn quickly by doing.”

“I tend to take on too much responsibility,” said another.  “But over time I’ve become much better at delegating some of that work to others.”

This particular student, however, was stymied.

“There must be some area where you’d like to improve,” I offered.

She thought for a moment, then smiled slightly.   “I’m too competitive,” she said.  “I just always have to be the best.”

It wasn’t necessarily a bad answer, particularly in a society that loves victory as much as ours.  So just to see where she’d go with it, I asked her — as a recruiter no doubt would — how her competitiveness had hurt her.

Again, she looked perplexed.

“What about times when you couldn’t be the best,” I suggested.  “How have you handled that? ” What about academics?  Had she excelled there and been competitive too? Or had that been an area where she had a harder time?

“Grades didn’t matter,” she said.  “I didn’t go half the time.  That’s how it was if you were an athlete.”

Say what you will about this answer, she was honest at least.  And hardly alone in her attitude.  One of the challenges of revealing your weaknesses is that there’s seemingly no upside to it. Our culture doesn’t just love winners, we worship them.   We put them on a pedestal where they can do no wrong. We make allowances.  We go out of our way to revere “specialness” and ignore anything that might smack of less than perfect.

Then we expect that somewhere along the way, the same people that we’ve elevated are going to become introspective and acquire some humility. We expect the kids who look up to them to understand this.  At the same time, we seldom teach it, we don’t emphasize it.  Yet as a character trait, humility is as essential as perseverance — for all of us, but particularly for those looking to start their lives over.

For one, a sense of entitlement, lack of humility, feeling that you don’t have to play by society’s rules — spin it as you will — is often a direct contributor to criminal activity.  Researchers  long ago identified a distorted feeling of being “special” or above the law as a critical component of the criminal mindset.

Secondly, explaining your past to the general public is a humbling experience, as countless ex-offenders will attest.  As a former felon you may be forced to take a job you consider beneath your abilities because it’s the only way to feed your family.  You may be denied jobs for which you’d be perfect.  People may doubt what you say and question your character.

Dealing with this is going to require not only an ability to accept your situation and persevere, but as James Walker noted so eloquently in his recent guest post, the humility to acknowledge your mistakes, and yes, your weaknesses.

Otherwise, as Gloria Steinem observed, you do risk trading one prison for another, don’t you?

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Straight Talk: Blogger James E. Walker Jr. on the challenges of starting over

James E. Walker Jr.

I first got to know James Walker a couple of months ago, when he responded to a post I’d written on shame.  His response was so heartfelt, that I immediately clicked on the link to his blog.  There I found some very thoughtful commentary on reentry from a man who ought to know.  In 1977, Walker went to prison for what he describes as the worst crime imaginable.  In the midst of a robbery attempt, he killed a man.  Steeped in regret, Walker would spend the next 30 years of his life behind bars.  Though he knew he could never atone for what he’d done, when he was released three years ago at the age of 51, Walker felt he had little in common with the young man who’d made such an irreversible mistake. He’d worked to better himself and was ready to start fresh. And yet, his reentry has been far from easy.  As he confessed in a post earlier this year:

“Throughout my incarceration, I never could quite comprehend why so many guys returned to prison. Today, I know all too well why most of those who return to prison do so: the lack of real career opportunities. All the doors to financial stability and success–traditional or otherwise–seem not only closed but also locked. Dead bolted. Barricaded. Welded shut.”

In this month’s Straight Talk, Walker agreed to share his journey and how his expectations have differed from the reality of getting out:

Expectations vs. Reality

By James E. Walker Jr.

Two months shy of my 21st birthday and six months out of work, I got the foolish notion to become a stick-up man.  A neophyte to criminal behavior, woefully naïve and reckless, I botched the wrong-headed attempt at armed robbery, and a man died.

During the 30 years I spent in prison, I lived for the time when I would leave prison.  I believe that all prisoners spend their time in prison looking forward to the resumption of their life outside.  Some of us, though, for whatever reasons, seem to take our time more seriously.  I did.  I resolved early in my sentence that I would not allow my time to do me.

Time does the prisoner—instead of the prisoner doing time—when the prisoner takes no responsibility for the way he spends his days.  It happens when he serves his sentence as if doing time doesn’t bother him at all, as if it amounts to a mere inconvenience.  For sure, this occurs most often with folks serving relatively brief prison terms, but it also occurs with some of those doing longer sentences.

Many people around me wondered why I spent my time in school, in the library, or off by myself reading a book.  Why was I planning for a future that seemed to recede further and further and further from me?  The reason I never took my focus off my future was simple. I didn’t want to be consumed by my past behavior, and the netherworld of prison that resulted from that misbehavior.  Distraction from the goal of freedom, that grand ideal, would amount to a living death for which I had no desire.

And so I completed my bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, with a concentration in English. Knowing that my criminal background would restrict my career options, I began to think about innovative and creative ways I might succeed in navigating the expected obstacles to success.  I knew it would be difficult, but I expected that completing an undergraduate degree would impress prospective employers to take a chance on hiring me.  All the hard work I’d done to distinguish myself from the average prisoner, I thought, would likewise distinguish me from the average ex-con, once I left prison.  Why shouldn’t it?  Doesn’t our society continuously trumpet the value of higher education as the vehicle out of powerlessness, poverty, and disadvantage?

What I found upon getting released from prison, however, was something entirely different.  Indeed, my educational attainment and personal development, almost incredibly, intensified the rejection I experienced.  I quickly learned that our society has simply blocked many paths to career success for persons convicted of criminal offenses.  Even when no law prohibits career access, social norms often do.  In countless interviews, the repeated message seemed to be: your education, skill set, and eminently positive representation mean nothing.  You’ve got a felonious past—a violent one, at that.  Ain’t nothing happenin’!

In the past three years, I’ve been rejected and passed-over for everything from a part-time, minimum-wage pizza delivery job to a potentially six-figure insurance sales position.  The folks at the pizzeria wouldn’t even talk to me.  The recruiter at the insurance agency did engage the conversation, but I didn’t get the job.  An auto dealer refused to consider me because, he said, his insurance carrier just wouldn’t allow him to hire me.  A woman at another insurance operation told me I couldn’t get a license to sell insurance because of my criminal conviction.  When I demonstrated that, legally speaking, I could, she just ended the conversation.  The folks at a well-known parcel delivery service appeared quite impressed with my work history—until, that is, I explained that all of that job experience occurred in prison.  When a local reentry agency hired me as a case manager, I had to leave the job I had sought for two years after only two weeks, because the folks at a nearby prison won’t allow me entrance as a case manager—though they continue to allow me entrance as a volunteer.

The list goes on and on…

Yes, it’s been discouraging. I’ve spent time working with other ex-offenders, and often been able to help them in ways I haven’t been able to help myself.  I’ve watched as even my family has lost patience. The implication is that I, in some way, must not be doing the right things in order to find an employer willing to hire me.  Today, I no longer do walk-ins and cold calls.  I’ve stopped traveling significant distances to do applications.  I’ve stopped blasting my resume.  I’ve stopped applying for every possible opening.

I still selectively submit applications online.  I also continue to make disclosure of my background up front, usually via cover letter.  I couch that disclosure in the most constructive language possible.  I acknowledge responsibility for my misbehavior.  I do so clearly and genuinely.  I don’t wallow or grovel.  I acknowledge the past, then speak to my personal maturity and development, and look forward to the future with both confidence and humility.

Recently, I obtained a part-time position as a digital media marketing executive at a small information technology and services firm.  The position doesn’t pay very much, but I have an opportunity to demonstrate my value to the organization.  My co-workers have embraced me for the affability, intelligence, positive mindedness, and commitment to excellence they see in me.  They know I have a criminal past but have no real interest in the details of that past.  They genuinely like me, the person.  I don’t think I could have found a more supportive workplace environment.  My gratitude extends beyond all measure.

At the same time, I feel the need to keep bringing attention to the challenges faced by others like me.  Just as I rejected the correctional mindset during my imprisonment, I reject the predominant social mindset out here in the “free” society.  Something has to change. The chasm between our national pride as a land of opportunity, and our national perverseness in systemically rejecting and excluding persons who have made serious mistakes in the past—even after they’ve paid the legal price for those mistakes—spans deep and wide.

So does my determination to bridge it.

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Ex-offenders: reducing the “fear factor”

I came upon great article about a community program in Enid, Oklahoma that helps ex-offenders get back on their feet.  Like most reentry organizations, this one aims to assist newly released individuals in getting their documents in order and obtaining housing and employment.

What’s unique about the Enid Community Re-entry Initiative Committee is the way they’re trying to achieve this.  Their goal is to have a mentor for every returning felon.  By providing one-on-one support, notes, EEOC supervising case manager Mitzi Maddox, these mentors could play a direct role in  helping reduce recidivism.  This would also go a way towards reducing the stigma of incarceration.

“Instead of being scared (of the inmates), we want the community to get the idea of helping them,” Maddox said.

 

Personally, I love this idea of matching people one to one.    Obviously, it wouldn’t work in every case — people have to want to change. But given that we have 9 million ex-offenders being released from jail annually and 700,000 offenders coming out of state and federal prisons, imagine the impact even a little success would have.

At OAR Fairfax, the non-profit where I volunteer, caseworkers have found that “without employment and supportive relationships, an ex-offender’s likelihood of success is greatly limited. ”  I’ve met some of these offenders in my classes; people whose relationships are unhealthy or abusive, people who have lost contact with their family, or been ostracized by them, people who never have visitors and are terrified of their release because they have nowhere to go and no one to support them.  Many times, these individuals seek out mentor relationships while they’re still serving their sentences.    Until recently, the OAR mentor program only extended through the course of the person’s stay in the adult detention center, but now OAR is extending the mentoring relationship so that it continues for the first year after release.

I think that can only help.  In my classes I encourage students to seek out mentors, wherever possible.   I’ve also had the privilege of being a mentor, and can tell anyone considering volunteering in this way that it is extremely rewarding.   I still keep in touch with my mentee on an informal basis and value our relationship.

In previous posts, former offenders have commented on the loneliness offenders feel upon release and the sense of being different — an attitude that can if taken to an extreme lead to isolation, depression and too often, re-offending.    Ernest McNear, a pastor in Philadelphia, summed up the value of a mentor best when talking to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“If you are going to have successful reentry you have to have someone welcoming you into the community, not just a program.”

How about you?   Has anyone had anyone had a mentoring experience they’d like to share?  Was it helpful?  If so why?  If it didn’t work, why not?

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