Category Archives: employment assistance ex-offenders

Are ex-offenders the new “untouchables”?

“I had been wrong about our criminal justice system. It’s not just another institution in our society infected by racial bias, but a different beast entirely. It functions today as a caste system. It functions to lock poor people of color in a permanent second class status for life, much like Jim Crow once did.”

Wow.

I heard this driving home from my class at the Fairfax Adult Detention Center today, and had to resist the urge to yell “yes,” to the radio.  The speaker was Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar, attorney and former Supreme Court clerk.  She was being interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More program about her new book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

What jumped out at me was her reference to caste.  We here in America like to think of ourselves as living in the land of equal opportunity, I know.  But this particular term  is one that’s come up a lot in my discussions about the offenders and the criminal justice system, lately.  An offender turned reentry advocate I talked to a whle back put it even more bluntly:

“I think we as humans need an untouchable class.  Before it was race that held people down, now it’s that your branded and ostracized because you’re an ex-offender.”

Alexander argues that blacks are still disproportionately represented in this new lower caste, hence the link  to notorious Jim Crow laws.  She backs up her assertions with plenty of statistics, including:

  • The War on Drugs, which caused the prison explosion has been primarily waged in poor neighborhoods of color. Yes, drugs are there, she says, but they’re also in white suburban neighborhoods, as well.  But despite this, in some states 80 to 90 percent of drug offenders sent to prison are African Americans.
  • If we were to go back to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today.

Author Michelle Alexander

I would agree with Alexander to a point.  Certainly more African Americans are affected by the criminal justice system.  But the caste system she’s referring to also impacts a substantial number of low income, under-educated whites.  The groups I teach in Northern Virginia have never had an African American majority.  But it’s a good bet that the most of these students, whatever their race, are usually from a lower rung on the class ladder, which guarantees them poorer legal representation and less access to some of the “breaks” often afforded higher class lawbreakers.

That said, I think Alexander and the people I’ve spoken to are right when they say that felons are the new untouchables.  As Alexander points out, offenders are:

“…trapped in a permanent second class status in which you may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. All the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind…..are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon.”

Note:  Alexander and others who advocate for criminal justice reform aren’t saying that those who break the law don’t deserve to be punished.  But it’s a question of scale.  Right now having a criminal record punishes all offenders in perpetuity, often regardless of the circumstances of the individual crime.   Employers who routinely screen out anyone with a record, for example, effectively treat a felony as a scarlet letter.

Alexander thinks nothing short of a social movement will change this situation.  In ex-offender forums I often hear people talking about getting groups together and going to Washington, D.C., but so far there’s been no significant organized action.

How about you?  Do you think offenders are the new lower caste?  If so, what do you think it will take to change this?

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Who hires violent offenders? You’d be surprised.

Their crimes aren’t easy to stomach.

VASAVOR job developer Mouly Aloumouati

Murder. Rape. Armed Robbery. Aggravated Assault.  But when they come to Mouly Aloumouati, they’ve done their time and have one thing in common.

They want a job and they want to start over.

Aloumouati does his best to accommodate.  A business developer at SkillSource Center, (a One Stop Career Center operator in Virginia), he also manages  the VASAVOR (Virginia’s Serious and Violent Offender Reentry) program in conjunction with re-entry organization OAR.  Over the past seven years, he estimates he’s dealt with some 400 violent offenders and found jobs for more than 75 percent of them.

“I’ve got a recidivism rate of 5 percent,”  he says, which isn’t bad, when you consider that nationally nearly two thirds of offenders return to prison or jail within two years.

Affable and approachable, Aloumouati’s secret is a mixture of practicality, doggedness and a willingness to do what it takes to help get his people placed.  When he started, he  had no experience with offenders, but over time he’s developed an acute understanding of the challenges they face and the way to overcome these.

I was fortunate to catch up with Aloumouati two weeks ago when I stopped by the local Career One Stop Center in Falls Church, VA.  Here’s some of what he had to say about how he works and what he’s learned:

On the biggest challenge the violent offender faces:

Some would call it the “fear” factor.   “I would say the hardest thing is getting over the stigma.  But I try to show the people I work with that the stigma is not the end of the world.  You can get past it, if you’re willing to work hard and be persistent.”  The important thing, he adds, is how you come across and whether you are employable.  This means do you have your IDs, do you know how to conduct yourself in a workplace, have you taken responsibility for your actions or are you in denial…otherwise I’m wasting my time because you’re not ready.”  The first step he takes with people who come to him is to do an employment assessment to see where they are.

On what kind of jobs serious offenders can get:

Aloumouati has placed offenders in the labor and construction industries, administrative and clerical jobs, the trades, transportation and food service, among other areas.  Many of these positions are entry-level, but he’s also helped individuals find more advanced positions in the medical and other professional fields.

On how the ex-offender should present himself:

“I tell people I work with you spend 10 seconds explaining your record in an interview, then you spend 10 minutes telling the employer what you can do for him.

On his job hunt secrets:

Aloumouati keeps a file on every employer who’s ever hired one of his clients.  Any reentry organization can develop a similar list by going to case files for the past three to four years and looking at where the offenders they worked with got jobs, he says.  Everywhere he goes, he brings business cards and makes sure he gets them from any employer he meets.  He scans the want-ads and Craig’s List regularly and follows up immediately.  “Youve got to get to the job before the non-criminals do to make your case,” he says.  In fact, he’s been known to drive offenders to an interview to take advantage of a hot lead right away.   Even if the job doesn’t work out — he keeps track of the employer so he can check back periodically and find out about new openings before they’re advertised.

On getting professional jobs:

Aloumouati has worked with former doctors, lawyers, police, judges, military, engineers and plenty of others with impressive credentials.  Sometimes these individuals will no longer be able to work in their field because of their crimes or licensing requirements. Nonetheless he has still been able to help many find very good jobs.  “I have five clients right now, who are making more than $85,000,” he says.

On his advice to an offender who can no longer work in his/her field:

You need to be very creative and change direction. “I tell the people I work with they have to dig deep in their souls and brains to bring me other industries where they can work.”  A medical doctor may never be a doctor again with a felony, but he can work with or for a doctor.  People may lose security clearances, but not the knowledge and experience they had previously.   I have a number of engineers and people in IT that I’ve been able to place in good jobs in the industry.  They may not be doing exactly what they were doing before, but they’re still using their skills.

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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, education ex-offenders, employers hiring ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, ex-offender psychology, job search ex-offenders, jobs ex-offenders, personal responsibility, reentry, reentry resources, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility

Incentives to hire ex-offenders: more questions on bonding

Got a bit of a scare on Wednesday when I went to check out www.bonds4jobs.com — that’ s the website for the federal bonding program — and found it no longer existed.

But FEAR NOT!   As you can see, it turned out to a temporary glitch, with the site merely down for maintenance.  The bonding program, which facilitates the hiring of ex-offenders and other at-risk employees by providing  insurance to protect employers in the event of theft or dishonesty,  is alive and well and actually quite busy now.

That’s according to Ron Rubbin, the director of the federal program, who called me back yesterday to explain.  “I was amazed at the number of people who called because they couldn’t find site,”  Rubbin said.  “It shows how popular the program is.”

While I had Rubbin on the phone — a bit of serendipity to be sure — he was kind enough to help me answer a few questions that have recently come up in my classes about the bond program:

How does the bonding program work?

Basically, employers who wish to employ at risk or hard to place employees can obtain fidelity bonds to insure their businesses for up to 6 months in the event that employee commits an act of dishonesty.   The typical bond amount is $5,000 and the bonds are renewable.  The state buys the bonds at a discount (it costs approximately $98 to insure one individual for $5,000).  If you are seeking bonding services or a job you should call  1-877-US2-JOBS  (1-877-872-5627).   They will refer you to your state’s bonding coordinator or the nearest career one stop employment center for assistance.  Since 1966, when the initiative was started, more than 40,000 people have been insured through the federal bonding program.

Will the program help me get a job?

Yes and no.  Most private insurers will not bond ex-offenders.  The fact that an employer can get protection against theft or loss through this program if they take a chance on an you,  may encourage them to take that risk.  IF you have all of the right experience and skills, and IF you are the person they want to hire, the bonding program is a great incentive.   But if you’re not a fit for the job, it’s unlikely to help.

I applied for a job in housekeeping at a large hotel chain recently.  They said they couldn’t hire me because I was an ex-offender and I needed to be bonded?   Can they do that?

In the future if an interviewer uses this excuse you may want to mention the bonding program.  Given that you say this was a big chain, the employer likely knew about federal bonding, but chose not to participate.  Some companies don’t want to hire ex-offenders even with bonding and that’s their prerogative.   Most of the people bonded through the program, Rubbin says, won’t be having access to large amounts of cash and valuable merchandise. That might have been the issue with a hotel.

I work in a high-paying industry.  Unfortunately, a $5,000 bond won’t be enough to insure me, since companies usually base this amount on a portion of your salary.  So the federal bonding program can’t help me, can it?

Actually, you still may be able to get help.  Although the typical employee is  bonded  for $5,000, the amount can go as high as $25,000.   About 15 percent of the ex-offenders in the program are insured for more than $5,000.  As a practical matter it comes down the state agency or bonding coordinator’s discretion.   If they agree to insure you, you could be covered for a higher amount.   It will depend on your case and the competing needs in your state or area.  Obviously, more people can be insured if they limit the bonds to $5,000, but most states make evaluations on a case by case basis.

Still have questions about bonding?   You can find tons more information at the bonds4jobs site.  And if you’ve had an experience being bonded in this program we’d love to hear about it.

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Filed under background checks, bonding ex-offenders, employer incentives ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders

Yes, it’s a busy week….

I’m off to teach this morning, and still need to prepare for a bigger class than usual, so I must apologize for not having a new blog post at the ready.  

I also have to admit all the excitement of hosting guest poster Jackie Dishner  as part of the 2010 WordCount Blogathon has thrown me off schedule a tad, although it was well worth it.   If you haven’t checked out Jackie’s terrific advice on starting over no matter what has happened in your life, please do yourself a favor and take a look at yesterday’s post — it’s a good one!  In addition, she’s writing about inspiration all month over at her blog BIKEWITHJACKIE, so there’s plenty more where that came from.

I forgot to mention that I was also the guest blogger over at Jackie’s site yesterday, where I talked about what inspires me, in my life and my writing.  So if you want to learn more, you can read my post here.

In the meantime, I promise lots of good stuff coming after I catch up, including a follow-up on my poll on who’s law abiding and who’s not, an interview with VASOVAR’s Mouly Aloumouati on finding jobs for violent offenders, a look at whether sports culture encourages criminal behavior and more, yes MORE, guest posts.

So stay tuned.

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Filed under employers hiring ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, ex-offender psychology, inspiration, reentry resources, starting over, Uncategorized

Criminal justice blogs I love…

Oops, I almost forgot.  Today those of us  taking part in WordCount Blogathon 2010 are talking about our favorite blogs.  So I had to postpone an earlier entry, which is why this is coming to you a little later.  

Fortunately, in the area of  criminal justice, there are a number of  good sites.  Here’s a quick list of my top five:

1.  Best and newsiest overall  — Change.org’s Criminal Justice Blog.  

 I usually call this one Matt Kelley’s blog, since initially he was doing all the posts, though in recent months Change.org has  added other writers.   Kelley, an editor at the Innocence Project  is always on the news, covering everything from prison reform  to  re-entry challenges  and definitely calling it as he sees it.  Some of my recent favorites were his posts on  Taiwan pointing to the success of the death penalty in the U.S. as its reason for reinstituting the practice , the dangers of using software to predict what kids might commit crimes in Florida and the racial undertones of baggy pants laws

2.   Best Continuous Coverage of an Issue  —  Grits for Breakfast 

Scott Henson describes himself as a former journalist  turned opposition researcher/political consultant, public policy researcher and blogger.  His insightful posts on criminal justice in Texas — a nation in and of itself — are a model for what a good blog should be.  His long-running coverage of prison overcrowding in the state has been as dogged and as effective as that of any beat reporter.  He’s well-sourced, well-read and even his rants, like this recent one on Knitta Please graffiti, are usually fairly amusing. 

3.  Most helpful  —  Jail to Job

Eric Mayo is an author, lecturer and motivational speaker, who specializes in helping people develop life skills and job readiness training .   He uses his blog to answer questions ex-offenders have about finding jobs and re-entry.  He also provides taped lectures and podcasts of his answers.  What I like best is that  no matter how obscure or difficult the question, Mayo’s answers are always smart and right on target.  I’m hoping to have him answer some questions for Out and Employed later this month.

4.  Tastiest junk food —  Mind Hacks

I still haven’t found a blog I really love on criminology (readers, any suggestions?) , but I’m fascinated with psychology, which is another area where blogs are hardly in short supply.   What I like about Mind Hacks is that it gives me a no-nonsense digest of psychology-related articles, television programs and other media.  Authors Tom Stafford and Matt Webb have written a book by the same title, and their stated goal is to help people look inside their minds  using the latest psychology and neuroscience.  This is true whether they’re dissecting an article  about a 58-year-old’s ability to memorize Paradise Lost, or how Agatha Christie’s last books reflected her dementia

5.   Best blog for building a perspective that will keep your children from crime (and you from doing something you’ll regret) —     Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

What the heck is a blog about youth sports doing on my list?  In truth, I discovered this one  back when my middle son first got heavy into his travel soccer career (he was 8).  Bob Cook is a  journalist, veteran Little League coach  and a guy after my own heart in terms of having the right attitude about games kids play.  He also spends a surprising amount of time writing about criminal activity, though given the amount of cheating and violence that often seeps into our favorite American pasttimes, maybe this is par for the course.  One of his recent posts on George Huguely, the prep-school lacrosse player at UVA who accidentally killed his girlfriend, is a perfect example of why I keep coming back to Cook’s site again and again.   Quite simply, he gets it.  

How about you?  Anyone have a criminal justice  blog they love that I should add to my list?

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Filed under employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, ex-offender psychology, jobs ex-offenders, justice reform, personal responsibility, reentry

The “typical” offender doesn’t exist

I started a new class this week.  What struck me again is the challenge of making an employment course  meaningful to people from such a variety of backgrounds.                                                                                                                                                                                                   

It’s a reminder, too,  that there isn’t a typical offender.  This has been the true with  both the men’s and women’s classes I’ve taught.

Of the fifteen women on my latest roster, for example,  a couple have or are working on college degrees.  A few haven’t finished high school.

Nearly half were employed at the time of their arrest.

Several are in their early 20s, but the ages range into the late 40s.

About two thirds have children. Half of those have children young enough to be in the  care of of someone else right now.

Half are white, the rest are  split between African American and Latino.

Four are required to be kept separate from at least one other inmate in detention.

Roughly 60 percent have crimes that show up in an internet search.

A couple are serving sentences for misdemeanors.  One will be released Friday.  At least three  have been convicted of more serious felonies and will be sent to downstate to serve prison terms.

And yet, when I ask them to write down their questions,  I get different versions of the same concern:  How will I get an employer to hire me with a felony?

The challenge will be answering this in a way that each woman  can relate to, and  hopefully take with her.

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Filed under education ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, ex-offenders education, Uncategorized

Why chain gangs can be a good thing

For a lot of people, the  idea of putting prisoners to work in ” chain gangs” evokes images of  Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.  Or maybe Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s no holds-barred  programs in Arizona – where even female inmates are shackled on the job site.   So I was  happy to see the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office  Community Labor Force  get some publicity in today’s Washington Post. 

A number of jail inmates I’ve worked with have taken part in the Fairfax program, which allows  non-violent offenders to  be assigned to work crews that do jobs like  landscaping, clean-up and  trash removal around the community.  In return they get time off for good behavior, plus the chance to do  useful work and develop employment skills.  The article noted that these workers also serve a need, like  helping the budget-stretched Virginia Department of Transportation provide services it could not otherwise afford.  They also manage to do it without  handcuffs or chains, and unless you’re familiar with prison garb, you might not even recognize their green jumpsuits and orange vests.  As one worker told the Post reporter with some pride, “We get a lot of people asking for our business cards…” 

Sadly, some of the responses to this article were predictable, with a few commenters decrying the work program as “slave labor” and others talking about how it takes jobs from unemployed people to reward criminals.  It got me wondering if the strong reaction is  due  to seeing these offenders out in the community.  After all, most state and federal prisons require employees to work and pay them a pittance.  Jail employees often work as trustees in the kitchen or in sanitation, and no one gripes about that.  

Regardless, my experience with offenders in these programs has been largely positive. In fact, I think this type of work-release should be a mandatory part of most  sentences.  Here’s why:

It’s constructive.  The punitive part of incarceration is being locked away and having to think about what you’ve done.  It’s the collateral damage people don’t see that really hampers an individual’s ability to  lead a productive life post-release;  the loss of employment and a place in the larger world, erosion of skills and community ties and the brain fog that come with days without purpose.   Work-release programs can help temper this decline and do much to prepare offenders for eventual release and/or highlight issues they might face.  I  see it in  my working students —  that energy that comes from accomplishment and the renewed feeling that they can actually achieve something.

It encourages reliability/real world accountability.  This isn’t play work. It’s the real thing.   Just as with a real job, if you screw up, you’re essentially fired.  One of my students found this out when she was caught with a cellphone in her purse at the animal shelter where she was on work-release.   She not only lost that job, but all the good time she had accrued as well.  Plus she found herself back in a cell all day long.

It is not slave labor, but rather a way to re pay a debt to society.   With the annual cost of incarceration running   $20,000 plus per person, any way offenders can offset this bill should be considered.  Currently, about 80 percent of prisoners do some sort of work for just this reason.   Plus “good time” days mean less time inside, so by working,  the individual is actually earning a shorter sentence.  

It’s actual employment experience.   For some inmates, in fact, work-release  may even be the only legitimate employment they’ve ever had.  In every class I teach, I always have a couple of students who quietly confess that they have never held a job in their adult lives.  Whether this is because of  lack of opportunity, skills, education, or simply that crime was easier, the best way to turn their lives around –  and reduce the risk of their returning  – is to start building real world experience and references.

It is a net benefit for society.   Face it, a job you have to go to jail to get  is not a reward.  No one willingly trades their freedom to pick up trash along the highway.  In fact, many of the jobs offenders fill are often ones no one else wants.  The inmates who were bussed in to clear snow from Fairfax County school sidewalks this past winter, for example, were used as a last resort only after school officials had exhausted appeals to staff, parents and the larger community.

Readers, what’s your experience?   Are work-release programs worthwhile?  Have they been useful to you?

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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, job training, starting over