What It’s Like to Look For a Job After Prison

“We are much more than what we did wrong. When is punishment enough? When is it okay for you to come back to the workforce?”
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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?”