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Why Is Getting a Job After Prison Still Such a Nightmare for Ex-Cons?

Being honest about your criminal record can get you disqualified from the job before you even do the interview. I know, because it happened to me.

Seth Ferranti

Seth Ferranti

Photo via Flickr user Flazingo Photos

On many job applications, there's a box that asks you to check "yes" if you've ever been convicted of a crime. If you haven't, you just check "no" without thinking, but ex-cons like me face a choice: either lie about our criminal history, or tell the truth and risk the chance that we'll miss out on a job. But on Monday, Koch Industries—one of the largest private employers in the country—announced it's joined the "ban the box" movement and stopped asking potential employees about their prior criminal convictions.

Given Koch Industries' size (and its namesakes' political clout ), this could be a sign that things are opening up for the 70 million adults in our country who have felony records. It's about time—anyone coming out of prison is well aware of the dreaded question on job applications, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?"

Answering it honestly can get you disqualified from the job before you even do the interview. I know, because it's happened to me.

After getting released from prison last August, I immediately set out to get a job, as that was a condition of my release and placement at a halfway house in St. Louis. After multiple decades in prison, my job history was zilch and I had no discernible skills besides my writing ability, but the halfway house wasn't going to let me work as a freelance writer. I had to get a job with regular hours and a steady paycheck. Despite my time in prison, I considered myself trustworthy and responsible—the type of guy who would get the job done. I figured that desire—the willingness to work hard—would earn me a job, but failed to account for the discrimination ex-cons face.

Related: Watch our documentary about our prison correspondent's struggle to integrate back into society.

Through friends, I was immediately connected with three different potential employers—a restaurant in South Country (a nice area of St. Louis), a building cleaning company, and a boutique breakfast deli. After years in prison, I just craved the ability to do the right thing and show that I could be a productive member of society. I was ready to reintegrate myself into the regular world. That's what most ex-cons or anyone with a criminal record wants to do, after all—prove that they belong.

I spoke to the kitchen manager at the restaurant on the phone and went in and filled out an application. I didn't lie about my felony record, marking the box and indicating that I would explain in a follow-up interview. The kitchen manager wasn't there, so I left the application and went home. He followed up via phone and hired me, telling me I could start the next day and detailing the clothes I'd be expected to wear for the job.

I was excited—it was my first gig in a long time.

But an hour later, the manager called back and told me he couldn't go through with it. Of course, he didn't say it was because of my felony conviction, but I knew what the story was. I had been honest and explained that I'd just been released from prison, and he seemed cool with it, but apparently one of his bosses felt differently. I felt totally discriminated against, but this type of stuff happens to ex-cons every day.

Banning the box wouldn't do away with background checks—for some jobs, they're a necessity—but it would make going through the job application process easier for those with criminal convictions.

"I filled out like ten to 15 applications before I finally got a job through a temp agency," Trell, a 30-something African-American man from St. Louis who did a decade in the feds, tells me. "I know what discrimination feels like. No one wants my big, black, ugly ass working for them, and the criminal record just makes it easy for them to deny my application." I was at the same federal prison as Trell, and we were released on the same day. We compared notes on jobs and talked about who was hiring as we sat in the halfway house and made plans for our job searches. We both felt like we were prepared.

"I took a resume writing class in prison, went to a job fair, and did practice interviews all in preparation for my release," Trell says. "In all the classes they told us to be honest and check the box and when it came up to just let employers know, 'Yeah, I made a mistake. I was in prison. I need a second chance. I will work hard.' I tried all that, it didn't work. All the people saw was that criminal record. Finally, I lied and checked "no" in the box and the temp agency I started working for hired me. They placed me at this factory and eventually the factory hired me on full-time due to my work habits. It's not a good job, but it pays the bills and got me out of that halfway house."

Banning the box gives those coming home from prison a chance to find their sea legs in society. Most ex-offenders just want that chance, so they don't have to go back to what they know. Committing crime and doing time is easy, but finding a decent job can feel impossible. No wonder recidivism rates are so high. Regular society has effectively ostracized the ex-con; when someone is rejected by society just because they made a mistake, it's not hard to imagine why they might go back to the criminal communities that have historically embraced them.

"I'm not working where I want to work," Trell says. "I'm working where I have to work. They didn't ask me about the felony conviction when they hired me on, and I didn't tell them. It's a don't-ask, don't-tell philosophy, but it works for me."

But that type of subterfuge can get a person fired. Just ask Brandon, a 20-something African-American man who did a couple of years and was recently released from prison.

"I had a cool job at Auto Zone," Brandon tells me. "I was working there for like nine months. Then one day they just came in and told me they had to let me go because I was an ex-felon and I lied on my application. I haven't had a job since. Luckily, I was able to start back at school."

It's a sad state of affairs when people feel they have to lie to get a job.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) points out that research suggests people require a combination of family support, community assistance, and economic opportunity to make different choices and stay out of the criminal justice system. Around 700,000 people are released from behind bars every year, and men with criminal records account for almost 34 percent of unemployed men between the ages of 25 and 54, a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found. Removing a barrier that cuts off employment opportunities is critical to helping the millions of Americans with criminal records experience real lives.

The "ban the box" movement emerged in 2004, and it's spreading, but only 16 states have adopted it so far, along with about 100 cities. The Obama administration's My Brother's Keeper Task Force, focused on empowering young men of color, has endorsed the policy, suggesting it will "give applicants a fair chance and allows employers the opportunity to judge individual job candidates on their merits as they reenter the workforce."

After two more job disqualifications that may have been due to my criminal record—one at the building cleaning company and one at the breakfast deli—I finally found a couple of part-time jobs at a restaurant and law firm. The gigs weren't ideal, but they helped. (I was denied straight up by the cleaning company because I had just gotten out of prison, and the breakfast deli told me I was under consideration, but that the owners had to approve me, and this never happened.)

So I've been able to get my bearings, but can also see how some ex-cons might use the discrimination they face in getting a job as an excuse to go back to a life of crime.

"Removing questions about conviction history from job applications is a simple policy change that eases hiring barriers and creates a fair chance to compete for jobs," Michelle Rodriguez, an attorney with NELP, tells me. "This change allows employers to judge applicants on their qualifications first, without the stigma of a record."

And when ex-offenders sense they're getting a fair chance, it's much easier for them to assimilate back into society because they believe there's a place for them in our world. Banning the box nationwide is the obvious answer here. Don't judge us by our pasts, but on our work ability. It's actually pretty damn simple.

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