Formerly incarcerated rebound into job market

For Carmen Garcia, the end of a prison sentence was the beginning of a new set of problems.

“The biggest obstacle for me was continuing to stay in school, because the halfway house wanted me to get a job right away, a full-time job,” she said. “And I remember a case manager said to me, ‘You need to take this job, whatever job they offer you, because now you have a criminal record and you’re not going to be able to get another job. Don’t worry about education, because that’s not going to help you.’”

Garcia was eventually able to find a job at City College San Francisco, allowing her to study while also maintaining employment in accordance with her conditions of release. After graduation, she found work at Root and Rebound, an Oakland-based nonprofit that offers support to people going through what the organization refers to as “reentry”—that is, people who have recently been released from prison and are navigating the complex process of returning to outside society.

But even when applying for the job at Root and Rebound, Garcia encountered another obstacle experienced by many people coming out of prison—their own feelings of helplessness, reinforced by social signals telling them they can’t make it. “When I applied for a job here at Root and Rebound, I got off the BART, started walking towards their office … and I almost turned around. I stopped and I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ I was nervous. All these things kept playing back in my head about ‘You’re a criminal, and no-one’s going to give you a chance,’’ she said.

Root and Rebound did give Garcia a chance. She’s been employed there as the project manager for two years now, helping others struggling with the same problems she experienced. The organization runs a legal hotline on Fridays, taking calls from people recently released or still in prison and advising them on how to navigate the complex reentry process. So far, Root and Rebound has taken over 700 of these calls.

The group also advises policymakers on ways to reduce barriers to reentry, and offers workshops for formerly incarcerated people on how to find jobs and housing and navigate the world after release. They also offer training for advocacy organization staffers on how to more effectively work with them, and classes inside California prisons to help incarcerated men and women prepare for release.

“A lot of folks, whether or not they spend any time in prison or jail, they still have a lot of hurdles that are put in place due to the fact that they have either a misdemeanor or a felony conviction on their record,” said Dominik Taylor, a staff attorney with Root and Rebound. “Recently the American Bar Association estimated that there’s 44,000 different barriers to reentry at the state and federal level.”

Among the most significant barriers is one that Root and Rebound’s clients face when applying for jobs— Taylor refers to it as “the dreaded box,” meaning an application that asks potential employees to “check here if you have ever been convicted of a felony.”

“Research shows that just that question alone has a dramatic impact on making people a lot less likely to apply for jobs,” Taylor said. “Even if they’re qualified, they see that question, and oftentimes they’re afraid to turn in the application.”

Twenty-four states and numerous cities and counties (including Alameda County) have passed legislation banning the box from public employment job applications. Regulations put in place by the Obama administration also ban most federal agencies from asking about prior convictions in the first stage of a hiring application.

But no state has passed a law banning the box in private employment. San Francisco is alone among California cities banning private companies from putting the box on job applications. (Even then, businesses with fewer than 15 employees in San Francisco are exempt.)

Taylor said despite the fact that it’s often irrelevant to the job, the majority of employers in California do put the box on their applications. “Private employers are free to ask whether or not somebody’s been convicted of a felony and ask for their criminal record history. And we find that nine in ten—90 percent of employers—do indeed ask that,” Taylor said.

Kimberley Guillemet, the head of the newly-created Office of Reentry at the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office—the only office of its kind in a major California city—said the box is harmful and unnecessary.

“It is important to stop employers from asking these types of questions, particularly when we know the negative outcome that it creates,” she said. “Also, the data shows very clearly there really is no benefit to the employers in knowing that information, particularly when there is no nexus between the duties of the job and the conviction itself.”

Root and Rebound’s Taylor said the box disproportionately affects people of color, to the point that it risks running afoul of anti-discrimination laws.

“If you have a blanket ban—that is you’re banning all people with criminal records—based off of what we know about racialized policing, about policing in minority communities, about incarceration, about the plea bargain process, that means that this ban is going to most likely have a disparate impact on applicants of color, particularly African American men and Latino men,” Taylor added. “So if you’re saying ‘Felons need not apply’ or ‘We don’t hire anybody with records,’ there’s a strong chance you’re violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Title VII protections under that.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race or sex in employment. Title VII of the act created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Unemployment and recidivism are strongly linked, according to a 2015 study commissioned by America Works, a job-training firm, and the Manhattan Institute, a nonpartisan research group. According to the study, both violent and nonviolent ex-offenders saw massive drops in recidivism when given employment immediately upon release. According to the study, recidivism rates range from about 31 percent to 70 percent, depending on the state. For ex-inmates who find jobs, recidivism rates drop to about 3.3 to 8 percent.

The study mirrors the results of an earlier study by the National Institute of Justice, a research center run by the federal government, which found that “Being employed substantially reduced the risk of all recidivism outcomes.”

To help alleviate unemployment and other barriers to reentry, in November Root and Rebound launched an “online training hub” with a simple interface asking people if they are formerly incarcerated themselves, a family member of a formerly or currently incarcerated person, or a professional working with them. It then walks them through common questions and problems that they may face. The group also offers a “Roadmap to Reentry” guide, covering everything from getting a picture ID to navigating parole and probation. The guide is nearly 1,200 pages long, underscoring the huge variety of obstacles and barriers confronting people in reentry.

For example, Taylor said, just getting an ID can present problems for people in reentry.

“For a lot of folks who are incarcerated, sometimes during the booking process, their wallet may get taken. Maybe their ID was in there, or their ID otherwise expires while they’re incarcerated, so they don’t have a government-issued ID,” he said. “And sometimes they’re coming home, they don’t have any money, so they can’t afford to just go to the DMV.”

Taylor said it can also be hard to obtain an education or job training for people recently released from prison. He said people are often required to get a job right away upon release or risk being “violated,” or found in violation of the terms of their parole. This can lead to them being picked up by their parole officer and returned to prison. But the requirement to get a job immediately can make it difficult to find time for job training.

“Your parole officer can violate you, give you a violation, if you don’t have stable employment,” Taylor said. “So usually if you don’t have a job, you’re going to get violated and you’ll go back to prison, you’ll go back to jail. Unfortunately, what we do oftentimes in our society, is we’re sending folks back to the community that they came from, but we’re not giving them any rehabilitation, any training, inside the facility.”

Sonja Tonnesen, the deputy director of program innovation and strategic partnerships at Root and Rebound, said people on parole can be violated even for innocent mistakes. She said one of the organization’s clients, who was on parole, was on his way to sell crafts at a fair with his wife when they stopped at the museum at Folsom Prison. The man, who wore a GPS tracking bracelet as one of the terms of his parole, received a call from his parole officer informing him that as a convicted felon, California law prohibits him from being on prison grounds. He and his wife immediately returned home, but he was called into the parole office several days later and arrested. His wife called Root and Rebound, and the organization convinced the parole department to provide the prosecutor with evidence that the man was turning his life around. The prosecutor decided to drop the case, and the man was released.

“And that’s a perfect example where, if there isn’t a Root and Rebound around, usually those cases are cut-and-dry. You violated the law, you go back to prison,” Tonnesen said. “And it can be for the rest of your life. You go back on the original sentence. You have to be reviewed every year to see if you’d be safe to be released again. So he could spend anywhere from one year to the rest of his life back in prison for an innocent mistake of going back to this museum.”

Root and Rebound also offers a “Fair Chance Hiring Toolkit” aimed at California employers. The toolkit aims to dispel myths about formerly-incarcerated people, such as the belief that hiring them may make employers vulnerable to lawsuits.

“One of the most commonly-cited reasons that employers have told us that they don’t consider folks with records is that they’re afraid they’re going to get sued, like a negligent-hiring suit,” Taylor said. “But research shows that that’s just not the case … A lot of negligent-hiring lawsuits are thrown out automatically. They’re just throwaway claims. It’s very hard to actually hold employers accountable for the actions of their employees.”

Hiring formerly-incarcerated people also greatly increases the talent pool for employers, according to Tonnesen. “We have 70 million people in the United States who have criminal records. Almost one in three Californians have criminal records,” she said. “If you’re looking for the best anything, right, the best taco place, and I say ‘Take out a third of all the taco trucks in Oakland,’ well, you’ve just limited all of your delicious options for tacos, right?”

The group also educates employers about their legal rights and responsibilities. Tonnesen reiterated that Title VII prohibits blanket hiring bans against formerly incarcerated people.

“It is very illegal to ban all people with felonies from a job,” she said. “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the government agency charged with promulgating regulations and enforcing Title VII Federal law, has said that because people of color are disproportionately incarcerated, arrested, sentenced, convicted in this country, that when you ban all people with felonies, all people with a criminal record, it has an unfair impact, a disparate impact on people of color, and thus violates civil rights law.”

Regardless, Tonnesen, Taylor and Garcia all said that many employers still have prejudices against people with convictions, often making it difficult for the formerly incarcerated to find work.

But across the bay, one restaurant focuses on providing opportunities to exactly those people.

Even for a place that serves kimchi fried rice for breakfast, Huli Huli is not your average restaurant. And it’s not staffed by your average employees.

The dozen or so workers live either directly above the restaurant at the Project Bayview Men’s Home, or several blocks away at the Project Bayview Women’s Home. All of them have either served prison terms, experienced homelessness or struggled with drug addiction before working at Huli Huli.

Employees at Huli Huli receive training in customer service, cooking, working cash registers and point-of-sale systems and other necessary restaurant skills. Many of the employees are volunteers, living in one of the homes in lieu of a salary. But there are also paid positions available, including for managers.

Project Bayview offers training in life skills as well as culinary skills. “We have different classes, ranging from the Biblical teachings to anger management, to what’s it like to be a father, husband, mother, daughter,” said Project Bayview executive director Shawn Gordon, who is also the founder of Huli Huli. He said they also take advantage of other services also available in San Francisco, including addiction recovery programs.

The group also offers referrals for employees after they have gone through Project Bayview’s program. “We do drug testing—not necessarily all the time because we suspect something—but to use it as something good. You know, when we’re talking to their PO [parole officer]. When we’re talking to potential job, someone who’s hiring them. ‘This is what this guy’s been giving us. He’s been clean, he’s been sober, he’s been on time and he’s been diligent.’ So it’s a good thing,” Gordon said.

DJ Rosales, a San Francisco native who spent more than seven years in prison for attempted murder, works as a cashier at Huli Huli. He said that in his experience, finding employment is crucial to staying out of prison. “If you can’t find a job, you’re going to resort to what you knew before. You’re going to either steal for it, or you’re going to sell drugs for it. And you’re eventually going to get caught.”

Gordon said it is important to him to give people opportunities. “In a time and a place in their life where other people would be a little hesitant to take that same chance, we’re saying, ‘You know, we’re set up and we’re built to take that chance,’” he said.

Gordon has seen for himself the importance of second chances. Growing up in the neighborhood, which he calls “the most dangerous part of San Francisco,” Gordon became addicted to drugs and alcohol as a teenager and spent twelve years in prison for narcotics distribution. “I grew up in a place where I felt hopeless. I felt limited. I was angry. I didn’t know how to process all of these different things that were going on,” he said. “And I used that anger and that hurt and I funneled it into this crazy mixture of gasoline that fueled me in prison for 12 years.”

Gordon said he was inspired to help others in his situation by his pastor, who invited Gordon to live in his house when he was on the street after being released from prison.

“I remember one day he asked me, ‘Is there more guys like you coming out of prison?’ And the truth of the matter is, is that I knew that there was stronger guys, better guys, more talented, more gifted than me. And all they needed was a second chance,” Gordon said. “So with the help of our church, we felt like it was our responsibility to create an environment and a house for these guys.”

Now, instead of drugs, Gordon sells Hawaiian dishes like Loco Moco, a rice and meat dish with gravy and eggs, and uses the proceeds to fund Project Bayview. The faith-based program partners new arrivals with mentors who have already been through the program.

“The difference between here and anywhere else is each one of these rooms has a guy who’s coming out of seminary, Bible college, works for HP, nurses, and things like that,” Gordon said. “And they live in a room, with a guy that is transitioning from those places. And so it’s more than just meeting up for coffee once in awhile. It’s like really getting to dig in their life and help them walk through every step of what they’re facing.”

Providing employment to people getting off the streets or out of prison is important, Gordon said, but it’s also important to provide training and emotional support as they build new lives.

“I’m at a more mature place in my life,” he said. “Not everybody that’s coming out of these situations is able to deal with their emotions the exact same way. It’s a struggle.”

Correction: Due to a typo, this article originally quoted Dominik Taylor referring to “radicalized policing.” The quote should have read “racialized policing.” 

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