In Search of the Felon-Friendly Workplace

By MARK OBBIE, New York Times, JUNE 25, 2016

ST. LOUIS — Rick Plowman’s business, installing suspended ceilings in offices, schools and hotels, could use new blood. But hiring is tough, he tells the man sitting in his office. The 20-somethings he sees haven’t had the work ethic, haven’t had the hustle.

“I have a hard time hiring people with that drive,” he says. “I go through a lot of employees that don’t have that drive.”

The man listening, Scott Anders, is a federal probation officer — and he spots the opening he came for: He pitches Mr. Plowman on the notion of hiring more ex-cons.

“What we really want is just for them to have an opportunity to interview with you,” Mr. Anders says.

Mr. Plowman isn’t sure that’s a good idea. What about his company’s truckloads of expensive construction tools, he wonders aloud. You send the new hire out with that truck, and “Your initial instinct is, ‘Is that coming back to me?’” Mr. Plowman says. “That’s unfortunate you think that. But that’s the fact.”

Mr. Anders knows this dance well. He is the architect of one of the most ambitious jobs-for-felons program in the federal courts system.

With significant gains in two crucial measurements — number of those employed and of those who stay out of trouble while under supervision — the Eastern District of Missouri’s program has served as a model for state and federal prisoner re-entry programs nationwide. Its mantra is that hiring people with criminal records can be good for business. That is a tough sell.

Mr. Anders is on the front lines of a fundamental challenge within the federal criminal system: the struggle to reintegrate former prisoners into society. When released prisoners can’t find work, it contributes to a costly, negative social and economic cycle of recidivism, crime, and ultimately perhaps a return to imprisonment, all at the expense of taxpayers and communities.

Prison-to-work programs over all are “desperately inadequate,” said Devah Pager, a Harvard sociologist. “At the moment, there’s very little systematic provision of assistance to match ex-offenders with jobs at release,” said Ms. Pager, whose research focuses on the barriers that race and criminal records pose in the workplace. The Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, in a report commissioned by Congress that was released in January, said it was “surprised and alarmed” by the system’s failures to curb recidivism with effective re-entry programs, particularly in employment.

The Bureau of Prisons responded with vows to improve. A longtime prison-reform advocate, Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union, said the deficiencies extend beyond teaching skills to perform particular jobs.

To make prisoners employable, prisons need an injection of real-world business smarts in their programs, said Mr. Nolan, a former California lawmaker who served a federal prison sentence on corruption charges. That means focusing on the jobs that are in demand on the outside.

And it requires teaching prisoners to think of themselves as employees.

“It’s getting up on time, cleaning up, showing up when you’re supposed to, putting in a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, not pilfering from the cash drawer or the supply room — you know, the basics,” Mr. Nolan said. Making matters more complicated, often the ex-prisoners are young people “who have never had an adult in their life that had a regular job and that they could emulate.”

The numbers are daunting. The National Employment Law Project’s “conservative estimate” is that 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal record. Each year nearly 700,000 people emerge from prison. More than half of them will boomerang back within three years without having found legal employment.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Anders said, the St. Louis federal probation office faced a different sort of numbers gap: No one knew precisely how many of its 2,000 or so ex-offenders were unemployed. Back then, Mr. Anders said, he and his colleagues figured, “If they’re not working, they don’t want to.”

A new boss, Douglas Burris, came in and ordered up the numbers, which showed that, despite the booming economy at the time, convicted felons supervised by the office were three times as likely to be unemployed than the average local worker. Mr. Anders was given a new job: start trying to fix that.

The standard approach has long been relatively disconnected from the real-world job market. Focused on teaching “soft” skills — interview etiquette, résumé writing and the like — it often sent prisoners into the labor pool lacking marketable skills or direction, resulting in low-paying, short-term jobs.

While studying work force development, Mr. Anders said, he met a consultant from the National Institute of Corrections who suggested a different approach: focus on what employers need. His office began examining local labor-market projections to understand which industries might be hiring. Armed with that information, the office began working inside prisons to start inmates’ career planning.

In effect, Mr. Anders began building an employment agency. He assembled lists of employers willing to hear from ex-prisoners and a roster of groups that could provide counseling that his team could not offer.

The team developed questionnaires to determine prisoners’ schooling, training and interests. It added mock job fairs, where employers conducted practice interviews and explained the jobs available on the outside, to help prisoners plan ahead or seek training.


Case officers are graded on their ability to place former prisoners in appropriate jobs, with a goal of limiting job hopping.

Prisoners, once released, are sorted into two groups. Those unable or unwilling to function in the workplace receive remedial counseling in social skills and setting employment goals. Others have their interests or skills matched with available jobs while getting training under the Second Chance Act, a federal law that finances prisoner re-entry programs.

Over all, though, the St. Louis office was essentially on its own. Federal money is limited, and national probation officials have not pushed to make employment programs a higher priority, partly out of deference to local prerogatives, but also because of caution bred by research that questions whether employment actually causes recidivism to drop.

At first, the program required an intensive door-to-door effort to persuade employers. That cold-calling continues, but now the program focuses more on labor unions, truck-driving schools and other employment middlemen.

Greg Gooch of S&J Potashnick Transportation Inc. in Sikeston, Mo., said he had successfully hired through one of those truck-driving schools. “We’d almost rather have them than some that’s never done anything, never had a job,” Mr. Gooch said. They have seen hardship, he pointed out. “They don’t want to go back to where they were.”

Under the program, unemployment among the office’s ex-offenders fell early on by more than half, to under 6 percent from a previous 12 percent. Since the recession, it has hovered around 5 percent, notable considering that rates of 50 percent or more among ex-offenders are the norm. Recidivism was 15 percent in a 2012 study, compared with 38 percent nationally in the federal system.

There are some failures. Mr. Anders recounts one: a bank robber who, after his release from prison, was sent on a parking-lot maintenance crew to the same bank, which he promptly robbed again.

But more typically, failures stem from a mismatch between prison attitudes toward authority and behavior suited to the workplace, where threats and intransigence won’t cut it. That takes time and effort to fix.

Before he accepted help that landed him a job as an ironworker that pays more than $30 an hour, Mark Geralds emerged from a 17-year prison stint wary of probation officers. Mr. Geralds, a burly 46-year-old who was jailed for drug crimes, says that his attitude was, “Just stay away from me.”

But after floundering in low-paying jobs delivering furniture and working on lawn crews, he realized the probation officers were trustworthy. “Those guys were good,” he says.

To date, St. Louis probation officials have trained personnel from 80 of the 93 other federal districts’ probation offices. Delegations from state and federal parole and probation offices make pilgrimages to the office.

Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez has spoken in favor of techniques like these, and his department last year made a set of modest grants to promote such work. Still, said Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, government too often speaks to business in the language of public policy rather than with a market mind-set. If government urges businesses to hire more ex-felons for the common good, “it’s going to be a pretty short conversation,” Mr. Thompson said, because the public policy goal is “barely, if at all, a blip on the radar” for businesses.

One obstacle remains companies’ concerns about developing a reputation as a felon-friendly workplace. When Mr. Anders visits prospective employers, three out of four still say they are not interested. Even so, “It is better now than it was in the beginning,” he notes.

Sometimes, employers that do say yes are motivated by necessity, given how many Americans have some sort of criminal record. Johns Hopkins Health System recruits through local nonprofit groups in Baltimore that serve ex-offenders, highlighting the fact that 5 percent of its 18,000-person work force has a record. “There were so many people who had something on their background, if you were going to disqualify everybody, then what are you going to be left with?” said Michele Sedney, a Johns Hopkins recruitment executive.

Back in the office of Mr. Plowman, Mr. Anders has encountered an obstacle. It turns out that Mr. Plowman hired a recruit early last year on the recommendation of the carpenters’ union, without hearing directly from the probation office. He learned later that his new employee had been in prison for selling cocaine.

“It is something that, as a company, I think I would like to know,” Mr. Plowman tells Mr. Anders.

But Mr. Plowman also acknowledges the value of hires who “have been around the block” and have learned a lesson or two. He warms to the idea of hiring more former prisoners. “You know,” he says, “maybe there’s something to the fact that these people are getting a second chance.”

But if he does hire more former prisoners, Mr. Plowman says, it won’t be because he’s a pushover for a hard-luck story. “You need someone that wants to do the job,” he says.

Mr. Anders promises to stay in touch.