Milwaukee – — Finding a job is hard enough these days, but finding one when you have a criminal record can be all but impossible.
James Daniels knows. After spending nearly three years in prison for a drug crime — possession of marijuana with intent to deliver — he was released March 31, 2012, only to learn that some potential employers couldn’t see past the felony.
“I made dumb mistakes when I was younger that led to my conviction,” Daniels said. “But there’s a lot more to me than just that.”
Daniels worked hard to earn a second chance, building up his résumé and rebuilding his reputation through several retail jobs. He networked with people and eventually landed a job in the construction industry; today he works for a roofing company.
“Once I obtained that first job at the mall, doors started to open for me,” Daniels said.
Every year, about 700,000 people are released from U.S. prisons. But within three years, 40 percent of them are behind bars again for committing new crimes or violations of their release terms, according to research by the Rand Corp.
Not having a paycheck is part of the problem.
“When a man doesn’t have a job, he needs to make money somehow … it might be legally or illegally,” said Mark Sinski, program coordinator at Genesis in Milwaukee, a nonprofit that helps people adjust to life after prison.
In a tight job market, the opportunities for people fresh out of prison are very limited, according to Sinski.
About 90 percent of the 150 ex-offenders he worked with in the past 18 months were unemployed.
“We have a lot of men who don’t have much work experience to begin with, so there’s nothing to build on,” Sinski said.
Genesis is constantly seeking companies that will give disadvantaged people a chance, sometimes through unpaid 40-hour internships that can lead to a paying job.
Some business owners are more forgiving than others. They might have a criminal record themselves, or they know someone who has a record and they understand the difficulties of getting into the workforce.
The law allows employers to conduct a criminal background check on a job candidate.
Some employment applications have a box to check “yes” if you have ever been convicted of a crime.
If you do that, ex-offenders say, often the application is tossed in the trash without further review. And if you aren’t truthful about your criminal past, that can be a reason to dismiss you from a job.
But many ex-offenders have work skills and education obtained before or while they were incarcerated, making them potentially valuable additions to the workforce.
“I firmly believe that 95 percent of the time, they’re trying to do the right thing and that they want to be successful,” said Wendel Hruska, executive director of Project Return, another Milwaukee nonprofit that helps ex-inmates adjust after being released from prison.
“This is an untapped labor market,” Hruska said.
Tianna Doxy, out of prison since October 2013 after a drug conviction, now has a carpentry job as a result of the help she received through Genesis in Milwaukee.
She does a little bit of everything, including painting and drywall work. Eventually, she would like to have her own business.
“I am loving the work I do. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty,” Doxy said.
Carol Hudson of Milwaukee hasn’t been so fortunate.
She has been out of prison for almost a year following a theft conviction and has a certificate in janitorial work, but she hasn’t been able to find a permanent job.
“I am doing everything I am supposed to do and I have faith that something is going to come through,” she said. “I am not going to give up. That’s my past. I used to give up when things didn’t go right.”
Fresh out of prison, a person needs a stable life and community support.
For taxpayers, it’s much cheaper to keep someone out of prison, even through a government-subsidized job, than to pay $145 a day for that person to be incarcerated.
When they can’t find work, some felons say, it’s a constant reminder of what went wrong in their life rather than the new direction they’ve sought.
Released from prison about 15 years ago, Maurice Sprewer of Milwaukee struggled to find a job that paid more than minimum wage. He initially moved to Texas to find work and found it was worse there for someone with a criminal record.
Now, Sprewer has a temporary position with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development helping ex-offenders and says he has dedicated his life to that calling.
“I meet people like myself every day who are just trying to do the right thing,” he said. “They want a job that pays a living wage but, in many cases, the system doesn’t allow them to forget their past.”