‘Orange is New Black’ author encourages felon hiring

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit — The author of “Orange is the New Black” joined federal and county prosecutors Wednesday morning at Cobo Center to discuss the need to hire individuals returning to the workforce after felony incarcerations.

“What I hoped while writing the book was that people would think differently about who is in prison and why they are there,” author Piper Kerman said. “Anytime we recognize the humanity of the millions of people who have gone through the criminal justice system, that’s a positive first step.”

Kerman’s memoir, released in 2011, inspired the hit Netflix series by the same name.

Kerman delivered a keynote address at a roundtable hosted by U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade. The invitation-only event was closed to the media to protect the anonymity of companies interested in hiring felons, said Gina Balaya, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. About 25 local companies were expected to attend.

Kerman spoke to media after the event about the need to give felons a second chance.

“For the public, it’s really a mystery what goes on behind the walls of a prison or jail,” said Kerman, who served time in federal prison for money laundering. “We don’t know much about (felons) other than their convictions.”

Kerman said the women who served time with her often developed valuable skills in areas including industrial kitchens and warehouses. While incarcerated, Kerman said she worked as an electrician.

“They were working really hard to maintain that facility,” she said, adding those skills should be put to use in society once offenders are released.

Kerman said her second chance came one week after her release from prison. “That transformation from being a prisoner to being a working person was enormous,” she said.

McQuade encouraged companies to consider hiring people returning to the workforce after incarceration.

“Don’t do it because it’s the right thing to do, which it is,” she said. “Do it for the business incentives.”

Companies that hire felons can benefit from a $2,500 federal tax credit as well as a state-level protection from liability, McQuade said.

“I think the most important thing that needs to be done is eliminate that stigma,” she said. “They have paid their debt to society and it’s time to give them a clean slate.”

McQuade said there will be a job fair in the fall to match felons with companies willing to hire them.

“They actually become some of the most motivated employees on the workforce,” McQuade said. “Without a job, their chances of success diminish.”

But McQuade said employees willing to hire candidates with felony convictions still should assess each candidate’s fit within the company.

“Not every felon is an appropriate match for every job,” she said.

McQuade said about one-third of Michigan felons re-offend, a lower figure than the two-thirds national average.

“But still one-third is really too high,” she said. “Returning citizens will tell you that (not having a job) is the biggest barrier to success.”

McQuade urged companies to eliminate from their applications the box for felons to check revealing their criminal past. She said the city of Detroit has “banned the box” along with several companies including Home Depot, Target, Tim Hortons and Grand Rapids-based Butterball Farms.

Representatives with Butterball Farms spoke to media after the roundtable and said the company has hired 68 employees with felony records since 2013, which is almost 40 percent of all employees hired in that period.

“They appreciate the opportunity more than other employees,” said Bonnie Mroczek, vice president of human resources. “We’ve found that some returning citizens are our best employees.”

Mroczek said most existing employees have been supportive of the company’s plan to hire candidates with criminal records.

“As far as other employees being concerned, I’ve had one (concerned employee) in eight years,” she said. “So it really hasn’t been an issue.”

Butterball employee Carrie Link serves as project coordinator for “30-2-2,” an initiative launched by the company’s CEO to encourage 30 companies to hire two ex-convicts and to track their job performance for two years.

The program currently includes more than 100 workers at 19 Grand Rapids companies, Link said. Butterball hopes to attract at least 30 Detroit companies to join the initiative after Wednesday’s roundtable.

“The biggest recidivism indicator is stable employment,” she said.

The company has found that employees with felony records tend to be promoted more often, take advantage of more training opportunities, have attendance records that match employees without criminal records, Link said.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said lack of stable employment is a top indicator that an ex-convict might re-offend.

“We all know that not having a job enhances the (chance) that you’re going to re-offend,” she said.

Worthy urged the state to invest money in training programs for felons while they remain incarcerated, to better prepare them for release. She also said it is important that money earmarked for supporting ex-convicts is used appropriately.

“I’m a huge proponent of re-entry, but we have to do it right.”


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