Fair Chance Employment

2019 Aspire Social Entrepreneur Awards

On Wednesday, September 18th, I attended Aspire – the 7th annual social entrepreneurship awards for central Ohio.  We were honored that Wild Tiger Tees was nominated and picked as a finalist for the Emerging Social Enterprise of the Year award.  We were equally excited that our friend Harley Blakeman received this award for his work on Honest Jobs Co. He’s building an online fair-chance job site for those who have been incarcerated – think indeed.com for those with a record.

What is Fair Chance Employment?

Fair chance employment is about providing fair job opportunities to those who have been through the prison system, who are quickly dismissed from having job applications considered because they check the “Felony” box on their application.

It’s often called second-chance employment, but Harley, formerly incarcerated himself, said he prefers calling it fair-chance hiring, because quite often the people have never had a first chance, with upbringings that practically steered them towards prison.

The problem exists because employers don’t want to take on additional risks, and so they’re easily dismissed.  But what happens is sort of a second punishment, unable to find work, many return to activities which end them back in jail.  For someone under 25, who has been in jail less than 3 years, the statistic is around 84% that return to prison within 5 years.

This partly the fault of prison being about the punishment, instead of an opportunity for reform.  It’s partly the fault of drugs.  But it’s also the fault of society not having a way to bring those willing back into a healthy lifestyle.

Leading Change in Fair-Chance Employment

Before the awards were given out, we heard an excellent panel on fair-chance hiring, from Harley and two additional Columbus Social Enterprises: Clean Turn, and Freedom a la Cart.  (All three companies we’ve had the pleasure of hosting on our podcast!)  Clean Turn is a cleaning and demolition company – providing both commercial and residential services.  Freedom a la Cart is a catering company providing employment opportunities for victims of human trafficking.

All three companies are about hiring those with barriers to employment and have years of experience understanding how to best support this community.  They actively hire, train, work with and support those coming from prison.

Benefits of Hiring Those Previously Incarcerated

What’s interesting, is that right now, unemployment is at record lows.  And with more people attending university than ever, there is a huge absence of skill-based workers – mechanics, truck drivers, laborers, manufacturing workers.  But quite often, the population who have been to prison have this exact experience.  Hiring someone who was previously incarcerated has huge benefits for companies – when done right, can result in loyal hard-working workers.

So, during a time when you severe shortages of workers, there is a chance to tap into a motivated but often disregarded talent pool.  Since the typical employment people find after prison are low-wage jobs, usually in the food industry – offering jobs at a living wage with opportunity for responsibility and growth make for a job that these employees are grateful for, and even likely to work at for lower rate than their colleagues.

When you find an individual who is motivated to get their life back on track, and you’re providing them with that opportunity, then they will be loyal and hard-working.

Challenges of Hiring Those Previously Incarcerated

It’s not without its challenges, and many require additional support. Not all people released from prison are ready for work.  If they’re not ready to show up for a job, then they won’t show up.

When drugs are involved, quite often workers are struggling to stay clean…  but relapses are bound to happen.  At Clean Turn and Freedom a la Cart, they both do random drug testing to hold their employees accountable.  This helps them get the employees the help they need.

It sounded like drugs were the most significant barrier to re-employment.  (It’s also most likely behind the crimes that landed them in prison in the first place.) There are employment programs for those struggling with addiction, which sometimes is the best next step.

What’s the right support?

At Clean Turn, they have a policy where they allow the workers to come and tell the truth about their relapse.  They are put on probation, and have to requirements of attending rehab programs – but if they’re successful, they’re guaranteed a position when they return.

At Freedom a la Cart, their executive director Paula Hines noted that one of their greatest insights was providing additional support.  They may be struggling with issues outside of work – trying to pay rent, trying to get custody of their kids, overcoming basic living challenges, and perhaps not understanding basic hygiene or personal care in the way that we take for granted.  To this effect, they have a caseworker who meets with the workers to help provide them with support…  so that when they arrive at work, they’re able to work.

There was a strong thread in the panel discussion that they’re building a supportive community, where workers help each other out.  The mission is to help people find better jobs and to give them the mentoring and support that they need to be successful.

The Bigger Picture

If 30% of the population has a record, then finding a way to help them get back into the workforce is critical for our nation…  because, especially for young people who have only been in jail a couple of years – the rate of recidivism is high…  on average it’s 75%, and in part, because the barriers to employment are so high that they return to drug-related crimes that end them back in prison.  I’ve actually heard people say, “they get what they deserve, and they deserve this punishment” – but a system which just punishes without providing a pathway for redemption is just perpetuating the dangers to society as a whole.

For a long time, there has been a mentality around criminal justice that people have bad tendencies.  But for the large majority, this is simply not true.  It’s quite often life circumstances, and sometimes just a single bad choice or misfortune that created a downward spiral.  With the right support, there is every possibility for everyone to get the second chance they deserve.

How To Be a Fair-Chance Employer

If you’re interested in hiring formerly incarcerated people, it’s important to start the discussion while still in prison.  Find a local group, and visit prisons.  Build up the rapport, to find individuals that you can support immediately when they come out of prison.  Find other companies, and when possible make sure there is a support network to help these individuals with issues that they’re having outside of work.

I’m excited about the opportunity for social enterprises to build businesses that can provide this mix of support and mentorship, in a setting that is teaching how to be successful in the workplace.  It may be one of the missing keys to transforming our prison addiction, and being one of the countries with the highest incarceration rates in the world.

If you’re not hiring directly, see if there is a social enterprise that you can hire individuals who have succeeded in their first step – especially if that social enterprise provides on-going support.  Make sure your conversation is open and you build the trust both ways, and you can be part of transforming one of the biggest peaks of incarceration that our country has ever seen.

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