Businesses May Be Missing Out on a Second-Chance Talent Pipeline

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According to The Sentencing Project, the United States sends a staggering number of people to prison, 639 per 100,000 of the population. That is far more than any other country globally, including the most repressive regimes on the planet.

Most prisoners aren’t serving life terms, which means they’re released when they’ve finished their sentence.  According to the Department of Justice, more than 10,000 ex-prisoners return to the community weekly. That’s over 650,000 each year

When ex-prisoners return home, they have a big challenge: how to re-integrate into a community that may be suspicious and even hostile towards them. 

Recidivism rates vary across the country, as this World Population Review chart shows. The Bureau of Justice Statistics does longitudinal studies on ex-prisoners. It found that two-thirds of prisoners released in 24 states in 2008 were arrested within three years, and more than eight in 10 were re-arrested within a decade. Also, 61% of those released in 2008 went back to prison within ten years for a parole or probation violation of a new sentence.

To navigate the post-prison world and start anew, they need:

  • New support networks
  • Realistic opportunities to learn knowledge and skills or hone existing skills to chart a new career
  • Meaningful work that allows them to grow into productive members of society

Meaningful work offers a routine, instills discipline, assists formerly incarcerated individuals develop new associations and networks, and helps avoid recidivism, especially with former peer groups. 

Gainful employment is an antidote to potentially toxic interactions with old companions – it provides alternative social situations centered on cooperation, teamwork, and achievement. The benefits of stable employment that the formerly incarcerated embrace and feel passionate about are clear. For ex-incarcerated individuals, however, finding work can be difficult. And according to Applebaum, having a criminal record accounts for 34% of unemployment among males ages 25-54.

Many lack the support and opportunity to find and keep a job. 

Organizations Making an Impact

But there are places ex-offenders can turn to for help. Not only do they welcome them, but they actively seek them out and give support to keep them moving forward.

For example, Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles was founded by a Catholic priest Gregory Boyle. It has some of the toughest clients in the world: former East L.A. gang members who’ve been released from prison and want to start a new life. The most popular service Homeboy Industries provides is tattoo removal because what works for people in gang life often works against them when they walk away from the gang. Tattoo removal is a step forward – a physical and psychological break from old ways. 

Another critical step is getting a job. Homeboy Industries has a comprehensive workforce development department focusing on the job training, job readiness, and job placement. One of their initiatives, solar panel installation training, sees eighty participants yearly through a rigorous training course. About two-thirds of the sponsored trainees pass — well above the national average of 40%.

Homeboy Industries also runs its businesses, 11 social enterprises that give clients jobs and experience while directing profits back into the overall mission. Homeboy Bakery, the first enterprise, employs dozens of trainees in baking and management. Other Homeboy and Homegirl businesses include cafés (one at Los Angeles City Hall), a catering business, a branded grocery business, electronics recycling, and an official Homeboy Industries line of gear.

Homeboy Industries has other supports, too – helping clients develop resumés, build interview skills, and practice effective workplace communication. The group works with local employers to create a network of internship and job opportunities for their clients.

And it’s not the only place of its kind. Greyston Bakery in New York also focuses on people who might find it hard to get a job. Greyston hires people from the community – including the homeless, long-term unemployed, and former prisoners – via an open hiring policy. People add their names to a list, and they’re hired when an opening comes up. These new hires go through a rigorous apprenticeship program to become full-time hires, and about half make it through. Once hired full-time, employees gain further support from a care manager who helps them find and access community services. 

Recruiting and Hiring Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

Lately, some well-established companies have also been turning to ex-prisoners to fill vacancies. Most human resource directors say they would consider hiring an ex-offender, and 82% of executives say their ex-offender hires have performed at least as well as employees without a prison record. McDonald’s and Delta are going further — reaching out to ex-offenders as part of a deliberate company inclusion strategy. And the federal government is offering a tax break through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to companies that employ ex-prisoners. 

Prison programs offering apprenticeships may be on the rise. More state prison systems would do well to adopt apprenticeship programs before inmates are released. Such a program could either involve or create a link to existing businesses in communities where inmates will be released. 

The apprenticeship programs should emphasize learning anew or honing trades and involve mentors who can serve as lifelines once individuals are released. Mentors and other community-based organizations can help with essentials such as housing, healthcare, critical issues such as securing new identification, legal services such as seeking expungement, and other essential paperwork. These life essentials go a long way in deterring future criminal activity by offering a fresh start. 

Considerations and best practices for companies when recruiting and hiring formerly incarcerated individuals include:

  • Consider if the prior offense relates to the nature of the job vacancy
  • Provide consistent, ongoing training
  • Offer ongoing mentoring
  • Acknowledge successes and contributions on the job through positive affirmations.

It’s also essential for employers to understand the process of abstaining from crime: most people age out of crime and can become productive contributors to society later in life.

Along with companies doing their part, more rehabilitation programs and a more equitable justice system are keys to addressing ongoing issues. Most courts and justice-based agencies increasingly use legal criteria and risk/recidivism data to screen offenders from the system at various continuum points. So, instead of prison terms, they’re offering more well-thought-out sanctions and services as part of probation or diversion programs. 

A frontloaded system with well-designed programs is essential in justice settings and can make a difference in compliance with the law and reduce recidivism – not to mention the dollars it saves taxpayers ($182 billion per year). This paves the way for employers to get on board to consider ex-prisoners as potential job candidates and apprentices, for instance, to help build much-needed talent pipelines.

Find out what the Ban the Box campaign is about – employers are encouraged to pledge to hire and support the formerly incarcerated. The campaign started in 2004, advocating that governments make it illegal for employers to ask would-be employees if they’d ever been convicted. More than 45 cities and counties have signed the pledge.      

For employers thinking about pledging, consider this process:

  • Do your due diligence regarding governance and risk management
  • Start by interrogating your existing recruitment and vetting policy and process to see if they are sufficiently robust yet flexible, to cast the net wider for would-be employees, including those with a criminal record
  • Involve your current staff and other stakeholders in developing the recruitment structure and elements to ensure buy-in and tackle their and your fear of the unknown. 
  • Tap into the brain’s trust of employers who’ve already successfully gone down this path – have them pop in for a virtual or in-person presentation to demystify the process and barriers. 

Your organization might want to minimize the risks of a recruit not working out. Employers can use intermediaries that guarantee to replace workers if they’re not a good fit. That could be a staffing agency or apprentice intermediary, for instance.

Whichever path you take, you’ll strengthen your organization’s corporate social responsibility. You’ll be diversifying your workforce, opening your ways of working to fresh perspectives, and employing ex-prisoners who are a good match for your business and are likely to join the ranks of your most loyal workers. It’s a two-way investment.


Nicholas Wyman is the CEO of IWSI America.


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By Nicholas Wyman