The Education to Employment Link
BY: DEVON PETLEY
Diane Ortiz was released from Albion Correctional Facility twelve months ago, roughly the same time U.S. labor and financial markets were in free fall and national talk was focused on averting the second Great Depression. Since that time, revered financial behemoths have died, stock markets have crashed, and the national economy has shed nearly four million jobs. Diane’s own story may lack the drama of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, but for formerly incarcerated women, her yearlong struggle to find steady work tells an all too typical story: women with criminal pasts are not likely to find jobs in a labor market with an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent.
“I’ve done the best I can,” said Ortiz. “There’s a lot of discrimination out there. When I fill out an application, I have to say I’m on parole,” she said.
While it is illegal in New York for employers to discriminate against applicants based solely on criminal records, Ortiz senses her rap sheet renders her as damaged goods for many businesses looking to hire. “People that come home from prison aren’t what they’re looking for. It doesn’t shut me down, but it’s very uncomfortable,” Ortiz said.
Women with criminal records fight to find jobs even amidst rising economic tides. The continuingly frightening U.S. labor market over the past two years has only exacerbated that search for work. Formerly incarcerated women often suffer from low levels of education, difficulties with permanent housing, issues regarding childcare, and quite commonly, alcohol or substance abuse. All of these act as barriers to obtaining and retaining employment.
“Women come out unprepared,” said Roberta Meyers-Peeples, Director of the National H.I.R.E. Network, a project of the Legal Action Center. The organization works to increase employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. “Skill sets haven’t been updated, and there are no clear goals. There are daily struggles between mothers and children, dealing with agencies and parole, and substance abuse and alcohol. Trying to meet all these obligations becomes a hurdle to employment,” she said. All of these affect the employability of a formerly incarcerated woman. “If those issues are not dealt with, it will be difficult for a woman to keep a job,” said Meyers-Peeples.
One of many essentials for anyone to find and keep a job is an education. Increasingly valuable in the U.S. labor market, it’s something formerly incarcerated women often lack.
Diana Ortiz (not to be confused with Diane Ortiz), a job developer at Exodus Transitional Community (ETC), works with people coming out of prison to meet their reentry needs. Many of the clients she works with find the current economy nearly impossible to navigate given their low levels of employment. But regardless of how much education they may have, the length of time spent unemployed has grown considerably over the past year.
“It differs, depending on education,” said Ortiz of ETC. “Unemployment is just so high right now, the wait can be very long,” she added. Those with a high school diploma or GED have been looking for the past “12 to 18 months” and are still without steady employment, according to Ortiz of ETC. One client, who has earned her master’s degree, has been looking for work for seven months.
“A woman coming out of prison with a high school diploma or a GED, what chance does she have?” said Antoinette Lasorsa, Associate Director of Adaptive Design, a non-profit organization that makes custom furniture for children with disabilities, and who run a program to provide temporary paid internships for women reentering the job market immediately after prison. Lasora founded Adaptive Design 11 years ago with a combination of private and state grants after she was released from prison herself.
“I came out of prison with a bachelor’s degree,” said Lasora, adding “I knew I could do anything.” But when she began filling out applications for the job hunt, she said, “I never got a call back. I had to pass a background check and be honest on my application.”
Even at the height of the economic boom of the late ’90s, a background check alone was a daunting and intimidating part of seeking employment for women who have been to prison. Today, for Diane Ortiz, who has been looking for employment since her release, prospective employers’ questions about her criminal record is another source of discomfort. “I think I should be given a chance. Let an employer give me one week, I can show up on time, do what I’m told to. But they all say, ‘No, we can’t take her here,'” she said.
But of all the challenges in finding employment, prolonged rejection and vague explanations as to why an employer isn’t hiring may be the most significant for women out of prison.
“Self esteem affects the work place,” said Meyers-Peeples. “Dealing with supervisors and coworkers, knowing how to dress and perform are all affected by self esteem,” she said. An astonishingly high number of women who have been incarcerated suffered from abuse in life. “90 percent of incarcerated women have abuse histories. For a long time, no one looked at women’s issues,” she said.
Jim Brown, a labor market analyst with the New York Department of Labor, said there’s little hope for unemployment improving soon, though the recession may be declared officially over early next year. “We appear to have exited the recession,” he said. “But 2010 will have similar unemployment figures to this year. As the economy recovers and hiring begins, it will take time to absorb unemployed people,” said Brown. He added that because unemployment is a lagging indicator of the market, employment rates will remain depressed for a significant amount of time even though other indicators like gross domestic product and stock exchanges are growing.
The New York Labor Department doesn’t track employment data specifically for the formerly incarcerated, as neither the U.S. Department of Labor nor the Department of Justice do. Getting a handle on the unemployment rates for those with criminal records may be too daunting a challenge for federal and state statisticians given the population’s transience or lack of steady housing, recidivism, and a generalized disconnect from government programs of all stripes. Brown, however, speculated as to unemployment rates among the formerly incarcerated (though he is unable to track the data scientifically), saying they were likely higher than those without criminal rap sheets. There are “various barriers to employment” for everyone, according to Brown. “Language, low education, spotty work histories all hinder chances of employment,” he said. All of these are disproportionately characteristic of the formerly incarcerated.
“Women have to be very savvy and thoughtful about what they want tot get into,” said Meyers-Peeples. “A woman has to be able to compete in a competitive labor market. She has to have a college degree to do entry level work. That wasn’t required years ago. Employers look for experience,” she said. With the tight labor market in New York, employers “can be very selective of who they want,” she added.
Given this selectivity and emphasis on experience, there is an increasing need for training and education for female prisoners still in correctional facilities, so as to prepare them for their release into a market that won’t get better any time soon. While there are many such programs for male inmates, they are lacking for females.
“Men’s prisons have existed longer,” said Meyers-Peeples. “Only in the past 20 years have we seen more women in prison. The war on drug policy and Rockefeller laws resulted in more women being incarcerated,” she said. The number of women in prison has increased dramatically and outpaces the growth of the male prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “the total number of male prisoners has grown 34%; the number of female prisoners, 57%.”
Prisons were largely unprepared for this increase according to Meyers-Peeples. Legislators have been “thinking about the front end of the system, and not what happens when people come out,” she said. “People haven’t been given the tools they need to get their lives together,” said Meyers-Peeples. Ultimately, she would like to see more pre-release programs for women and men both who are coming out of prison.
As for Diana Ortiz, the search continues for full time employment. She’s found a part time job with Lasorsa at Adaptive Design doing maintenance work once a week. Despite the other formerly incarcerated women she knows who have fallen back into drug abuse or recidivated without support systems or emplyment, she’s is guardedly hopeful about her future. “I see myself getting into school or doing something like security or reception,” she said. “It might not happen tomorrow, but I don’t know,” she said.