Faces of The Jobless
BY: FRANCE COSTREL
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is one of the most famous values in the United States Declaration of Independence, listed among the “unalienable rights” of man. But for women coming out of prison, obstacles impede them from exercising those rights, especially for getting a job and reentering society successfully. If a glass ceiling already exists for women, it seems to be even lower for women formerly incarcerated.
Advocates for those women are trying to make politicians aware of many employers’ discriminatory practices. These associations are trying to reduce the unemployment rate among former female prisoners in New York. The task has become increasingly strenuous as the current economic crisis continues. Thirty thousand women are currently under custody of the New York State or City criminal justice systems, and almost 2,000 were released last year. The state is now facing a challenge as women have to reenter and integrate themselves into a tight labor market where employers may be reluctant to hire women with criminal records.
Tanjia Irizanry, 41 years old, has seen her career development impeded by this hurdle since she was released from Albion prison 2 years ago, after 4 years spent behind the bars. According to the National Institute of Justice, one year after release up to 60 percent of former inmates are unemployed. During her first year after release, Irizanry had as many as four interviews a day and read want ads in newspapers and online. Each time she applied, she says she was refused because of her criminal record, despite the fact that she had a stable career with UPS before being arrested. She had so many difficulties finding a job after she was released from prison that it was like facing a second round of punishment for her crime, she says. Last year, a non-profit finally hired her as a chauffeur. On the job she is finding that her criminal record is still one of her biggest employment obstacles.
“They hurt me; they use my parole to supervise me,” says Irizanry. “At work, I am only doing the stuff nobody wants to do, like the cleaning. It is disappointing. I know what I was before. I don’t want to go back to my previous life and they always push me back.”
However, formerly incarcerated women like Irizanry often feel that they have few choices when it comes to work. The holes in their resumes from being incarcerated put them at an immediate disadvantage, often marginalizing them to the most undesirable job prospects. A lack of education can also be a major factor. For those who have to pay rent, unpaid internships or returning to school are not realistic options to create a more desirable resume. In prison, Irizanry did everything she was supposed to do to be able to find a job when she got out. She took classes, became a teacher’s aid, and was released with glowing recommendations from her professors. Instead she is finding that her prison education does not seem to be sufficient in today’s job market.
The fact is that it is really easy for employers to obtain criminal record information. They can ask questions on job applications and during interviews, take fingerprints and get a rap sheet, run a credit or consumer report that includes information about a candidate’s criminal history, or pay $52 to receive a report from the NYC Office of Court Administration.
A year ago the Paterson administration tried to curb discrimination against the formerly incarcerated by enacting legislation that prohibits employers from automatically disqualifying people with prior convictions.
Mayra Collado was a taxi driver before she was arrested, but when she got out of Albion after 8 years spent in prison, her former employer did not want to rehire her.
“When I came out from the jail, I tried to get a couple opportunities to get a job,” says Collado. “It’s hard to find a job. The doors are closed.”
For advocates who work with the formerly incarcerated, these women face many hurdles when it comes to employment including lack of experience and gaps in their resumes. But above all, it is their criminal records which cannot be suppressed under NY State laws.
“People with criminal records are a highly stigmatized population in the employment world,” says Roberta Meyers-Peeples, director of the National Hire Network, a project of the Legal Action Center which works to increase the number and quality of job opportunities for people with criminal records. “Some employers do not understand what the laws of New York State are, and others may act on a perceived increased liability in hiring someone with a criminal history.”
In either case, women formerly incarcerated are marginalized. And without jobs, risks of recidivism are higher.
According to a survey conducted last year by the Legal Action Center, it costs $44,000 annually to incarcerate a person in New York State prison for one year. Considering this amount, the governor’s administration is trying to reduce recidivism rates, which have reached a staggering 30 percent in New York for women inmates having been out prison for 3 years, according to the Women in Prison Project. In order to curb recidivism and associated costs, Governor Paterson announced last September that $14 million would go towards preparing inmates for reentry. The goal is to provide prisoners with the skills and confidence necessary to be successful upon release because nearly all inmates will be released back to their communities at some point.
“Successful reentry initiatives are a win-win-win,” says Erik Kriss, spokesman for the New York State Department of Correctional Services. “They benefit the offender through self-improvement, they benefit the prison system by keeping prison facilities safer, and they benefit society by reducing recidivism and turning ex-offenders into law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who contribute to society rather than returning to criminal behavior and winding up back in prison at taxpayer expense.”
The New York State Department of Correctional Services oversees vocational programs that help inmates develop their hard skills, along with soft skills such as teamwork, punctuality, work prioritization, scheduling, ordering, repairing and reporting to a supervisor in an appropriate manner. Many women incarcerated in NY prisons are attending programs to educate themselves and develop new skills, but these efforts often confront a harsh reality when they return to the job market.
“Everybody thinks it is easy to be released,” remembers Irizanji. “They said you have to go there and do that, but they don’t know you have to earn your life, pay a rent, get a place to live. Then you realize you always have barriers in front of you.”