Out of Prison, Out of a Job, Out of Luck

Ex-convicts are 'at the back of the line' in their struggle to find work during the recession. It's a burden Gregory Headley feels all too well.

By Aaron Smith

convictIf you think it's tough getting a job during a recession, imagine what it's like for an ex-convict.

Gregory Headley, 29, knows exactly what it's like. The Harlem resident was released from prison in July after serving two years and eight months for the criminal sale of a firearm. Now that he's out, he said, the conviction is dogging his attempts to land a full-time job.

"There's no nice way of saying, 'I sold a gun,' " Headley said recently as he headed to his part-time job cleaning sidewalks.

Headley was placed in the temporary, minimum-wage job by the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit organization in Manhattan that helps ex-convicts transition into law-abiding lifestyles.

"I'm not going to lie: $40 a day hurts," said Headley, feeling the squeeze of the $28,000 in child support debt that he accumulated in prison. "But what I need to do is stay on the path I'm on, try to get used to the struggle instead of trying to beat the odds."

Terrence Mason, assistant director of participant services at the employment center, described Headley as a "good guy" and a "go-getter." But he acknowledged that many employers will look no further than his rap sheet.

"His conviction is a tough sell to employers," said Mason.

At the back of the line

For everyone right now, the job market is tough. The U.S. unemployment rate jumped to 10.2% in October, its highest level in more than 26 years, according to the Labor Department. Nationwide, 15.7 million people are out of work.

That is really bad news for the hundreds of thousands of ex-convicts who are released from prison every year.

"They're always at the back of the line, and the line just got a lot longer," said Glenn Martin, vice president of the Fortune Society in Queens, a nonprofit that trains ex-convicts in job hunting skills. "On top of that, our folks are losing jobs just like anyone else, but it's more difficult to replace those jobs, because of the stigma of criminal conviction. Our folks can't get through the door these days."

In the most recent available figures from the U.S. Department of Justice, 713,473 prisoners were released from incarceration in 2006. There are no nationwide numbers reflecting unemployment rates among ex-convicts.

But up to 60% of the formerly incarcerated in New York state are unemployed after one year of their release, according to a study from the Independent Committee on Reentry and Employment, of which Martin is a member. The number is even higher for parole violators, at 89%.

The temptations of the street can be overwhelming during a recession, said Martin, who was released from prison in 2000 after a six-year sentence for armed robbery. He said that his first post-prison job paid $16,000 a year, which paled compared to his ill-gotten gains.

"I used to make $16,000 a day when I was on the street," Martin said. "I used to rob jewelry stores for a living. Obviously, it would have been a lot easier for me to go back to the street to do what I was doing. But the idea is to move away from instant gratification."

Michael B. Jackson, an ex-convict and author of "How to Do Good After Prison: A Handbook for Successful Reentry," said the risks of recidivism during a recession cannot be overstated.

"Formerly incarcerated people and drug addicts, we don't need a lot of excuse to go back to what we were doing before," he said. "In these hard times, when ex-offenders can't get jobs ... they're going to be robbing people."

The conviction question

During a two-week job-hunting class at the Fortune Society in Queens, employment specialist Mitchell McClinton grilled 19 ex-convicts in a series of mock interviews. After coaching his students on how to present themselves, market their job skills and answer the dreaded "conviction question," he posed as an employer and put them in the hot seat.

"I noticed that you checked 'yes' on the conviction," he said to one of the ex-convicts. "Explain."

"Basically, I learned from the mistakes of my past, [that they] jeopardize my present and my future," replied the interviewee.

McClinton moved on to the next ex-convict, but she mumbled through the interview and wouldn't speak up until he threatened to skip over her. When she finally opened her mouth to speak, McClinton saw something he didn't like.

"Is that a tongue ring in your mouth?" he said. "You can't wear a tongue ring to an interview."

Many of the ex-convicts are seeking cleaning jobs, based on the skills they outlined in the interviews, and some of them are working towards their high school equivalency degrees.

Headley, during his citywide clean-up rounds, said his heart is set on college and eventually an office job at the Center for Employment Opportunities, where he could help other ex-convicts transition into the job market.

But for the short term, he said he's gratified to be a sidewalk sweeper.

"I'll take making minimum wage any day over prison or death," said Headley. "Now I can walk the streets more freely, without having to watch my back. Now, I consider myself a productive member of society. I'm not contributing to the city's downfall."

Next: How to Bounce Back After a Setback >>

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