Former Incarcerees Find Hope—and Employers—at NYC ‘Second Chance’ Job Fair

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Employers and jobseekers arrive for the Second Chance Job Fair at NYU’s Global Center. Photo by Allen Arthur.

At first glance, the job fair held April 11 at the Grand Hall of New York University’s Global Center looked like one of the dozens of employer-meets-jobseeker events you might encounter this Spring at universities in the nation’s largest city.

Hundreds of men and women dressed for interviews milled about the hall, moving from one table to the other to speak to prospective employers, taking time out to pop complimentary brownie bites or check their phones. But for these particular job applicants, it was anything but business as usual.

All of them had been incarcerated.

Attendees meet with potential employers at the Second Chance Job Fair. Photo by Allen Arthur.

Organized by a nonprofit called M.A.D.E. Transitional Services, in collaboration with the Columbia University and NYU Schools of Social Work, the event—billed as the Second Chance Job Fair—provided what for many could be a life-changing opportunity to find jobs that might otherwise have been out of reach if they tried to contact employers on their own.

For Jay, who left prison in January after nearly five years, the fair made concrete the “second chance” rhetoric that is advocated by reformers—but often undermined by barriers in many states that prevent formerly incarcerated people from getting a chance at secure, well-paying jobs.

“You’re coming back home and you have no job and no money,” said Jay, who wanted his last name withheld.  “[That means] someone else has to feed me and clothe me and give me carfare. After a while, that puts a strain on [our] families.”

For the 40 or so employers who were there, it was also an opportunity to make use of the enthusiasm of men and women who may never have held a legitimate job.

“This is a huge stepping stone,” said Aleta Maxwell, Chief Human Resource Officer for Dos Toros Taqueria, who was looking to fill around 15 positions.

“It’s not a fly-by-night job for them. In my experience, they’re the ones who show up 15 minutes early because it means so much to them.”

Toney Earl, Jr. knows from experience the frustrations of trying to rebuild a life after prison.

“My first year home, I applied to over 30 jobs,” said Earl, who left prison in 2008. “I went on over a dozen job interviews, and there were just no job offers.”

That’s one of the reasons he founded M.A.D.E. in 2014, along with fellow former incarceree Tarik Greene. Together, they use the Ready, Set, Work! format to provide workforce-readiness training to currently incarcerated people. For those returning home, they offer the same, as well as job placement and mentorship.

The event was mounted through donations. Employers in attendance were asked to contribute $150 to cover basic supplies, photography and refreshments, though none were rejected if they couldn’t afford the fee. Not only do Greene and Earl hope their fair is a blueprint for what will become an annual event; other cities have contacted them to learn how to put on their own fairs.

The fair addressed a rapidly expanding problem: The United States’ mass incarceration boom has created a mass reentry boom.

 Stable employment remains one of the strongest preventions against reoffending, yet surveys show that 60-75% of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed one year out of prison. With around 650,000 people leaving prison each year around the nation, that represents a powerful economic force that has effectively been disenfranchised.

And it also undermines the stability of the families and communities they come home to.

A New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Foundation poll found that 34 percent of unemployed men between the ages of 25 and 54 have criminal records. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that 1.7 million to 1.9 million Americans are precluded from employment by a criminal record—at a cost to the country’s GDP of more than $80 billion.

“You’re creating a whole sector of society that become dependent on the tax base, that draw from the tax base and don’t contribute to it,” said Thomas Safian,  Executive Director of Refoundry, a small incubator offering training, materials, and workspace to formerly incarcerated craftsmen as they develop their businesses.

“There are hundreds of thousands and millions of people that we’re closing off,” added Safian, who did not attend the fair but was interviewed later by The Crime Report. “They’re isolated by the process and by our society and the economic opportunities they have when they come out that are just as isolating as when they were in prison.”

Local Reforms Gain National Attention

The most popular approach to solving the re-entry employment gap has been “Ban the Box”, a legislative reform seeking to remove questions about felony convictions from job applications and interviews.

Some version of that has been adopted by over 26 states and 150 cities and counties throughout the U.S. Most recently, in February, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, removed conviction questions from state job applications. Hawaii was the first state to pass “Ban the Box” legislation in 1998, but the campaign picked up steam when a group of formerly incarcerated people in San Francisco spearheaded a national movement in 2005. The city adopted Ban the Box legislation a year later.

In 2012, the federal government effectively endorsed the movement when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines warning that refusing to hire a candidate because of a criminal record could constitute employment discrimination under Title VII.

The campaign saw its most notable victory in November 2016, when then-President Barack Obama, citing “a growing number of states, cities and private companies that have decided to ban the box,” issued a Ban the Box order for federal hiring.

(A complete list of Ban the Box laws by location is available from the National Employment Law Project.)

But efforts like the job fair make clear that it is one thing to write policies that encourage a change of attitudes among employers, but another to help the formerly incarcerated  actually close the deal on future employment.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a small-businesses advocacy organization, was one of several business groups to come out vigorously against “ban the box” laws. According to Jack Mozloom, NFIB’s communications director, the group doesn’t believe that governments should tell small businesses how to hire staff—a process that costs business owners substantial time and money.

“Big companies have HR departments to handle that whole hiring process. Our members have fewer than ten employees mostly,” Mozloom said in an interview with The Crime Report. “They are the HR department.”

Employer sentiment seems to agree. A 2015 survey by a background checking service found that 48% of employers surveyed felt the policies were unfair to them, with 62% identifying either workplace or customer safety as the primary concern over criminal records. Many respondents also found the laws confusing.

“Many of our members are perfectly willing to hire people with criminal backgrounds,” claimed Mozloom, “but they want to have the conversation. What we’re not for is blinding employers to the truth. Private employers are the ones risking everything by hiring people, and they deserve to know. And by the way, a criminal felony is a public record. So Ban the Box says this class of citizens – employers – are not allowed to know the public record.”

Even at the Second Chance Job Fair, only a few tables housed private for-profit employers such as Shake Shack and Dos Toros Taqueria. Most employers attending represented nonprofits that often act as a screen, training formerly incarcerated people in trades or soft skills before placing them in jobs.

 A Lack of Consensus

Some research suggests that “ban the box” policies don’t really prevent employers from identifying applicants whom they might be reluctant to hire on the assumption they have a criminal record—even if they can’t access those records.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, a conservative think tank, released a study demonstrating the potential negative consequences of these laws for black and Hispanic men in particular, showing that Ban the Box policies resulted in an apparent increase in the disparity between white and minority employment rates.

A second study from the University of Michigan found similar results, suggesting that after Ban the Box laws pass, employers begin screening more aggressively for traits that correlate with incarceration such as low levels of education and traditionally black or Hispanic names.

At the Second Chance Job Fair, almost all of the attendees were black or Hispanic. They were predominantly male.

Lester Rosen, an attorney and CEO of Employment Screening Resources, a background screening firm based in California, says he knows of employers who use gaps in job history as a proxy for incarceration.

“What employers tell us is, ‘if people have a pretty uninterrupted job history, that’s the best indication that they’re safe and reliable,’ said Rosen, author of The Safe Hiring Manual and a consultant on a best- practice guide for hiring those with criminal records.

“That does two things that are bad. For ex-offenders who have interruptions in their history, that puts them behind the eight ball.

“Number two, it’s extremely unfair to people who through no fault of their own lost their jobs or had to take care of a sick child. There’s always unintended consequences.”

More significantly, legislation won’t automatically remove the prejudices or fears many employers have about hiring former inmates—just from appearances alone.

Several attendees of the fair sported face tattoos or a “buck fifty”—a slash from the corner of the mouth to the ear inflicted most commonly by gangs, particularly in prison. Employers may make assumptions about applicants based on these marks before a potential hire even speaks.

“Character is everything,” said Mozloom. “That’s the most important attribute. A willingness to cut corners and break the law is an indication of certain character flaws that you want to know about if you’re an employer. It’s very possible, maybe it’s even likely, that people come out of prison changed, rehabilitated, but the employer can’t know that unless he first has the conversation.”

A 2016 Northwestern study challenges those preconceptions. It found that people with criminal records actually stay in positions longer due to a similar rate of involuntary termination to those without a record and a significantly lower likelihood of leaving voluntarily. It also found that “whether the employer had information about criminal records does not predict the likelihood of employee misconduct.”

Maxwell of Dos Toros Taqueria said her company has never had significant issues with the former incarcerees it has hired, but she acknowledged that “returning citizens”—the phrase many now prefer over “ex-inmates” or “ex-cons”— face specific personal obstacles such as time and stress management.

Event organizers Tarik Greene, far left, and Toney Earl, Jr., far right, with members of the Columbia University School of Social Work Criminal Justice Caucus. Photo by Allen Arthur.

That’s one preconception M.A.D.E. tries to change by preparing currently incarcerated people for the workplace before they are released.

“For them, [getting out is] a rude awakening,” Earl told The Crime Report. “You’ve been [incarcerated] with all your meals provided. You don’t have any bills.” Once out, “the realities of the world smack them in the face.”

“Within the formerly incarcerated population, one of the biggest misconceptions is that they can’t do certain kinds of work,” added Greene, who left prison in 2009. “There’s a lack of self-esteem. A lot of people definitely qualified for higher level positions are applying for entry-level positions. A lot of times our clients won’t even apply for certain jobs if the starting salary is high.”

Ebony Lawson attended the fair as a representative of Hour Children, a Queens, NY-based organization providing reentry services to returning mothers. Formerly incarcerated herself, Lawson is the Assistant Director of HC’s Working Women program. There, she helps teach formerly incarcerated women what it takes to excel in the workplace, and how to manage expectations.

“The biggest thing I notice about the women trying to adjust is that everything is not going to be perfect or right, but you still have to go to work. You still have to do your job.”

She says finding the right employment path requires personal attention.

“It takes them really focusing on their journey,” said Lawson, “and really concretely thinking about what they want to do. Sometimes I think people are just in a rush to get to the finish line. I try to tell them it’s not a race.”

Two years ago, Hector Guadalupe launched Unibody Fitness, a personal training business. Unibody’s booth at the fair touted A Second U, a foundation that has so far trained and placed 70 former incarcerees as fitness trainers.

Guadalupe spent 10 years in prison and sees a naturally intense work ethic in those returning home, if they’re willing to change.

“You can’t be the same you and come home and expect different results,” said Guadalupe. “If you’re uneducated and you have limited resources and no options, how can you make right decisions? But when these men and women come home and you provide education, a trade that they can use and enjoy, they end up building careers and it reduces recidivism.”

The job fair cleverly avoided the “box” issue. Everyone’s history existed as a silent understanding. As old-school R&B played from a corner booth, lines snaked around the lobby for free professional LinkedIn photos and last-minute résumé checks. People perused a handout labelled “Jennifer’s Top Ten Tips to Help You Ace Your Interview.”

“It was almost like the feeling I have when I go to a family reunion,” said Greene. “People were smiling and hugging. There was no security there. There was no one saying, ‘You can’t go in. You wait here. You stand over here.’ It was just a freedom.”

While the organizers have not yet heard back from employers, early indications are positive. According to Maxwell of Dos Toros, they have scheduled nine second-round interviews with people they met at the fair.

“I am very confident we will hire at least four. I personally met with four individuals that I think have outstanding personalities that would be a great fit,” she said in an email after the event.

While Greene and Earl hope people will find employment from the fair, they see results beyond jobs.

“It was a something special to see those actively seeking opportunity with the confidence and the hope for change,” said Earl, “especially because of the biases the population is subjected to. Many think that people don’t want to change or don’t put in the effort to change. So to see that and to know how limited opportunities actually are overall, that was special.”

“What I saw and what I heard a lot of people say they saw was a renewed hope,” added Greene. “For this particular population. Hope is the key to all things. For those that have that sense of despair and frustration, hope kills that, and it gives them renewed energy and spirit.

“So from that point of view, I thought it was a huge success way above what we hoped to achieve.”

Allen Arthur is a recent graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Social Journalism program. There, he worked with formerly incarcerated people to understand how journalism might be of service to them. Together, they created Moment of Truth, a reentry zine that is in production now. You can reach him on Twitter @LissomeLight. He welcomes readers’ comments