The unemployment rate for former prisoners is nearly five times higher than the unemployment rate for the general U.S. population, and substantially higher than even the worst years of the Great Depression, says a new report from the Prison Policy Institute. This indicates “extensive economic exclusion” for ex-inmates, the institute says. Formerly incarcerated people want to work. Their high unemployment rate reflects public will, policy, and practice, the institute says. The inequalities persist even when controlling for age. Among working-age individuals (25-44 in this dataset), the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people was 27.3 percent, compared with just 5.2% unemployment for their general public peers.
That such a large percentage of prime working-age people are without jobs but wish to work suggests that structural factors like discrimination play an important role, the institute says. Research suggests that employers discriminate against those with criminal records even if they claim not to. Although employers express willingness to hire people with criminal records, evidence shows that having a record reduces employer callback rates by 50 percent. The institute says that formerly incarcerated people are more likely to be active in the labor market than the general public. Among 25-44 year old former prisoners, 93.3 percent are either employed or actively looking for work, compared to 83.8 percent among their general population peers.
Formerly incarcerated black women in particular experience severe levels of unemployment, whereas white men experience the lowest. Overall, “prison penalties” increase unemployment rates anywhere from 14 percentage points (for white men) to 37 percentage points (for black women) when compared to their general population peers.