December 23, 2007
Pamela Ainsworth was equipped with work experience, education and bond insurance when she went job hunting earlier this year. She had been a bartender and waitress before she was sentenced to prison on drug and autotheft convictions.
In a federal prison in Texas, she had a toppaying job, earning $1.15 an hour plus bonuses as a callcenter rep for Xcel Energy. While incarcerated for 3½ years, she also learned data entry and accounting. For three months, 33-yearold Ainsworth worked diligently to find employment. She applied at local restaurants, grocery stores, mega-retailers and telemarketers. Even though she was bonded to protect an employer in the event of theft, forgery, larceny or embezzlement, Ainsworth wasn’t hearing the answer she needed. “It’s hard. It’s humiliating. People look at you like you’re weird. They tell you they don’t have a problem hiring felons. But every place turned me down,” Ainsworth said. In Colorado, job seekers must disclose on an application, if the question is there, whether they’ve been convicted of a felony, said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. The nonprofit organization advocates system reform, such as alternatives to incarceration, and supports reintegration programs for people leaving the system. Many employers routinely do criminal background checks on applicants, and private employers can refuse to hire an applicant with a criminal record based on that fact alone. “Felons need not apply” is the unspoken policy of many businesses, said Donner, whose agency released in November a book for ex-offenders: “Getting On After Getting Out: A Re-Entry Guide for Colorado.” “We counsel people to respond truthfully, even though they know it’s likely their application will end up in the trash,” Donner said. Through the grapevine, Ainsworth found a felon-friendly business, the North End Diner. Jackie Houston has hired several hundred ex-cons in the 12 years she’s owned the small neighborhood restaurant at Hancock Avenue and Fillmore Street in Colorado Springs. Ainsworth has been a waitress and cook there since July. “It’s great. It’s like a little family here,” Ainsworth said. For Houston, hiring cooks, wait staff and dishwashers with a criminal history is a form of community service, enabling her to give someone a second, or maybe third or fourth, chance. “It’s somebody’s daughter or son or sister or brother. We’ve got to be able to give them employment to ever get out of the system,” Houston said. Jobs are scarce Not being able to find a job is a main reason ex-inmates return to a life of crime, said Pete Lee, a local criminal law attorney and prison reform advocate who’s running for a state Senate seat. “We’re not preparing them to get out of prison. Ninety-eight percent of people who go to prison get out. Of the ones who get out, 50 percent go back within three years,” he said. More than 10,000 prisoners were released in Colorado last year, Donner said, a significant number attempting to enter the work force. Exoffenders on parole must have a job, otherwise they are sent back to prison. Along with basic necessities, they need money to pay restitution and fees associated with their conviction, mandated classes such as anger management, and required drug tests. “They’re immediately in debt when they get out,” Donner said. But the pickings are slim, according to ex-offenders and those trying to help ex-cons reenter mainstream society. “It’s rough to get employment after you get out — no doubt about it,” said Ernie Medina, who was in prison three times over the course of 20 years, mainly for using and dealing drugs. For the past four years he’s been a free man and worked his way up from sweeping floors to owning Medina Construction Inc., a residential and commercial builder. There’s not much help There is no formal employment program for ex-offenders in Colorado, Donner said. The Colorado Department of Corrections does not recruit employers nor compile a list of employers that hire ex-offenders, said spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti. It also does not track the employment status of former prisoners after they are released from parole, she said. Employers often hire ex-offenders on a caseby-case basis, said Phil Pierce, career consultant director at Pikes Peak Workforce Center. The employment service for El Paso and Teller counties has served 1,344 job seekers with a criminal history since July 1. The employment services are free. “A lot of employers may be willing to overlook the offense or conviction if the person has good skills; just because a person goes to prison doesn’t mean their education or job skill development has stopped,” Pierce said, “Other occupations may be totally off limits.” The nature of the occupation and the offense should not conflict, said Debi Strong, a career consultant with Pikes Peak Workforce Center. For example, someone with a drug history would not be a good fit for a health care business, she said, or a DUI offender with a driving job, or a former embezzler with access to the company books. Jobs with direct supervision and those that don’t require much contact with the public, access to confidential company records or money handling, often are a good match for ex-offenders, Pierce said. Those include construction workers, grocery stockers, warehouse workers, janitors, housekeepers at hotels and food-preparation positions. Trucking companies, some government agencies and trades such as electrical, carpentry, heating and air conditioning also are known to hire former criminals for certain positions, Pierce said. Social service agencies, church-based organizations and employment services such as Pikes Peak Workforce Center, offer employment assistance, along with parole and probation officers. Still, Medina says, employment is a major barrier for ex-offenders — along with getting an identification card or driver’s license, usually necessary to land a job. Finding transportation and housing also pose challenges, he said. Donner said 25 percent of prisoners being released statewide are homeless. The number jumps to 40 percent in Denver. “Is there help? Yes and no. The problem is there’s nobody on the other side, in the community, with help or funding. “They say ‘do your time and pay your debt to society.’ Ex-cons say ‘we paid our debt, now what are we supposed to do?’” Medina said. “Employers have to be cautious, discerning and screen ex-cons. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve an opportunity to prove they’ve changed. Even murderers deserve a second chance.” Fear affects hiring rate Some companies have a policy against hiring ex-offenders. “We ask for criminal history, and although some people lie, we avoid hiring people with a criminal background as much as possible, for a lot of reasons,” said Brad Grecco, director of operations for Wendy’s of Colorado Springs. He declined to give the reasons. So why don’t businesses hire ex-felons? “They don’t have to, with the way our economy is. Business owners have the choice of a fresh apple or someone with priors,” said North End Diner owner Houston. The fear factor also is prevalent. Houston said she’s had some problems with “a few bad apples,” ex-cons who re-offend. For her own peace of mind, she does not hire ex-inmates who have a violent background. “Employers are afraid ex-offenders will commit a crime on their property or be dishonest at work. But that’s a risk they take with any employee,” Donner points out. Medina agrees: He caught his office manager with no criminal history doing drugs at work in the parking lot. His current office manager is an ex-felon who hasn’t been any trouble. He now drug tests employees. Medina has hired about 100 ex-offenders since he started his company nearly two years ago, at one point having 37 on the payroll. “I want to give them a hand up, not a handout,” he said. “I went through the same thing they’re going through.” But even for an ex-con, hiring ex-cons is a difficult business decision because of what Medina calls a negative societal perception of criminals. “If I’m building a home and get the reputation that I use ex-cons on the job site, that can hurt me,” Medina said. Ex-inmates also may have a different work ethic because in prison, Medina said, time moves slowly. “In Colorado prisons, you make 25 cents a day, and nothing gets done any faster than second gear,” he said. “About two out of six or eight people that apply at my company want to work.” Houston has also noticed laziness among those who really don’t want to work. But most, she said, pull their weight and are grateful for the opportunity. “A fellow that worked for me about 10 years ago relocated to Florida, got a wonderful education and job. “He called me a few weeks ago and said, ‘Years ago when nobody would give me a chance, you did.’ I’ve heard that a lot, and it’s rewarding to know you’ve made an impression,” she said. On the flip side, Houston said ex-prisoners have taught her a few things, including broadening what she calls her “Snow White” attitude. “They’ve opened my eyes. I thought everybody worked 40 hours and partied on the weekends, not lived the lifestyle of Bonnie and Clyde.” DETAILS Two federal programs provide incentives to businesses to hire ex-offenders. Income tax credits: The Work Opportunity Tax Credit reduces employer federal tax liability by as much as $2,400 per new hire for the first year of employment. The program requires forms and documentation and has restrictions, for example, the ex-offender must be hired within one year of release. See www.coworkforce.com/emp/taxcredits.asp, or call 1-303-318-8829. Bonding program: Free bonding of ex-offenders up to $5,000, which acts as a guarantee for employers concerned about hiring someone with a criminal background. It’s good for six months from the date of hire and insures the employer for theft, forgery, larceny and embezzlement. See www.e-colorado.org, or call 1-303-318-8829. SOURCE: “Getting On After Getting Out: A Re-Entry Guide for Colorado,” a publication of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition