Hidden behind America’s harrowing unemployment statistics lies a portion of the population that isn’t even accounted for in unemployment numbers, namely those in prison. Currently, 2.3 million Americans, or about 1 out of every 100 citizens, are locked behind bars.
The skyrocketing prison population has been well documented. However, the effect on the economic mobility and wellbeing of these individuals once they are released has received less attention. Indeed, many of these ex-convicts inflate our nation’s unemployment numbers, and their job prospects upon release are dim.
A recent study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts explores the very real problems posed by America’s bloated prison population as well as the longterm effects that serving time has on an individual’s economic mobility or, for that matter, economic solvency. On average, serving time reduces hourly wages for men by approximately 11 percent, annual employment by 9 weeks and annual earnings by 40 percent. By age 48, the typical former inmate will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated.
Statistics like these shed some light on the economic reality for individuals like Diann and Curtis, two D.C. natives struggling to make ends meet with felonies on their rap sheet.
“Once you go in for over a year, your life changes forever,” Diann, 40, explains. “People look at you totally different on the outside.” From 1996 to 2006, Diann was in and out of prison for a variety of misdemeanors, culminating in a felony that landed her in prison for 18 months.
Since his release in 2007 after serving seven years, Curtis, 25, has struggled financially.
“My life changed a lot- I mean a lot,” he says about his experiences after prison.
Two factors contribute greatly to the difficulties experienced by returning citizens. The first is a failure by federal and local government agencies to provide adequate support to prisoners being released. Reflecting on her experience after being released in 2006, Diann observes, “It was up to me. There was no plan to help me when I left. They should at least help you determine an outline and plan for when you get out instead of giving you $75 and putting you on a bus, because all you’re going to do is what you know best: drinking, drugs and sex. Fortunately for me, I wanted to change.”
Curtis had a similar experience.
“They gave me $50 and put me on a bus. They didn’t give me any job information on what to look for or how to find jobs or anything. Basically, if you don’t ask, they won’t tell you. People are coming home and don’t know about where to go for help.”
When talking about the frustrations that come along with a lack of economic opportunity upon release, Curtis mentioned that of the 19 people he was released with, he is the only one who remains out of prison.
“A lot of these guys have families and say, ‘I gotta do what I gotta do.’ So they’ll go out on the streets hustling and selling drugs, because you can take $50 and flip it into $300 within a day or two,” he said.
Recidivism statistics show how important it is to meaningfully engage and connect ex-convicts with social services and employment programs. According to a 2009 article in the Nashville Bar Journal, the recidivism rate for inmates released from prison within a year is 44.1 percent.
The impact of incarceration on both the income and relationships of families and their children is significant. According to the Pew study, 54 percent of inmates are parents with minor children, including 120,000 mothers- one of whom was Diann- and 1.1 million fathers. The family income average over the years in which a father is incarcerated is 22 percent lower than the year before a father is incarcerated. Additionally, children with fathers who have been incarcerated are five times more likely to be expelled or suspended from school.
“There should be parenting classes and programs to help reentering parents connect with their kids and families. Kids need to understand what happened to their mom,” Diann observes.
Another major obstacle for ex-convicts is discriminatory hiring practices by companies wary of employing people with a record. Diann had worked as a certified nursing assistant prior to incarceration. Upon being released, she quickly found that employers were no longer interested in her skills. Ironic, “because companies are being funded by Medicare and the federal government, many are stressing about hiring people with felonies,” Diann says.
When asked about how many jobs he’s missed out on due to his record, Curtis answers, “A lot, especially when I had to go get a police clearance. I know I had no chance. My record might not be that good, but that doesn’t mean I’m the same person you’re reading about in that record.” He goes on to acknowledge, “Giant and Safeway will pull you in. All they ask is if you’re a worker, and if you want to work, they will work with you.”
Fortunately, the D.C. government is taking steps to address this issue. At a symposium in December hosted by the Urban Institute, representatives from the D.C. Department of Corrections, Department of Employment Services, Office on Ex-Offender Affairs and Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency all gathered to discuss the housing and employment challenges for returning citizens.
These officials expressed a commitment to improving the economic opportunities for ex-convicts. They heard presentations about the measurable success of employment training and job placement programs in other cities. D.C. has many of its own programs too; however, to be effective, prisoners must be informed about them upon release. Furthermore, many, such as D.C. Central Kitchen, have a capped enrollment so the supply of quality reentry programs does not necessarily meet demand.
“I’m afraid to be that person I was before incarceration,” Diann reflects. All that she, Curtis and other ex-offenders are asking for is a chance. Let’s hope that the D.C. government, local businesses and social services agencies take a closer look at this issue, because in America, individuals should be able to climb the economic ladder through diligence and hard work. People should not have to spend their lives paying extra for crimes that have already frayed familial bonds and taken years away from their life.