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How to Reenter the Workforce After Incarceration

By: Alison Doyle

One of the biggest challenges for individuals who have been incarcerated is successfully reentering the workforce. It can be challenging to transition back to employment when you have a criminal record, an employment gap, and don’t have the skills you need to easily get hired. 

With a criminal record, getting hired, obtaining an occupational license, and accessing educational opportunities can be difficult even though workers with a criminal background may be reliable employees. However, research shows that individuals with criminal records have a much longer tenure and are less likely to quit their jobs voluntarily than other workers.1 

How can people who have been incarcerated overcome the challenges of finding employment and getting their lives back on track? One of the best ways is to participate in a workforce reentry program, which can help them get the credentials needed to get hired, build a career, and move forward with their lives.

What Are Workforce Reentry Programs?

Workforce reentry programs are designed to assist previously incarcerated individuals compete for jobs, attain stable housing, support their families, and contribute to their communities. 

There are hundreds of organizations that help those returning from prison in attaining the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully reintegrate into their communities. Resources vary depending on the organization, but programs may include training, employment assistance, job placement, transitional housing, counseling, mentoring, and other support services.

In a phone interview with The Balance, Jamar Williams, founder of Pittsburgh-based organization Re-Entry Living on Purpose, said, “After release, formerly incarcerated individuals are connected to a person or organization in the community who can help. The program may include one-on-one or group assistance, along with peer support.” 

In addition to equipping participants with the skills required to succeed in the workplace, these programs help provide hope—and a chance for a better future. Williams said, “Don’t believe everything that someone tells you, and don’t believe that nobody will give you a chance.” These programs are designed to give those who have paid their debt to society a chance to start over.

Know Your Rights

It can be difficult to get hired when you’ve been incarcerated. “Ban the Box” legislation is one of the most important steps toward making it easier for individuals who have been incarcerated to reenter the workforce. 

Over 150 U.S. cities and counties and 36 states have passed Ban the Box legislation, which prohibits employers from asking about convictions and arrest records.2 This levels the playing field so applicants are considered based on their qualifications, not their criminal history.

For example, in New York, it is unlawful to ask an applicant or employee whether they have ever been arrested or had a criminal accusation filed against them.3 In California, meanwhile, it’s illegal for most employers to ask about the criminal record of job applicants before making a job offer. This includes mentioning criminal records in job postings, job applications, and job interviews.4

Hiring Programs and Incentives

According to Williams, there are many opportunities to get hired after being incarcerated. “Consider training programs, pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeships, and paths to build a career [versus] just getting a job,” he said. “Many training programs are paid, you can get connected to them as part of the reentry process, and many programs will cover expenses like getting a driver's license and transportation.”

The federal government offers incentives to employers who hire individuals facing barriers to employment. The federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) encourages employers to hire applicants from targeted groups that have difficulty getting hired, including people with criminal backgrounds.

Preparing to Reenter the Workforce

There are opportunities to participate in educational programs while in prison. All federal prisons offer literacy classes, English as a Second Language classes, adult continuing education, and library services.5 They also offer vocational and occupational on-the-job training as well as post-secondary education in vocational and occupationally-oriented areas.

Some states also provide training and education opportunities. These programs can provide a foundation for starting a new career after incarceration and also offer the opportunity for work experiences and skills that can be included on a resume.

Tips for Starting a Career After Incarceration

Despite the challenges, it’s possible to start over and build a career. Mark Drevno, founder and executive director of nonprofit organization Jails to Jobs, told The Balance via phone, “It’s not unusual for formerly incarcerated people to think that they are limited, but that’s not the case.” Drevno suggests taking career assessments and inventories, considering possible job options, and creating a career trajectory for where you’d like your career path to go. 

Training programs—including workforce reentry programs, pre-apprenticeships, and apprenticeships—are available for people who want to move forward with their lives. Many offer paid training, good wages, benefits, and a solid chance of getting hired after you complete the program. 

Finding and Landing a Job After Incarceration

“Your first job may not be the perfect job, but it can get your career started,” Drevno said. Once you succeed in your first role, you’ll be off to a strong start. Taking some time to prepare for a job search will make the process easier.

Starting a Job Search

Before you start a job search, review Jail to Job’s New Entry Job Hunting Plan. It’s a step-by-step guide to managing your job search that you can use to get started. 

Compile Information for Job Applications

It’s a good idea to compile a list of all the information you need to apply for jobs. Having all the details ready will save you time when completing job applications.

Write a Resume

Depending on the job and type of company you’re applying to, you may need to write a resume. You can include the jobs you held while in prison, education and training, the skills you’ve acquired, and volunteering. 

Find Available Jobs

Consider applying directly to employers who have committed to hiring formerly incarcerated people by signing the Fair Chance Business Pledge, which was instituted by President Obama in 2015.6 

Some of the top job sites have lists of Fair Chance employers and job openings, including:

Visit CareerOneStop’s Find Openings information for more ways to find jobs to apply for.

Another way to expedite your job search is to look for companies that are hiring now for immediate openings. 

Ace the Job Interview

Even though it can be difficult, it’s better to be honest when talking about your criminal record and possibly lose the opportunity than to have to explain it if your conviction is discovered through a background check.

What’s most important during a job interview, according to Drevno, is making eye contact and showing the interviewer that you’re sincere. “Ask yourself how you can show an employer that you’ve learned a lesson, made amends, and can be an asset,” he said. Tell your story in a way that’s not charged. Make the truth attractive and positive.

Resources for Getting Assistance

Here are some additional resources you can use to help get your new career on track:

  • Call or search online to find local assistance with training, employment, food pantries, affordable housing, and support groups.
  • American Job Centers: There are nearly 2,400 American Job Centers (AJCs), which provide free career and employment-related help to job seekers.
  • Clean Slate Clearinghouse: Get up-to-date information on criminal record clearance and mitigation in your state.
  • Find a Training Program: CareerOneStop has a list of state and local organizations that focus on helping people with criminal records.
  • Jails to Jobs : Jails to Jobs is a nonprofit organization that gives formerly incarcerated people the tools they need to find employment. In addition to a wealth of advice, you can access directories to find free interview clothes and tattoo removal programs.