By Christina Elias
After 35 years in and out of prisons and jails, it took a near-death experience and religious intervention to separate Tommy Purcell from alcohol in January 2009.
When Purcell sobered up, he didn’t know what to do first. So when he went looking for a job to help pay his child support, he wasn’t expecting the hardships that would prevent him from getting a permanent job for two more years.
Recent studies have shown that like Purcell, the majority of men and women leaving prison have no job or way to support themselves once release from the system. And it’s not as uncommon as one might think: According to the Sentencing Project, more than 100 million Americans have a criminal record and 1.5 million more are still incarcerated, not yet forced to face their continued punishment once they’re released.
Hitting a wall
The first thing that might come to mind when thinking about criminal records is the effect on job opportunities.
According to Raj Ghoshal, Elon University assistant professor of sociology, that isn’t the only necessity that is made more difficult for those with convictions.
“Certainly there are some restrictions if you have a criminal record on eligibility for public housing and eligibility for certain types of government assistance … some types of student loans, things like that,” he said. “At least for awhile, drug crimes got blocked from some financial aid.”
Adding on to the hardships ex-offenders will face after reentry is not an effective way to deter or prevent crime, Ghoshal said.
“Especially if somebody has very few resources and they get out of jail, then are ineligible for all sorts of assistance, benefits, have a hard time getting work – they’re much more likely to commit crimes again because they, you know, have a very hard time making it through legal means,” he said.
It takes a village
Purcell went through the same dilemma: when he was finally sober and healthy enough to figure out what he needed to take care of, he realized he didn’t have many options.
When he went to the child support office to ask about jobs to help pay his child support fees, they assumed he wanted out of them instead based on his record and tried to turn him away. When another employee heard what he was looking for, she offered him a sliver of hope.
She told him to reach out to Phil Bowers, founder and executive director of Sustainable Alamance. Bowers’ program, at the time, was just taking off – founded on the desire to help connect men with criminal convictions to jobs and keep them from reoffending. Purcell was the first to join the program, and it has changed monumentally since his time there.
Originally, Sustainable Alamance was about finding jobs. Eventually, Bowers found a need for more rehabilitation and support programs in addition to work placement.
“It probably wasn’t a really smooth, direct path into the criminal justice system,” Bowers said of the guys he’s helped. “There’s usually a pretty convoluted story that calls them to end up where they did. But by far and away, underneath all the stuff that we want to talk about, they’re really neat folks.”
Improving opportunity, improving communities
The communities most heavily affected by post-prison barriers often don’t have the resources to help their members once they are unable to support themselves. This is often the result of the larger web of public policy and the criminal justice system.
“So very rarely does the system get overhauled,” Bowers said. “What usually happens is things get added on, that sentencing just gets tougher and tougher and tougher.”
For example, he said, certain convictions block eligibility for things like food stamps and housing assistance.
“So a guy comes home, an employer doesn’t want to hire him, but by law can’t get food stamps, by law can’t get federal housing – no job, no food, no housing,” Bowers said. “Then the question has to be, what do we expect? It can’t be surprising that people are reoffending with all these barriers that we intentionally are designing into the system.”
“Just trying to coach them and teach them to do an interview is not enough; that’s not real rehabilitation,” he said. “We’re just quite good at arresting and locking them up but we’re not so good at helping them back out.”
A widespread worry
Emma Mankin, outreach and volunteer coordinator at Benevolence Farm, also works
with communities with criminal convictions. Benevolence Farm takes in women recently released from prison to aid with reentry through various means, most centrally to give them work and housing on the farm.
“I think a lot of people have that understanding that prison is not a pretty place and there’s a lot of unjust things that go on there, but something a lot of people don’t realize is that when you come out, it can often be even harder because you don’t have that structure,” she said. “You don’t even have a bed, which is something that at least you can say you have in prison.”
Missy Davis-Smith, 31, one of the residents at Benevolence, wrote to about 10 different programs as her release from prison approached.
“I made up my mind that I could not be released without going into a program,” she said. “I needed more clean time, and more structure under my belt.”
Since coming to Benevolence, Missy has been taking a carpentry certification class, working twenty hours a week and going to different meetings and workshops around the community.
“My time here has been amazing,” Davis-Smith said. “I love working on the farm and I am learning so much … I have goals that I am achieving faster than I thought possible and I have the home I never had.”
Despite the opportunities Benevolence provides, Mankin said that it is only a small piece in a big system.
“It is ideally a band-aid fix to more systemic issues at play in the criminal justice system,” she said.
Another study highlighted by The Economist points out that “being black increased a criminal record’s negative effects. White applicants without a record were twice as likely to be called back as those with one (34 percent to 17 percent). For black applicants that gap rose to almost threefold (14 percent to 5 percent).”
Simply changing employers’ perceptions of applicants with criminal histories isn’t enough – employers often have an obligation to ask for criminal history because of state or federal laws that prevent these populations from specific positions.
But, “businesses risk lawsuits if they hire an ex-offender who harms or steals from a customer. Yet because black and Hispanic Americans are much more likely to have been convicted of a crime than whites or Asians, firms that screen out felons risk being accused of racism.”
According to an article in The New York Times, “Ex-convicts with jobs are far less likely to commit further crimes the ability to find work ‘is every bit as important as putting more police officers on the street,’” Martin F. Horn, New York City’s correction commissioner, said.
A movement that has gained national attention in recent years is Ban the Box, which proposes an end to criminal history inquiries on job applications. Over 50 cities and several cities have enacted rules that prevent employers from requiring criminal history disclosure until later in the hiring process so as to give ex-offenders a better chance at employment.
A new set of problems
Despite good intentions, removal of criminal record questions often breeds another set of issues for applicants.
“It certainly has a good intention or a good motivation, but what ends up happening, basically is if the employer can’t ask that question, then they basically just end up discriminating on race more broadly instead,” Ghoshal said. “So, in other words, they no longer have that criminal conviction information, and then they just make a much bigger blanket judgement based on race.
Long-term solutions to such complicated topics are not easily devised, even by experts – much less implemented by policymakers. A history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill proposed entirely discontinuing proposals to entirely remove the question on applications.
“Instead of banning the box, however well-intended it might be, we would do better to expand it and ask applicants to explain the tick and one’s trajectory ever since,” Peter Coclanis wrote in an op-ed for The Raleigh News and Observer.
He cites a 2016 study by Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia and Benjamin Hansen of the University of Oregon, which shows a tendency to rely on race assumptions, rather than criminal history when making hiring decisions.
A UVA Today article outlining the study’s results says that, “In areas where “ban the box” policies have been implemented, Doleac and Hansen found that the probability of employment for young black men without a college degree went down by 3.4 percentage points; for young Hispanic men without a college degree, it dropped by 2.3 percentage points.”
“Statistically, young, low-skilled, African-American and Hispanic men have higher rates of conviction than other demographic groups,” the same study continues. “When they can’t tell up front if applicants have a criminal record, employers often fall back on these statistics to broadly eliminate groups that they think, on average, are more likely to have a recent conviction.”
From misery to mentoring
Purcell was recently recognized by the Piedmont Triangle Apartment Association as one of the top three maintenance supervisors of the year. “Someone that nine years ago was a throw-away,” he said.
For Purcell, Bowers’ support and the job with NCR Management have been a blessing. If he hadn’t turned his life around when he did, he said, he’d probably already be dead.
“People will tell you they’re surprised I’m still alive,” Purcell, now 55, said. “I bet with all my heart I’d be dead. I know I would.”
Because he’s been given a second chance that not many other have in terms of success after convictions, he gives back in every way he can. This includes the One Day with God ministry outreach program, among others.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he tells them. “It’s not easy. You’re facing unbelievable obstacles. [But] there’s something waiting for you.”
His advice to those with nowhere else to go? Show up, show that you have something to offer to someone like Phil Bowers and the volunteers at Sustainable Alamance.
“They’re all in,” he said. “They’ll go through hell and high water with you. They did with me.”