How to Get Hired After Incarceration

Formerly incarcerated people can face barriers when searching for jobs. But knowing tips, strategies, and resources can help secure employment.
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  • Workforce development programs have resources to help formerly incarcerated people.
  • Getting hired after incarceration can start in prison with education and job training.
  • Sending emails and using the computer are important post-release skills.
  • Local and national organizations also have resources to help find employment.

Four years after being released from prison in 2010, one-third of formerly incarcerated people in a study were still unemployed, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A lack of marketable skills, not knowing where to look for work, and having a criminal record can all be barriers to getting hired.

Finding a job is about more than just earning money. Individuals who get access to jobs — even those that are not paying top salaries — are less likely to return to prison.

Here are some tips and insight on how you can get hired after incarceration and prepare for your next phase of life.

Tips for Getting Hired

It takes a formerly incarcerated person over six months, on average, to find a job, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Preparing for the job market, and finding resources to assist with job opportunities, can help people who have served time successfully land that first job.

Tip No. 1: Know Your Rights

Many people aren't aware that there is legislation that supports formerly incarcerated individuals as they begin their job search. It's important to be aware of these rights and how they can protect job seekers.

Many states have adopted the "ban the box" law. This measure removes the question about a criminal record from an employment application. That can help remove stigma over a past incarceration during the initial process.

Instead, applicants can be judged on their merits, skills, and qualifications before having to divulge past details. The law is not a requirement in all states, or even in all employment sectors. However, a majority of states have the law in place for public sector employment.

The White House's Incarceration to Employment plan puts benefits in place for both job seekers and employers. A variety of partnerships, job training, and reentry plans are available. Employers are eligible for tax credits and protections with the Federal Bonding Program.

Tip No. 2: Brush Up on Your Technology Skills

Whether creating a resume or conducting an online job search, knowing how to work on a computer is key. Almost 80% of job seekers use the internet to look for available positions, according to the Pew Research Center.

And even after you find work, technology still plays an important part in many jobs.

"If a potential employer can't get a hold of you on email or by phone, you're not getting a job," said Kriss Goss-Marr, senior program manager for Impact Justice.

The Bottom Line: Technical skills can help open up a new world of job opportunities.

Tip No. 3: Seek Out a Workforce Development and Reentry Program

A 2016 report from the National Association of Counties found that over 40% of these programs were able to help people who were formerly incarcerated find jobs. Though their offerings vary, programs can help with everything from resume preparation to career assessment and interview tips.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons even offers a reentry program while individuals are still incarcerated. Its Release Preparation Program helps with resume writing, finding a job, and learning how to keep a job.

Tip No. 4: Hone Your Job Skills Before Leaving Prison

While incarcerated, learning new skills can make you more marketable once you are released.

People who are incarcerated can receive training for jobs in food service, kitchen management, forklift operation, wood working, laundry services, carpentry, and a host of other areas.

A 2021 report from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that individuals who developed job skills and training during incarceration had more success with jobs after release.

Tip No. 5: Focus on Furthering Your Education

Whether it's obtaining a GED certificate or earning a secondary degree, you can make yourself more marketable by hitting the books while incarcerated.

All federal prisons, the majority of state prisons, and most private prisons have educational programs available. Incarcerated students, starting in July 2023, are also eligible for Pell Grants to help pay for their education.

Hard work pays off: People who were formerly incarcerated and take part in postsecondary degree programs are less likely to return to prison than those who don't.

Tip No. 6: Build Your Network

Family, friends, former co-workers, and even parole officers may have insight on available jobs. So don't be afraid to use them as resources for job leads.

"The name of the game is really community and resources. Because if you're trying to navigate all of this on your own, it's extremely difficult. There are networks for a reason," said Goss-Marr.

Following up with past places of employment can also open doors. According to the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, people who were formerly incarcerated found that returning to a previous employer was one of the best strategies for keeping a long-term job.

Tip No. 7: Secure Basic Needs

A place to live and food to eat are at the top of anyone's list of necessities. Lining these items up before leaving prison or immediately after release allows you to focus on the job search.

If living with a family member isn't an option, programs and resources exist to help. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers information on apartments with reduced rents, housing vouchers, and applications for public housing.

States may offer a reentry partnership housing program, like the one from the Georgia Department of Corrections. Churches, transitional housing groups, and nonprofit organizations may also have options available or information to help.

Tip No. 8: Find a Mentor

Whether it's a person who served time in prison and then successfully navigated the job market or someone in the community who wants to help, a mentor can be an invaluable resource.

This person can not only provide mental and emotional encouragement but can also help you find a job. Organizations like Prison Fellowship have a reentry mentor program to provide newly released inmates with spiritual support, as well as connect them to community resources.

Tip No. 9: Focus on Your Mindset

Prison can be detrimental to a person's self-esteem. But taking the time in prison to learn new things and grow your skill set — then putting those skills to work —is a great start.

After having difficulties finding a job after his prison release, James Badue El, co-founder of Cleaning for Change, a human rights organization, gave his incarceration a new meaning.

"When I went [for] jobs where I already had the skill, I talked about my prison experience with pride. What I did was a bad thing, but what I gained was a good thing. This is my character today, and this is what I have to offer based off of my experience," said Badue El.

Resources for People Who Were Formerly Incarcerated

Local and national programs help combat unemployment after incarceration. Return Home Baltimore focuses on helping returning citizens in Maryland prepare for life outside of prison. The organization offers mental health services, education, job training, and more.

Library of Congress research guides have an online listing with several job-related resources and books to help navigate the job search process. Reentry resources are also listed on the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health. Along with employment information, there are details on healthcare coverage and housing.

The National Reentry Resource Center provides information on a variety of topics. Webinars and videos on interview techniques, mentoring programs, job readiness, and more are available.

Formerly incarcerated people can take advantage of job training and leadership development programs like Hope for Prisoners.

Bottom Line

Starting over in life isn't easy. After serving time, additional barriers can make finding a job and moving forward even more of a challenge.

But by seeking out programs and services designed to offer support, returning citizens can find jobs and enjoy a productive life after release. Because it's not just a benefit to formerly incarcerated people, but society at large.

As Goss-Marr said, "It costs a lot more to keep people in prison than it does to help them go to college and to get gainful employment."