Navigating Employment After Incarceration

A criminal record can make it hard to find work. Education and job resources can prepare formerly incarcerated people for future success.

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by LaKeisha Fleming

Published September 1, 2022

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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Navigating Employment After Incarceration
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Over 2 million people in the United States are imprisoned. People often have to start from scratch when they are released from prison. They may have to find housing and transportation. They also need a job that provides an income to pay for their needs.

Being incarcerated may lead to feeling unprepared for the job market and can make it hard to find employment. Programs and resources exist to lend a helping hand to individuals after their release. This page looks at barriers to getting a job, ways to prepare for the workforce, and help to find employment after incarceration.

Employment Barriers Facing Formerly Incarcerated People

People searching for a job after prison face several obstacles.

  • Lack of housing: According to a 2018 study by Prison Policy Initiative, previously incarcerated people are 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general U.S. population.
  • Limited access to education: If a person can't enhance their skills, they can't prepare for certain jobs.
  • Lack of familiarity with technology: "The biggest thing preparation-wise is to have some type of computer knowledge. Get support while incarcerated or right out the gate, [especially] basic skills in email communication," advised Kriss Goss-Marr, senior program manager for Impact Justice.
  • Incarceration itself: A 2021 U.S. Department of Justice report found that more than 30% of people released from incarceration in 2010 still had not found work as of 2014.
  • Personal feelings and social stigma: Shame and embarrassment about disclosing a record can keep many people from finding employment. "The reality is there's such a stigma on those who are coming back from involvement in the justice system. It can be very challenging," notes Goss-Marr.

Incarceration to Employment Plan

In April 2022, the White House launched its Incarceration to Employment Plan. The goal is to create more jobs and learning opportunities for people with criminal records. "In general, the overall vision is to really provide a second chance. I think, for a lot of these individuals, it's the first chance," says Goss-Marr.

The plan provides job training through a partnership with the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor. Between 2022-2023, the Department of Labor plans to invest $140 million to help people incarcerated in the Bureau of Prisons with job skills and reentry plans after release. Formerly incarcerated individuals also have greater access to business funds through the Small Business Administration.

"In general, the overall vision is to really provide a second chance. I think, for a lot of these individuals, it's the first chance."

— Kriss Goss-Marr

Other highlights include encouraging businesses to hire former prisoners and providing $60 million to promote digital literacy in underserved communities. The plan also creates the Bureau of Justice Assistance's reentry toolkit to improve outcomes for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Employers who hire those formerly imprisoned benefit from the plan as well. They can receive tax credits and take advantage of the Federal Bonding Program.

States With Ban-the-Box Laws

Ban-the-Box laws require that criminal history questions be removed from job applications. "You at least have to give us an interview so you can see our character. [The law] made it illegal for businesses and companies to ask if you have a felony," says James Badue. Badue, who worked to get the measure passed in Minnesota and served time in prison, is the founder of Proof, a human rights organization dedicated to pursuing rights for Black Americans.

The number of states adopting Ban-the-Box laws varies by employer and employment sector. Thirty-seven states enforce the law in the public sector: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Fifteen states extend the law to private sector employers: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

Other states continue to evaluate the measure.


How to Get Job Ready

Preparing for employment can start in prison. Having specific steps to take can serve as a person's guide to reentering society.

  1. People who are incarcerated can use their time to find out what type of jobs interest them. Whether it's organizing laundry duty or working in the library, those incarcerated can discover new skills. "In prison, I was a group leader in two different situations. I was a program developer. I created curricula. I would host classes," Badue notes. Those skills helped prepare him for work opportunities.
  2. Some facilities teach incarcerated people a vocational trade, such as carpentry or woodworking. They can also take correspondence courses and earn a degree.
  3. Once on parole, a person can begin looking for work in areas of interest. In addition to pounding the pavement, using resources is key. A parole officer may have insight into job openings. Family and friends may know people who can offer help. Networking and using connections can make a big difference.
  4. Once out of prison, workforce reentry programs can be beneficial. These programs may do anything from providing vocational and skills training to helping with resume preparation and giving job leads.
  5. Learning how to interview is also a crucial part of workforce preparation. That includes knowing how to address potential concerns about incarceration. Being truthful about the time spent behind bars and explaining the lessons learned and resulting growth can be convincing points.

Individuals can view any work as a learning experience, even if it's not their ideal job. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many service-related businesses, like restaurants and retail stores, have struggled with labor shortages. These shortages can provide the ideal chance for someone who was incarcerated to show their tenacity and strong work ethic.

Employers Who Hire Formerly Incarcerated People

Research shows that hiring formerly incarcerated people is a smart business move. Formerly incarcerated employees are less likely to resign than their colleagues and stay for a longer tenure.

A 2021 Society for Human Resource Management survey shows that 82% of people would patronize a business that employs people with criminal records. This can be a win-win for businesses and their employees.

Resources for Formerly Incarcerated People

Programs are available to help people released from prison find employment.

Reentry Employment Opportunities, created by the Department of Labor, provides funding for programs to help formerly imprisoned people with job opportunities. CareerOneStop, also a Department of Labor website, offers insight on dealing with a criminal record while seeking employment. Help For Felons, with resources on loans, grants, and housing, also has an area dedicated to jobs for those with felony records. The Women's Prison Association helps women at all stages of the transition process, including finding housing and jobs. Career Planning for People with a Criminal Conviction has information that people nationwide can use. This includes details on creating plans, setting goals, working on skills, and finding a job. This organization focuses on helping residents of Minnesota. Prison Fellowship helps formerly imprisoned people find jobs and rebuild their lives physically and spiritually.

Bottom Line

Research shows that approximately two-thirds of the people released from prison each year end up back in prison within three years. Securing gainful employment can help change that narrative.

Providing formerly incarcerated individuals with the support they need impacts society positively now and in the future. Job training and employment opportunities can make important differences for any individual, and this can hold especially true for those who have been incarcerated.