Finding work after prison: Persistence pays off

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This is the third story in a five-part series looking at prison re-entry. Want more? Alaska Public Media is hosting a live community forum on Thursday, Dec. 3, at 7:00 p.m. to dig deeper into life after prison.

Most people leaving prison have to find a job fairly quickly both to support themselves and to meet their parole requirements. Their job searches can be more complicated than most because of the stigma of having a criminal history, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

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John sits on the couch in his living room with his arm around his wife Shannon, baby toys to one side. With a groomed goatee and a slight belly, he’s just another middle-aged dad. The couple knew each other back in high school through John’s sister, and they found each other again right after John was released from prison.

“I just knew he was going to be my husband,” she says without hesitation. “I just kind of knew.”

But for John it took a couple of weeks. After spending nearly 20 years behind bars, nothing was that straight-forward.

“You know, when I first got released, relationships were very hard for me. It was one thing to have a relationship with my family, but it was really scary to have anything other than that,” he explains.

“So I wasn’t prepared to be in a romantic relationship. I wasn’t prepared emotionally or mentally to be in one, and yet here’s this woman I wanted to be in one with, and I didn’t know how to do it.”

John was 19 in early 1994 when he went to prison for his involvement with a murder. To put it in context, that was before the Internet was big, before Kurt Cobain died, and before apartheid officially ended in South Africa.

John says when he was finally released in late 2013, he struggled with even simple things, like being alone in public spaces without someone of authority around. And he faced one of his biggest challenges: finding a job.

“It was a nightmare. It was crazy. When I first got out… just trying to findany job. Denny’s wouldn’t hire me. They wouldn’t even give me second glance. No fast food place, no restaurants. They didn’t want to hire someone who had done as much time as I’d done or who had made the mistakes I’d made. They didn’t want to take a chance on me.”

He says he applied to dozens of places, but no one would look past the check mark in the box indicating he had a criminal history.

“You know, trying to put down ‘murder in the first degree, perjury.’ How does that look? ‘I don’t want someone who was in for murder working for me,’” he recalls hearing. “I had so many people just shut the door. I had one place in a computer shop, where I got into the interview, interview went good. When we talked about my situation he said ‘My insurance will never cover you, so I can’t hire you.’”

It took John two and a half months before he got his first break, and the job was temporary. He was let go from the next position because felons can’t work in places that sell firearms.

“There was at least one point there where I was ready to give up and go back, but I didn’t. Because of this woman next to me,” he says looking at his wife with complete devotion.

“It was really scary,” Shannon says. “Just the fact that he couldn’t find any job. It was really scary to know the stigma and to know that what he did 20 years ago is still affecting his life now.” But she never questioned her relationship with him.

The stigma comes up in conversation over and over with almost everyone with a criminal background.

The manager of the Mat-Su & Eagle River Jobs Centers, Tamika Ledbetter, says the stigma of returning from prison is real, but not every employer is opposed to hiring people with criminal histories.

“Employers are more willing to take a chance on a returning citizen than most returning citizens are even aware of.”

She says many small, local businesses, construction companies, and seafood industries are willing to look past criminal records.

And there are incentives. The federal government offers tax credits to companies that hire felons within one year of release. The state offers fidelity bonding, which is like free extra insurance in case an employee does steal from the employers. Ledbetter says people can get past the box by writing quality resumes that focus on their skills, just like any other applicant.

“Skills are skills are skills,” she says. “And they don’t necessarily need to come from paid employment. So any volunteer work, any work you’ve done on the side. Whatever it is you’ve done, we want to look at those skills. And even those things you were doing when you were inside (prison).”

John’s resume focuses on his computer skills — things he learned in classes and taught himself when he was still incarcerated. He has a really good job now that helps him pay his bills and support his family, but he’s still worried about the stigma. He thinks that if everyone knows he has a murder charge, he could lose everything he’s worked for. That’s why we’re only using his first name.

“I fear sharing my background because I’m in a position working with clients all day. And I’m afraid that if the clients I work with knew my past, that it would adversely affect my position.”

John explains that his higher-ups recommended he not share his full name because they had the same fear: that clients wouldn’t want to work with him.

But for Shannon, the danger of his past being publicly announced in the media is about more than just his livelihood.

“I don’t want people to look at John as who he was versus who he is now. Because he’s a totally different person.”

John nods in agreement. He’s not a 19-year-old kid anymore trying desperately to be cool. He’s a father, a church leader, and a professional computer technician. It took him years to get to this point, and he has no desire to go back.