In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Jean Valjean leaves a French prison after serving 19 years for stealing food. Jean struggles to redeem himself from past mistakes but no matter where he goes, he is haunted by his past. • That was the 1860s. Not much has changed. • Once released, ex-offenders struggle to overcome the stigma of having committed a misdemeanor or felony. Today most job applications carry the question: "Have you ever been arrested or convicted?" When employers have their pick to fill job openings they seldom hire those who answer "Yes."
And many people answer "yes." According to the Department of Labor, 7 million adults, or one in 32, have criminal records or are presently incarcerated. The state of Florida released more than 35,000 inmates from its correctional facilities in fiscal year 2006-07.
This March, Walter A. McNeil, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, opened the Demilly Correctional Institution in Polk County, the first transitional prison for inmates slated for release in 36 months. "Every time we can aid a former inmate in becoming a productive citizen, we reduce crime and the economic burden on taxpayers," McNeil said. The prison offers programs in life skills, budgeting and work release programs to promote a successful transition to family and community.
Before starting back to work, those with criminal records need housing, subsistence resources, and sometimes medication and counseling. Sara Romeo, executive director of Tampa Crossroads Inc., says her agency works closely with employers to hire ex-offenders referred to her by the courts and the Department of Corrections. "They can get all the treatment, all the counseling, all the support, but if they don't have full-time employment, they won't make it," she said.
'Beyond the crime'
St. Petersburg resident Alyssa Dowd, 51, has been looking for work since February 2008. "My conviction won't go away," she said. She uses the computer at Worknet Pinellas, reads the newspaper ads, looks for help wanted signs and volunteered for AARP during tax time. Dowd, who served 30 days in the Pinellas County Jail in 2007 for battery, was a certified nursing assistant for 10 years, but can no longer practice in the medical field. With experience in customer service for third-party insurers, she hopes to find work solving problems in the health care field. "I wish people could look beyond the crime and see the person. Making a mistake shouldn't label us for life," she said.
Dowd is seeking help from Dr. A.J. Murphy, director of the Pinellas County Ex-offender Reentry Coalition (PERC), an agency that provides services to people released from jail. "What you did doesn't have to define who you are," said Murphy.
He encourages ex-offenders to be up front. "Talk to managers. Tell them 'yes, I was in jail, but this is what else I've done,' then mention any classes or training." Here are some of Murphy's recommendations:
• Go back to school. Learn a trade. If you have one, get a certificate.
• Find out about the place you want to work. Ask "What does it take to work here?"
• Step up your game on the phone and be able to tell a caller what type of work you are able to do.
• Be courteous, and be prepared to answer interview questions.
• Get rid of music on cell phones and put on a nice personal message.
• Be clean and neat. Avoid brightly colored hair.
• If you have any tattoos, cover them up for interviews. If you have body piercings, take them out.
PERC, the Dream Center and KINFOLKS (Kids in Need of Families Offering Loving Kindness and Support) are three organizations funded by the Pinellas Reentry Project to reduce the rate of recidivism.
Tommy Gillies, director of the Dream Center in St. Petersburg, reports almost 97 percent of his clients come from the Pinellas County Jail. "The first 72 hours after release are the most critical," Gillies said, "and if we can get them employed, they're not sliding back or hanging out." The Dream Center helps with bus passes, food, clothing and employment. Gillies suggests ex-offenders look for jobs at restaurants, fast food chains, auto repair shops, car detailing, warehouses and lawn maintenance. He suggests, "If you pass a work site, ask if they need help."
Tracy Reddick of KINFOLKS holds weekly employability workshops and helps families of ex-offenders and those presently incarcerated. "They are honestly trying to turn their lives around," Reddick said. She tells ex-offenders:
• Remember the interview starts the minute you set foot on the property.
• Be truthful, but don't talk too much or reveal personal information.
• Avoid red flag words like "fired" when completing job applications. Consider "career shift," "seasonal job" or "moved."
• Call the public transportation office for schedules so you can plan your bus route and arrive for interviews ahead of time.
Federal Bonding Program
Lazerick Howard, 44, is working with pastor Wayne Tiggett of Abe Brown Ministries in Tampa. After serving time since 2002 for armed robbery, grand theft and related charges, Howard was released in January. He lives in the ministry's transitional housing program. Substance addiction led to his incarceration. Howard, who intersperses his conversations with "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am," holds certificates in spot welding and carpentry and has experience in fast food and lawn service. "Have a positive attitude," Howard recommends, "a good handshake and make eye contact with the employer." He makes followup calls and writes thank-you notes after interviews.
Kenneth Russ, vice president of business services at Career Central in New Port Richey, suggests those who are ex-offenders identify themselves to staff when they come to their local state work force for help. As job seekers, they may be eligible for the Federal Bonding Program (FBP). Established in 1966, FBP provides insurance to employers who may be cautious considering hard-to-hire individuals, including those with a criminal past. The bonding is free, user friendly and offers employers financial protection against certain types of losses.
Other job tips
• Be positive with everyone you meet. You never know if your friend's boss may have an opening.
• Volunteer with a nonprofit organization to meet new people and gain skills.
• Be truthful about your arrest. After you check "yes" on applications, write "eligible for federal bonding program and will provide information at interview."
• Get permission from three people who can vouch for you as references.
• Smile, stand straight and act like you are the right person for the job.