1024px Female prisoner shackled in her small cell
1024px Female prisoner shackled in her small cell

The Case For Hiring Formerly Incarcerated Women

Is the stigma of being in prison keeping qualified women from finding work? We talk to WhenPeopleWork COO Sheila Rule about how her startup is helping formerly incarcerated job seekers find employment in a workforce that is still slow to give them a second chance.

photo courtesy of wikipedia

“There’s studies that show that hiring people who have criminal records is really a smart approach to doing business because that population stays at the jobs, turnover is lower and they are more loyal. So they basically are a very strong pull of potential employees for employers, so much so that there are corporations like Starbucks, Home Depot, American Airlines and Under Amour, that are actively or intentionally carving out hiring practices that include people with criminal records. So that is a long winded way of saying, this is good business,” said Sheila Rule, journalist, founder of the nonprofit organization, Think Outside the Cell and newly appointed COO of WhenPeopleWork, an online employment matching system for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Rule, an advocate for the formerly incarcerated for quite some time, got involved with WhenPeopleWork (WPW) at its very beginning last year when the brain behind the idea, Frank Varo, who had spent some time in prison himself, approached her about his want to start a system that would help people like himself find employment.

“This pool is a wide and deep pool and it underscores a problem, a real problem that they face,” said Rule, “ The ACLU actually came out with a report, I think it was earlier this summer, that showed that nearly 75 percent of formerly incarcerated people are still unemployed a year after they’ve come home, so that tells you in a nutshell how wide and pervasive and harmful this stigma is.”

Sixty-five out of every 100,000 women were in prison in 2014. – sentencingproject.org 

According to WPW, the U.S. has a prison population of 2.3 million, with over 600,000 individuals being released each year. Rule and her team at WPW believe that within those staggering numbers are people who not only need to work, but want to work.

“Basically the concept of WhenPeopleWork [is] that we match formerly incarcerated people, as well as those who are nearing release, with employers who are willing to hire from this population,” explained Rule, and when asked how WPW manages to find these open minded employers, she said it really relied on “the necessity of educating society, including employers, about this issue and humanizing the population of people we serve; humanizing men and women with a criminal record, because what they face, more than anything, is the stigma – the stigma of incarceration. So you find that a situation where when they come home, they are confronted with, I’d say it’s fair to say, barriers and sanctions that are oppressive. And these barriers actually, they’re basically the building blocks of modern day inequality for this population.”

Still in its infancy, WPW works as an online platform, aimed to be as precise as possible with job seekers filling out extensive profiles that will hopefully match electronically with an employer, who is already willing to look past a criminal record, to a specific type of worker. Furthermore, WPW uses it system to measure and analyze data over time, hoping to evaluate the impact hiring individuals with a criminal history has on society.

“Once you measure and analyze this data to show what the impact is, and when I say the impact, I’m not only talking about what that employment means in terms of recidivism, meaning going back to prison, not only that and not only what it means in terms to the gross domestic product or anything like that, but also what it means to social services because that person and the family have a stable life so they don’t have to depend on social services,” explained Rule, “What does it mean to a child whose father and mother are stable and healthy and whole, what does it mean to them in terms of truancy or suspension, etc. so this platform and this model is intended to show the ripple effect of hiring people who have criminal records, meaning the positive impact.”

While WPW looks to study and hopefully document the positives of their main goal of getting individuals with a criminal history back into employment, there is no doubt their endeavor could potentially help a lot of struggling families. According to the ACLU there are more than one million women within the criminal justice system in the U.S. and two-thirds of these women are mothers of a minor child.

Sheila Rule, COO of WhenPeopleWork

“Women face, as men do, this overwhelming stigma and I would say that for women it can feel even more oppressive partly because it’s not unusual for them to be the people who are intended to keep a family together, they are the mothers,” observed Rule, “The Center for American Progress released this study that showed that almost 4 in 5 formerly incarcerated women said that they have a hard time locating housing that’s affordable for them after they returned home. So that what happens is, they can’t find housing, which means they don’t have a stable living experience, which leads to or which exacerbates, finding a job and exacerbates the issue of keeping a family intact [because] they’re economically unstable, so they have that burden and that burden, of course, impacts greatly their children.”

Still viewed as a start up project, WPW is currently in talks with the state of Connecticut to do a pilot project in the hopes of proving their concept. Working with other non-profits who have clients who were formerly incarcerated, WPW aims to eventually work with the government, accessing the entire population of men and women returning home with little hopes of being accepted back into the workforce.

“Most men and women who come home, the most immediate need is money and gainful employment but yet what happens is because of this stigma they are shut out from all kinds of opportunities,” said Rule, “From entry level to more seasoned jobs, they’re simply cut out and they’re also cut out from trades and professions for which they were trained, either while in prison or before prison, so they’re cut out from those, and that’s because of occupational licenses that exclude people who’ve had time in prison, so they face a cornucopia of barriers: employment, housing, educational opportunities, and for example, when I say to humanize and to educate people, [it’s] so that everyone understands that these are human beings who are basically looking for another shot at making their lives work. In a nutshell, that is what it is and what it is about.”

“It comes with having an experience with another human being, realizing that it is a human being, who unfortunately is being judged by the worse thing he or she ever did. I would venture to guess if we posed that question to ourselves, would we want to be judged based off the worse thing we ever did? No,” proclaims Rule, “Because we’re more than that. We’re multi dimensional, we’re complicated human beings. So I would say that getting that word out that you’re dealing with people who have made poor choices, as we all have done, theirs were sometimes much bigger or greater than some that someone else did, but they paid the price, they’re coming home, they’re seeking what all of us want, and that’s an opportunity.”

About the author

Tara McCollum

Tara McCollum, a New York native, currently resides in Houston, TX where she has learned to trade in cosmopolitans for margaritas, and white winters for palm trees, but has held stead fast to her great love for the Yankees. She currently works full time as a middle school English teacher and is a loving mother to a little monster named Dean, who reminds her to never give up on her dreams and encourages her to keep changing them, and often.

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