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Pandemic underscores importance of re-entry research

Pandemic underscores importance of re-entry research
June 10
15:19 2020

By John Railey

When Lida Calvert-Hayes started her Winston-Salem painting business 34 years ago, she never asked whether job applicants for commercial and industrial work had criminal records. Often, she would find that a recent hire did have a record. Most of the ex-offenders she hired turned out to be good workers. 

“These people made my business,” she said. “These men were placed on appropriate jobs where they would not be mistreated, but respected for the work they did.”

Unfortunately, Calvert-Hayes, who is a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools board, is the exception in hiring ex-offenders.

Many local employers do not. It is a perennial problem, aggravated, like so many other issues, by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many employers have eliminated positions, making it that much harder for workers to find jobs, much less workers with criminal records. Working is often a requirement for parole, and parolees without jobs can be sent back to prison.

At the bedrock of the longstanding problem is a lack of understanding between ex-offenders seeking jobs and potential employers. A Research Fellow at Winston-Salem State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM), Douglas Bates, will explore potential answers to that problem this summer. 

As of 2018, he said, there were more than 100,000 individuals in the state who are on probation or parole. About 25% of them typically return to prison.

Bates, with assistance from CSEM staff, designed a survey for released offenders that will measure the extent to which they have been impacted by their time in prison. He is an assistant professor in WSSU’s Department of Social Work. Bates and student interns will first test the survey on a small pilot group, then expand the number of those surveyed.

Eventually, Bates hopes, businesses will use the surveys in designing training programs for their managers, and for the released offenders they hire. 

Such initiatives are needed. The City of Winston-Salem and the County of Forsyth have embraced Ban the Box, in which a job applicant’s criminal record is not the first step in the hiring process, but is part of later considerations. Yet for many local businesses, criminal records remain a primary concern in hiring.

“Our country as a whole, we still haven’t gotten over the stigma of having a criminal record,” Bates has said. 

That causes missed opportunities for released offenders and employers. 

Inmates survive in prison by presenting tough exteriors. Obviously, that is often unacceptable in 21st-century workplaces. “I think people underestimate how difficult that transition can be,” Bates said.

Calvert-Hayes, whose business is S&L Painting, has hired hundreds of workers over the last three decades, she said, and estimates that about half of them had criminal records. 

A few of those ex-offenders committed crimes, she said. One was an older man who had spent much of his life in prison. He was “institutionalized,” she said, so accustomed to the regimentation of prison life that he could not get used to life outside. Inside, Calvert-Hayes said, “Somebody was feeding him, telling him this, telling him that. Outside, the man would cry. It was just overwhelming. He had never had the tools after he’d been there so long to know what to do when he got out. He committed a crime so he could go back to prison.

“They are so afraid of making another mistake that it is drilled into their system. When they do have a choice, they don’t know how to make it.”

Another of her workers stole a credit card from a sub-contractor with which her company was working, thinking he was helping her company. 

But for the most part, Calvert-Hayes said, the ex-offenders she has hired have been good employees. As her business grew, she worked with the state prison system, finding that it “did a thorough screening system for the work-released prisoners before making them available for actual work release. Because of the rules and regulations to qualify for this release program, I never encountered a problem with this program.”

She has a full crew that has been with her business for years, she said, so she is not hiring more released offenders for now. 

Calvert-Hayes has spent much time trying to understand the transition from prison. 

Bates’ research could well complement her on-the-job learning, leading more employers to understand, hire and train released offenders, helping their businesses and the ex-offenders.

Railey is the writer-in-residence at Winston-Salem State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility. Learn more at www.wssu.edu/csem. He can be reached at raileyjb@nullgmail.com.

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