Out of prison, out of a job, out of luck

Ex-convicts are 'at the back of the line' in their struggle to find work during the recession. It's a burden Gregory Headley feels all too well.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all CNNMoney.com RSS FEEDS (close)
By Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

Gregory Headley, who was released from prison in July, makes minimum wage cleaning sidewalks during his quest for permanent employment.
Ex-convicts participate in mock job interviews at the Fortune Society.
Stressful jobs that pay badly
High stress and a meager paycheck are just another day at the office. Here are 15 of the most overworked and underpaid professions out there.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- If you think it's tough getting a job during a recession, imagine what it's like for an ex-convict.

Gregory Headley, 29, knows exactly what it's like. The Harlem resident was released from prison in July after serving two years and eight months for the criminal sale of a firearm. Now that he's out, he said, the conviction is dogging his attempts to land a full-time job.

"There's no nice way of saying, 'I sold a gun,' " Headley said recently as he headed to his part-time job cleaning sidewalks.

Headley was placed in the temporary, minimum-wage job by the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit organization in Manhattan that helps ex-convicts transition into law-abiding lifestyles.

"I'm not going to lie: $40 a day hurts," said Headley, feeling the squeeze of the $28,000 in child support debt that he accumulated in prison. "But what I need to do is stay on the path I'm on, try to get used to the struggle instead of trying to beat the odds."

Terrence Mason, assistant director of participant services at the employment center, described Headley as a "good guy" and a "go-getter." But he acknowledged that many employers will look no further than his rap sheet.

"His conviction is a tough sell to employers," said Mason.

At the back of the line

For everyone right now, the job market is tough. The U.S. unemployment rate jumped to 10.2% in October, its highest level in more than 26 years, according to the Labor Department. Nationwide, 15.7 million people are out of work.

That is really bad news for the hundreds of thousands of ex-convicts who are released from prison every year.

"They're always at the back of the line, and the line just got a lot longer," said Glenn Martin, vice president of the Fortune Society in Queens, a nonprofit that trains ex-convicts in job hunting skills. "On top of that, our folks are losing jobs just like anyone else, but it's more difficult to replace those jobs, because of the stigma of criminal conviction. Our folks can't get through the door these days."

In the most recent available figures from the U.S. Department of Justice, 713,473 prisoners were released from incarceration in 2006. There are no nationwide numbers reflecting unemployment rates among ex-convicts.

But up to 60% of the formerly incarcerated in New York state are unemployed after one year of their release, according to a study from the Independent Committee on Reentry and Employment, of which Martin is a member. The number is even higher for parole violators, at 89%.

The temptations of the street can be overwhelming during a recession, said Martin, who was released from prison in 2000 after a six-year sentence for armed robbery. He said that his first post-prison job paid $16,000 a year, which paled compared to his ill-gotten gains.

"I used to make $16,000 a day when I was on the street," Martin said. "I used to rob jewelry stores for a living. Obviously, it would have been a lot easier for me to go back to the street to do what I was doing. But the idea is to move away from instant gratification."

Michael B. Jackson, an ex-convict and author of "How to Do Good After Prison: A Handbook for Successful Reentry," said the risks of recidivism during a recession cannot be overstated.

"Formerly incarcerated people and drug addicts, we don't need a lot of excuse to go back to what we were doing before," he said. "In these hard times, when ex-offenders can't get jobs ... they're going to be robbing people."

The conviction question

During a two-week job-hunting class at the Fortune Society in Queens, employment specialist Mitchell McClinton grilled 19 ex-convicts in a series of mock interviews. After coaching his students on how to present themselves, market their job skills and answer the dreaded "conviction question," he posed as an employer and put them in the hot seat.

"I noticed that you checked 'yes' on the conviction," he said to one of the ex-convicts. "Explain."

"Basically, I learned from the mistakes of my past, [that they] jeopardize my present and my future," replied the interviewee.

McClinton moved on to the next ex-convict, but she mumbled through the interview and wouldn't speak up until he threatened to skip over her. When she finally opened her mouth to speak, McClinton saw something he didn't like.

"Is that a tongue ring in your mouth?" he said. "You can't wear a tongue ring to an interview."

Many of the ex-convicts are seeking cleaning jobs, based on the skills they outlined in the interviews, and some of them are working towards their high school equivalency degrees.

Headley, during his citywide clean-up rounds, said his heart is set on college and eventually an office job at the Center for Employment Opportunities, where he could help other ex-convicts transition into the job market.

But for the short term, he said he's gratified to be a sidewalk sweeper.

"I'll take making minimum wage any day over prison or death," said Headley. "Now I can walk the streets more freely, without having to watch my back. Now, I consider myself a productive member of society. I'm not contributing to the city's downfall." To top of page

They're hiring!These Fortune 100 employers have at least 350 openings each. What are they looking for in a new hire? More
If the Fortune 500 were a country...It would be the world's second-biggest economy. See how big companies' sales stack up against GDP over the past decade. More
Sponsored By:
More Galleries
10 of the most luxurious airline amenity kits When it comes to in-flight pampering, the amenity kits offered by these 10 airlines are the ultimate in luxury More
7 startups that want to improve your mental health From a text therapy platform to apps that push you reminders to breathe, these self-care startups offer help on a daily basis or in times of need. More
5 radical technologies that will change how you get to work From Uber's flying cars to the Hyperloop, these are some of the neatest transportation concepts in the works today. More
Worry about the hackers you don't know 
Crime syndicates and government organizations pose a much greater cyber threat than renegade hacker groups like Anonymous. Play
GE CEO: Bringing jobs back to the U.S. 
Jeff Immelt says the U.S. is a cost competitive market for advanced manufacturing and that GE is bringing jobs back from Mexico. Play
Hamster wheel and wedgie-powered transit 
Red Bull Creation challenges hackers and engineers to invent new modes of transportation. Play

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.