JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — When Antonio McGowan left Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman after serving 17 years, he was free for the first time since he was 15. But as an adult finally released from behind bars, he immediately found himself confined to menial work.
McGowan needed a steady job, for a paycheck and to keep busy, but temporary gigs were all he could find. Just as those around him advised him of the importance of maintaining a routine, he found himself trapped in a cycle of odd jobs and irregular hours. He cut the grass one week and painted a house the next. But he couldn’t land anything full-time, and the unpredictability of his income proved difficult. Disconnection notices and unpaid bills are piling up.
“Things weren’t in place,” McGowan said. “They weren’t where I wanted them to be in terms of an individual returning to society. It was a struggle.
After several years adrift, McGowan was finally able to get back on her feet with the help of the Hinds County Reentry Program, a workforce training program for ex-convicts established in October. Reinstatement programs are a way for employers to try to fill some of the 11.3 million open jobs in the United States amid an acute national labor shortage. The practice of hiring people with criminal records is known as “second chance hiring”.
In rosier economic times, many former prisoners faced serious obstacles in finding work. The labor shortage triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is now providing them with opportunities, said Eric Beamon, a recruiter for MagCor, a company that provides job training for people in Mississippi correctional facilities.
“We think the pandemic, in a way, has been a big help,” Beamon said. “If no one wants to work anymore or if everyone wants to work from home, employers are begging for employees.”
Some studies have shown that stable jobs are a major factor in reducing recidivism. Yet not everyone is willing to hire a former convict, and the lack of employment opportunities for people with criminal records still hinders labor force participation in the economy, said Stephanie Ferguson, senior employment policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a May report.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the barriers faced by those convicted of felonies were linked to a loss of at least 1.7 million employees from the labor force and a cost of at least $78 billion to the economy in 2014, the year McGowan left prison. .
The current dire situation employers find themselves in could help bring about change. In a 2021 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM; the SHRM Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute, 53% of HR professionals said they would be willing to hire people with criminal records, up from just 37% in 2018.
That’s where programs like Hinds County Reentry and MagCor come in, helping to make ex-convicts more desirable as candidates by properly training them to reenter society and matching them with jobs suited to their skills and abilities. interests.
McGowan said he would like to work in air conditioning and heating repair, and program staff members recommended him to Upchurch Services, a Mississippi-based company that allows workers to take repair classes while gaining experience in the field. McGowan was hired the second week of May.
He earns $15 an hour, works 40 hours a week with paid overtime. He said he had full health care coverage – and loved the job.
“Summer, winter, spring or fall, you will need heating or air conditioning,” he said. “So I found something that I can help people with. At the same time, it can keep me working class, so I don’t fall back into the things I used to do.
Beamon, one of several recruiters manning booths at a job fair for ex-prisoners in Jackson recently – other companies represented included Waffle House, Amazon and Columbus, Mississippi-based Lyle Machinery – said said he’s seen an influx of new jobs and wages that are rising precipitously, some up to $20 an hour. Mississippi has not adopted a state minimum wage, and the federal standard is still $7.25.
In addition to job training, labor market re-entry programs can provide parolees with mentors who have first-hand knowledge of the difficulties of life after incarceration. For Savannah Hayden, who was released from prison in November after serving time for five felony convictions, that person was Cynetra Freeman. Freeman is the founder of the Mississippi Center for Reentry, an organization providing work readiness programs for inmates preparing to leave prison.
Freeman remembers taking a bus to an employment agency the day after he was released from prison. She said the agency told her she would never find a job because of her record.
“It crushed me and made me think of others who have felt the same devastation,” Freeman said. “Employment is one of the most difficult aspects for someone who has just returned home.”
Hayden thought she could chain temp jobs to make ends meet. But Freeman encouraged her to think long-term, especially a job where she could use her experience as a former incarcerated person to help others reintegrate into society. Hayden now works for Freeman as the mental health and addictions coordinator at the Center for Reentry.
“After so many doors have been slammed in your face, you’re tired of asking,” Hayden said. “But there will be a person who will say ‘yes’ and it will change your life.”
Hayden was adopted and spent years in the state’s foster system.
“It didn’t occur to me that I might be able to help people who grew up in the same situation,” she said. “I think I’ve found my niche.”
McGowan, who had been convicted of violent crimes, said his job is more than just a job.
“It’s the look on someone’s face,” he said. “When you fix something that belongs to them that has been broken, they smile. I spent so many years hurting people. So I know the look people have when they feel hurt. Seeing the reverse is enough to make me happy.
Michael Goldberg is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.
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