Ex-offenders struggle to find work, overcome employers' doubts

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 5:18 PM

About the challenge

Every year columnist Michelle Singletary chooses several people or families and helps them with their finances. This year she has worked with women recently released from prison. She met them through a volunteer outreach effort of a financial mentoring program she directs at First Baptist Church of Glenarden.

Kelly D. Brown left prison with one overriding mission - to never again let her hot temper lead to another stint behind bars.

"I was so reckless when I was young," said Brown, 32.

The last time she let her anger explode, she shot at some girls who were trying to enter her home after a fight. She was convicted of second-degree attempted murder and served six years of an eight-year sentence. When she entered the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in 2004, her son was 3.

"When I got out he was a whole little man with his own way of thinking," Brown said. "I had pictures of him from before I got locked up, and then after. His joy was gone, and I did it. I took the joy from his life."

While incarcerated, Brown got help for her anger issues and began to style other inmates' hair. A week after being released from prison, she started taking cosmetology classes and received her license in less than a year.

She got a job as a stylist at a Hair Cuttery in Baltimore. Brown was upfront about her criminal past - hoping, praying, someone would give her a chance. The manager of the salon decided to give Brown an opportunity to prove herself.

Brown started March 26. But then . . .

. . . But then I decided to profile Brown as part of the latest installment of a series I began earlier this year in which I looked at the difficulties ex-offenders have managing their personal finances. However, I found that we couldn't concentrate on that problem because of the many other factors that prevent ex-offenders from succeeding - some personal, some the result of public and private policies.

Brown's story was supposed to be positive. She asked someone up the chain of command at Hair Cuttery, a division of Vienna, Va.-based Ratner Companies, if it would be okay for her to be photographed working on her customers.

The corporate office had her fired.

The salon leader said Brown was "honest about everything" concerning her criminal history. The regional field recruiter for Hair Cuttery was also aware of Brown's felony conviction.

The company's response is typical of so many employers when it comes to ex-offenders.

"Kelly Brown did indicate on her application that she had been convicted of a crime; and yes, she explained her circumstances to the salon leader," Diane Daly, director of public relations for the Ratner Companies, wrote in an e-mail. "Unfortunately for all involved, this information was not communicated to our Human Resources department; had it been, the application would have been denied.

"Our company does not begrudge any person's attempt to make a positive transition in his or her life, but we have an obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of our stylists and our clients."

Brown, crestfallen, said "I could see this happening if I didn't tell them."

She dropped the phone. For several minutes I heard her weeping in the background, her young son trying to comfort her. "I've overcome so much," Brown said when she returned to the phone. "This is so unfair. I worked with razors and scissors every day for seven months and nobody ever got hurt."

A job is one of the leading factors in preventing ex-offenders from ending up back in prison, said Nancy La Vigne, an expert on crime prevention and prisoner reentry and director of the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center. "There are costs to actively avoiding hiring ex-offenders. Everyone needs to realize that if we don't help people succeed when they get released, that increases victimization."

The issue is so important that there is a growing campaign across the country to eliminate questions about past convictions on public employment applications. Proponents of the "Ban the Box" movement, a name referring to the box applicants are asked to check if they've been convicted of a crime, say eliminating the question of a felony conviction could help keep ex-offenders from being summarily rejected for a job interview. At least two states ban public and private employers from requesting criminal record information on initial job applications. Several cities and counties have enacted similar legislation.

Banning the box does not mean that questions regarding criminal background can't be raised during an interview, said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of Job Opportunities Task Force, an organization that advocates for policies and programs to help low-skilled and low-income workers and job applicants. "It just allows a quality resume to be considered and not automatically thrown in the trash."

The sad reality is that many of those with criminal backgrounds will not be the most qualified for a job or even close, Perkins-Cohen said. Many do not have the education, skills or work history to obtain many of the jobs available.

A number of employers have blanket policies against hiring ex-offenders, and not just those with felonies, Perkins-Cohen said. Based on the group's findings, many employers associate the formerly incarcerated with the most heinous crimes. He said an employer will say, "I don't hire ex-offenders."

"But if we say, 'What if the person has a 10-year-old trespassing conviction?' often the employer will say, 'Oh, I'd interview him.'

"If an employer wants to 'do a good deed' and hire someone with a criminal background, that's great, but I don't think most employers can operate this way," Perkins-Cohen said. "If they just hire the most qualified person, they will be doing what is in their own best interest but also give those who have made a mistake in their life to a chance to compete."

It would be naive to say that employers shouldn't be careful in hiring someone with a criminal past. But if employers refuse to consider ex-offenders individually, then what we get is higher recidivism, meaning more people headed back to prison.

"Ex-offenders are in constant risk of people finding out about their past," said Monica Cooper, director of Out4Justice, whose mission is to change unjust and counterproductive policies affecting incarcerated people and their families.

At the beginning of the year, I profiled ex-offenders Christine Foote and Stephanie Harris. Foote asked to end her participation halfway through the Color of Money Challenge. She couldn't take the public scrutiny and abuse. Foote, like Brown, said she lost an employment opportunity because of her criminal past. But on my last check, Foote was back in school and earning money in part-time jobs.

Stephanie Harris also left the challenge. She was hired to clean the streets of Baltimore as a "clean sweep ambassador" for the nonprofit Downtown Baltimore Partnership, and was doing well at first. But then something changed. She no longer works for the partnership.

Harris does not answer my calls, but she has been checking in regularly with her parole officer as required, according to a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

These women show that some efforts work and some don't. Nonetheless, we have to keep trying, even when some ex-offenders fail, because given the opportunity for redemption, many will prove they are no longer a threat to the community. That's what Brown is trying to do.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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