Oh, and then he called up the cops to report the theft.
“There’s a car parked in this lot,” he remembered telling them, “and it’s been here for a few days.”
But Colon now has a challenge. A guy who was “great” at stealing cars is desperate to find another job that suits him, and this time he has far less confidence. He’s 32 years old. Upon release from jail in August, he’ll have no place to live. He has little education. And he knows most employers will hold his past — which also includes domestic violence, burglary and drug charges — against him.Take a look at the first three paragraphs of this article: This is Colon’s record, much of it publicly available, and he will carry it like an anchor into any job interview.
“I’ll have, like, two minutes to explain it,” Colon said.
America’s incarceration rate, after skyrocketing for decades, has only recently started to go down — a necessary change in the nation’s criminal justice system, President Obama has said. But that has opened a broader and controversial debate about how to prepare inmates for reentry, and the degree to which a criminal record should be considered for employment.
A handful of states and cities have drafted new “Ban the Box” laws that essentially delay employee background checks, so records aren’t immediately used to weed out candidates. But these moves only help so much. Jobs still require background checks. For ex-convicts, the job interview can be terrifying, and handling it the wrong way can lower the chances of employment and ultimately stunt long-term economic opportunity.
The Montgomery County Correctional Facility, where Colon has been locked up for 1½ years, is one of the only jails in the country that tries to coach inmates on what to say and how to sell themselves before they are released. In room C1.360, on the first floor of a building that looks like a windowless high school, a one-stop job center has quietly operated for the last nine years, funded by the taxpayers of Montgomery County. Posters give advice on “asking for a fair chance.” Coaches help inmates put together resumes. Computers — while restricting access to most Internet sites — offer a portal to state and federal job pages.
The jail is maximum security, and inmates in olive jumpsuits, when walking the hallways, are never out of eyeshot of at least one guard. But in the job center, there is carpeting on the floors, and plastic chairs lined up to hear motivational speakers. Here, inmates are called “customers.”
The program in Montgomery County has been successful enough, officials say, to merit a broader rollout. The Department of Labor said Thursday it was supplying $10 million in grants to set up similar programs in 20 other communities throughout the country.
“The most vulnerable time somebody has coming out is the first month or two, because now they have an absence of structure,” Department of Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said in an interview. “If you start people toward work behind the fence, you are preparing them with skills to succeed when they get out.”
Nationally people with criminal records are anywhere between 25 to 50 percent less likely to get call-backs after job applications, according to research from Devah Pager, a professor of sociology at Harvard University. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated in 2010 that reduced job prospects among ex-convicts reduced the overall unemployment rate by 0.8 or 0.9 percent.
Perhaps the hardest skill to hone, those in Montgomery say, is the interview itself. So inmates do mock interviews and then watch videos of those interviews, scanning for ways to improve. They also write letters, intended for prospective employers, in which they take responsibility for their crimes, talk about what they learned from it, and describe their new goals.
Colon hasn’t yet written his letter, but he’s already practiced describing the previous decades of his life, emphasizing more than his record: He is a foster kid who spent years acting crazy and now wants to settle down, he said. If he violates his parole after his release, he’ll be back behind bars for 15 years. “I’m going to struggle, beg, scrap, whatever, to not do that," Colon said.
He has held jobs; four are listed on his still-in-progress resume. He knows how to buff floors, work with marble and design kitchens; two of his kitchen designs were featured in a home improvement magazine. While locked up at at the Montgomery facility, right along I-270, he’s never gotten in trouble. He’s working on his GED.
To get previous jobs, Colon said he told employers that he didn’t have a criminal record — or that it only consisted of a minor traffic ticket. But they often found out anyway. At least one fired him for lying, he said.
“Now I’m trying to find out if I can get a job doing it the right way,” he said.
So why, Colon was asked recently, would this time be different? How would he be able to stay out of trouble after getting released?
“That’s a question I can’t totally answer for myself,” he said after thinking for a moment. “I’m in here — it was my fault. It was my ex-girlfriend. I beat her up. I’d been drinking.”
Donna Rojas, one of the job coaches who works at the center, interrupted.
“It’s one thing to say you’re going to change and another thing to have a plan,” she said.
She turned to Colon.
“By the time you get out of here you’ll know what to say. As you’ve been here, you’ve learned," she said.
She tried to demonstrate for him how a strong answer should sound:
“I couldn’t speak outwardly about what I’d done; now I can. I was not one who was able to take responsibility. Now I can.”
“We’ll work on some drafts of the letter,” she said to Colon.
Court records indicate that Colon’s sentence stems from a second-degree assault charge.
In Montgomery County, the in-jail job center is linked to the county’s broader workforce development system, and inmates are encouraged to work with other job center branches when they’re released. Rojas said roughly 80 percent of the inmates at the jail’s job center find employment. Inmates are eligible for the training when they’re within eight months of their release date — and if they maintain good behavior. The recidivism rate among inmates who go through the job program is about 25 to 30 percent lower than the broader average, said Robert Green, director of the Montgomery County Department Of Correction and Rehabilitation.
“I tell people, about 94 percent of the people here [in jail] are going back to the streets of the community,” Green said. “So how do you want them back?”