"Unscrew the locks from the doors"

Citizens returning from incarceration are still locked out from many of the jobs that give them a path to a full life. Proactive public policy is needed to make this path easier for more returning citizens, Kurt Stand shows.

/By Kurt Stand/ When I was released from prison in 2012, I had a strong network – my wife, family, friends had been supportive throughout my incarceration and doors were open when I went to see people with whom I had previously worked.  But that didn’t result in any offer to hire – 15 years is a long time to be out of the workforce; skills change, the world changes.  Apart from which, there has to be an opening.  Paid employment can be hard to come by even for people who have been in the labor market.  It took me more than two years to find a stable, steady job – and though it is a good job, it is still only part-time. 

My reality is shared by many others – including others whose family and social networks have fewer resources and so are less able to help find a pathway to work.  Yet everyone needs a job.  A job, I’ll add, that pays enough so that a person can make a life for him or herself, a job in which a person is treated with dignity and respect, a job with pathways with which to build a future.  That is critical for young people starting out in life and it is critical for people of almost any age coming home after a period of incarceration.  Yet, on one’s own, it can be daunting, if not impossible, to find.

And so public policy has to offer different and better solutions then those currently available.  That is the reason why the Metro Labor Reentry Jobs Project was launched with the aim of passing legislation mandating a fixed percentage of jobs for every new business or worksite be set aside for returning citizens.  It is a project that has the support of individuals active in labor, reentry and sentence reform organizing, active in church and community projects and has the support of organizations such as the Washington Metro Labor Council AFL-CIO and the National Network of Returning Citizens. 

As to the proposal itself it would require businesses to affirmatively hire returning citizens in DC, in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties – we seek to enact comparable legislation in all three at the same time, as was done three years ago with the minimum wage increase.  This would prevent employers from claiming that implementation of such a rule would give one area an advantage over the others.  Almost more important, legislation that covers the Maryland suburbs as well as the District would mean that workers wouldn’t have to waste time proving which side or the other of an invisible line they live.   Qualified employees would be those who had spent time in juvenile detention, jail, or prison as attested to by job applicants through judgment of commitment or release papers (in lieu of a city/state ID proving residence, which newly released former prisoners can find hard to obtain). 

Key to this is that the goal is jobs not training.  Training is well and good, and public and non-profit agencies that provide it for returning citizens who have little or no experience in the formal job market perform a valuable service.  Yet mandating training means treating returning citizens differently from other workers; new employees typically pick up their skills after they are hired.  Employers often get around job set-aside requirements based on residency by using the smoke screen of qualifications -- denying those who have already been denied opportunities the opportunity of a chance.  A hiring requirement would make that evasion more difficult for those businesses that set themselves against community needs.

Moreover training without a guarantee of a job at the end simply raises hopes in order to dash them, as do job programs that employ targeted individuals for several months at most, then let them go.  People need something real and tangible and lasting.  And by accessing job opportunities wherever openings exist, returning citizens will be part of the regular work force, not placed in a separate category – receiving the same wages, benefits, rights enjoyed by everybody else.  That is why this bill has been endorsed by the Metro Washington Labor Council – the right to a job and rights on the job are two sides of the same coin.  It is also the reason why this initiative should be seen as part of the broader effort to win a living wage and for paid sick leave.

Now we know this isn’t everything – we need to end across-the-board public employment hiring bans for people with a criminal record; we need to end the stigmatization so many face.  Moreover, there needs to be an end to the policies and practices that result in mass incarceration in the first place, an end to policies and practices that reinforce racial, gender and other structural inequities in society.  Ultimately we need legislation to end all forms of discrimination against returning citizens, legislation that will address the widespread need by for affordable housing, for quality public education, for broader health care access, for civil liberties and genuine justice; not just for some, but for everyone. 

So this is a first step not the last – and we are at the beginning of this process.   Now we have to begin to organize – to talk to our Council members and Delegates, to organize as one voice.  Homecomers and their family members can be a powerful voting bloc, a powerful political force if we work together and in solidarity with others.  The goal is full civic engagement, to join voting with a meaningful way to use the vote, to use the security of a secure job to engage in community building, to exercise social power through collective action.   If we can win this measure of social justice, then we can develop means and methods to make similar progress on all our shared needs.  As such, an affirmative action hiring program for returning citizens (for that, in essence, is the logic of the Metro Labor Jobs Reentry initiative) should not be seen as contrary to the interests of small and medium sized businesses; these will benefit by the strengthening of neighborhoods.   It should not be seen as contrary to the interests of other workers, employed or unemployed; rather it can serve as a step toward more pro-active full employment public policy.  By broadening civic engagement and civic rights by those currently dispossessed of those rights, we take a step toward reclaiming democratic rights stolen by the 1 percent.

Today we hear lots of talk from politicians and the media about crime and crime prevention, lots of talk about returning citizens being responsible for the upsurge of violence on the streets.  Such rhetoric is always dangerous – for it was just such demagogy that created the political climate which resulted in so many being locked up for so long.  Criminal justice practices such as those were aimed more at social control and undermining democratic rights than at reducing crime. 

By contrast, if nothing else, prison teaches us that there is very little difference between people inside and outside – you run into good folks everywhere, and you run into folks everywhere who have imbibed the anti-social spirit rampant in our society.  Noting that doesn’t mean saying that people aren’t responsible for their actions – we all are, always, as individuals and as a society.  Noting that, however, should remind us that no human being should be reduced in the eyes of others to a single action or set of behaviors, nobody should be viewed solely as a “felon,” a “convict,” or any other label.  Rather the humanity of each of us should be recognized, a common humanity that gives us a claim to rights – rights that should include that of secure employment.  Ultimately, it is a simple matter of justice.