Panelists explain inmate unemployment issues

By Natalie Kouba
Correspondent

A presentation on the issues ex-offenders encounter when reentering the workforce and how these problems could be faced was held in Loser Hall on Thursday. The Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement, the Center for Prison

Outreach and Education and the Mercer County Reentry Task Force sponsored the “Community Solutions Forum: Employment Barriers for Individuals with Records.”

Patrick Donohue, director of the Bonner Center, facilitated the discussion. He informed the audience of the agenda and encouraged them to participate in the discussion. He addressed the four steps he wanted to discuss with the panelists and audience: the problem, the current policies related to this issue, the programs aiding ex-offenders and the concrete steps they can take to alleviate some of these burdens.

Ryan Gale, Bonner scholar and senior criminology major, read from the information he prepared for the forum. “There are approximately 18 categories of jobs for which certain criminal convictions are an absolute bar,” he said. The forum discussed how this is a large barrier for many ex-offenders. Although some former inmates may have received the appropriate certifications while in prison to perform a certain job, they may not be permitted to work in that field when they are released. Perry Shaw, executive director of A Better Way, a non-profit outreach program for former gang members, explained how many programs in prisons build inmates up to fail.

Micah Khan, director of operations for The Nehemiah Group, a non-profit community development and social service corporation, said, “Forty percent (of former inmates) are released into homelessness,” noting the difficulty of finding jobs.

“Sixty to 75 percent of former inmates remain jobless up to a year after their release” Gale said. The panel also discussed hardships ex-offenders have upon their release, such as fines, driver’s license fees and child support.

Many employers believe hiring ex-offenders is a liability, when they may not realize the tax benefits they could receive, explained Vertulie Massenat, Democracy Fellow and Education Enrichment coordinator. For these reasons, Shaw stated many former inmates end up believing, “I was (they were) better off being locked up”.

Both Donohue and Herb Levine, executive director of the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness, stressed the importance of making changes by creating more opportunities for former inmates and their potential employers.