After prison, they need jobs. Their pasts remain a barrier

Coalition of conservatives, progressives, business leaders and activists propose removing barriers to employment for Georgians with criminal records to help solve labor squeeze
Page Dukes poses for a portrait at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Page Dukes poses for a portrait at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

They said, “Learn to code,” and Drequan Walker learned.

Walker has been trained and certified as a full-stack developer — which means he is capable of building websites — and he’d sure like a job where he gets to write that kind of software code.

Average pay for that kind of work is nearly $80,000. Even entry-level coding jobs often pay more than $50,000 a year. Instead, Walker got a job paying $17.50 an hour on the overnight shift as a laborer in a metro Atlanta warehouse for an auto company.

Millions of Georgians have tangled with the justice system, many passing through jail or prison. But even after paying the price for a conviction, they find a labor market reluctant to let them earn a decent, legal living.

An evolving alliance of conservatives, religious leaders and progressives — including Republican and Democratic lawmakers — has tried to lower some of the barriers to the formerly incarcerated, but they are sometimes stymied by inertia and fear. Bipartisan state legislation to help ease the employment path for people with criminal records stalled last legislative session, but a renewed push in Georgia is planned this coming year.

“They never said the reason they don’t want to hire me, but maybe it’s my background,” Walker said.

A background that includes spending five of his 22 years behind bars for robbery.

“I understand that I need to show that people can trust me,” he said. “It’s kind of embarrassing. I knew the kind of life I wanted to have. It’s about assuring them that I am going to be the person that they want me to be.”

For people who have been incarcerated, the unemployment rate is about 25%, or five times higher than the national average, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Georgia’s 34 state prisons hold about 47,000 people, while nearly as many are in local jails, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. Nationally, more than 600,000 people are released from prisons and jails annually, including about 17,200 in Georgia, according to Prison Policy Initiative, a 22-year-old Massachusetts think tank that researches criminal justice issues.

Within five years, more than half of those will be arrested again.

Many employers worry about a hire going wrong. But there’s also concern that customers will be nervous about a person with a criminal record serving them. So some companies that do “second-chance” hiring are reluctant to acknowledge it publicly.

But maybe the risk in hiring people who have been in prison isn’t much different than the gamble on any other new hire, said Antonio McBroom, co-owner of 14 Ben & Jerry’s ice cream outlets, including stores in Atlanta and Athens.

Hiring people who have left prison is also the right thing to do, he said. “As somebody who’s been blessed, it’s my responsibility to give back to my community.”

McBroom’s father was incarcerated for much of his son’s adolescence, but the son stayed straight and became a success.

‘Clean slate’

Economics has been pushing employers toward a more accepting stance. With unemployment low, many companies have complained that they have trouble finding workers, especially for lower-paying jobs.

Some advocates are pushing for “clean slate” initiatives that would seal many criminal records, effectively eliminating the issue during job applications.

Another hurdle is certification, which is needed for nearly one-third of lower-wage jobs in Georgia, including barber, manicurist, fire alarm installer, veterinarian technician and athletic trainer, according to a study by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Georgia law permits licensing boards to deny an applicant without explanation, according to state Sen. Brian Strickland (R–McDonough), who sponsored a bill in the recent legislative session that would have limited that authority. His bill would keep boards from rejecting a license unless the person posed a substantial safety risk.

The bill never got to a vote, but it will be presented again next year, he said.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones speaks to press in the Capitol after the legislative session in Atlanta on Sine Die, Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Backers of the measure include Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, business groups like the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Justice Project, a non-profit group that works to reduce barriers for incarcerated people re-entering the workforce.

Gluing that coalition together is a mix of idealism, generosity and purely financial incentives.

“It isn’t just a charity case — it makes good business sense,” said Wade Askew, policy manager of the Georgia Justice Project. “There’s such an upside, there’s a business case for second-chance hiring.”

It’s costly to chase down and prosecute lawbreakers and it’s very expensive to pay for incarceration. Society has an interest in keeping people with criminal records in good-paying legal employment, he said.

That’s why classes in coding are a great investment, said Julie Landers, program manager for Persevere, a national nonprofit group that works with current and formerly incarcerated people.

For incarcerated people nearing release, Persevere runs coding classes — six hours a day, five days a week — like the course Drequan Walker took. Yet many formerly incarcerated people who do work barely scrape by, Landers said.

Marie Jones, 47, who lives near Savannah, was sexually abused when she was young, had her first child at age 12 and repeatedly ran afoul of the law. After several years in prison, she was released in 2008.

“If you have experience and capability and then they find out you’ve been in prison, suddenly they are not hiring,” she said. “If you tell me I can’t work, I can’t feed myself. If I have served my time, why are you still penalizing me?”

After prison, she received a bachelor’s degree in health care management and now works for a health care practice handling patient intake and checkout.

Many employment applications include a question about whether the jobseeker has a criminal record. Some municipalities, like the city of Atlanta, have eliminated that question. The federal government — with exceptions for security positions — has done likewise, although a background check can be done later in the hiring process.

Some applicants just hope the employer doesn’t check, said Fred Green, 46.

“I began to apply for jobs and not tell them I had been in prison,” said Green. “I figured, if I could just get hired, I would make myself important enough that they wouldn’t let me go.”

Green worked two full-time jobs at restaurants after being released from prison in 1999 after being arrested on drug charges. For several years, he got just a couple hours of sleep a night, but it paid off. He married his high school sweetheart, had four kids and bought a house near Savannah.

But not being upfront about the past can backfire.

Charlotte Garnes, 48, served nearly four years in prison for Medicaid fraud. She’s now studying toward a degree and works for the Bail Project. She also helped found ReNforce in Savannah, which offers coaching for businesses that are willing to hire people formerly imprisoned.

When Garnes came out of prison in 2017, she found a job with an organization that was trying to find jobs for disadvantaged people and she worked there for nearly a year without a problem, she said. “And when they found out about my background, I was terminated.”

Page Dukes spent most of her 20′s years in prison for a serious felony. When she was released in 2017, she went to school, worked part-time jobs and looked for something full-time. When the applications were online and impersonal, her record always got in the way.

“I applied for a lot of jobs that I didn’t get,” she said. “I checked that box and then I never heard back.”

Page Dukes works at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

But she was lucky to have supportive network of friends and family that helped her land an internship and then a full-time job as a communications associate for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

But not everyone is lucky about having a helpful network, and many struggle, Dukes said.

“Education and meaningful employment are the keys that lead us to success and to building better lives, same as they are for everyone,” she said.

Nearly 600,000 working-age people have Georgia convictions on their record, according to the Georgia Criminal Information Center, an arm of the GBI. More than one in three Georgians are in the GCIC database because of some interaction with police or the justice system.

That means the issue is society-wide, Dukes said.

A change is needed in attitudes, whether the motivation is to find workers during a labor shortage or to improve the odds stacked against people coming home, she said. “Whatever it takes to get people to reframe their notions, about who we are and what we are capable of.”


By the numbers

People convicted in Georgia, no longer incarcerated

20-70 years old, non-serious felonies: 517,981

20-70 years old, serious Georgia felonies: 49,175

Number of people incarcerated, prisons and jails

United States: about 1,800,000

Georgia: about 92,000

Formerly incarcerated people, U.S.

Unemployed, a job a year after being released: 24-40%

Employed, average pay after a year: $19,610

Sources: Prison Policy Initiative, Zippia, Georgia Crime Information Center, Vera Institute of Justice

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