RI Ex-convicts Find Job Search Difficult

August 26, 2010 - 11:33am

She’d gone to Gillette Stadium with three friends, four among hundreds looking for jobs at the Patriots’ home turf. When Freeman’s turn came, the woman at the employment table was more and more encouraging as she went through Freeman’s application.

“It’s ‘Yes, yes, yes, then, oh… wait,’ ” Freeman recalled when the reviewer hit the page where she’d noted her drug conviction. “ ‘What does this say? You have a felony?’ ”

The woman was very nice, Freeman said, almost encouraging, but in the end, “she said, ‘I’d love to, but I can’t.’ ”

If people with MBAs think it’s hard getting a job these days, try it with a drug conviction on your resumé, Freeman says.

Getting businesses to hire ex-cons wasn’t an easy sell in a good economy, probation officials and social service agencies say. And with some 69,000 Rhode Islanders unemployed, it’s gotten harder.

“It’s become almost impossible to get a good paying or minimum-wage job,” said Teresa Foley, transitional services coordinator for the Department of Corrections.

Foley said finding work for the 4,000 or so inmates who are released from the ACI each year is vital. Because they weren’t employed in prison, she said, they can’t get unemployment benefits. Without a job, the only financial support available is food stamps.

If they’re estranged from family, they may not have a place to sleep, she said, which will send them to homeless shelters, the streets, and the life they lived before they went to prison. And a good chance they’ll wind up back there.

The state offers training programs for inmates in the Adult Correctional Institutions and courses on how to look for a job when they get out. Richard J. Delfino Jr., head of the probation department, said ex-convicts especially need job-interview training, because not only must they try to sell their skills, they have to convince a potential employer to take a chance.

Delfino said networking is crucial. The probation department has a list, organized by town, of employers such as grocery stores, car repair shops, trash haulers and landscapers, who have hired ex-convicts in the past. Besides that, he said individual probation officers will try to establish personal relationships with employers.

“An employer who knows you will take a chance more than one who doesn’t,” Delfino said.

As a group, ex-inmates weren’t doing that well in the economy before they were incarcerated. According to an analysis of the 2009 ACI population, only 53 percent were employed before they were imprisoned. Half didn’t finish their junior year of high school. And they often can’t afford cars, which limits their job searches to places that are accessible by public transportation.

On the other hand, said Jesse C. Capece, an employment specialist at OpenDoors, a nonprofit social service agency that helps ex-convicts reenter society, many genuinely want work, any work. Unlike the laid-off MBA who may think flipping burgers is beneath him, Capece said ex-inmates, because they have such a hard time finding a job, appreciate it more.

“My guys, they know what it’s like to go to 100 interviews and get rejected because of a stereotype,” Capece said.

Freeman said she has been looking for work for two years. From time to time she’s found temporary work, but nothing long-term. She has a place for her and her daughter to live because her landlord has her do maintenance work on her buildings in lieu of full rent.

Daniel McElroy has his own drug conviction. He admitted some bitterness in the irony he sees in a society that insists ex-convicts be productive members of society, but which won’t give them the jobs they need to be productive. When he was in the ACI, he said he was on work details in state office buildings without supervision, but outside prison, he isn’t trusted.

“You attain a certain amount of trust, being trusted to be on your own,” he said. “Then all they want to do is turn that in on you. Now, you’re not to be trusted.”

Personal networking has paid off for Capece’s program. He went to college and played in a band with Brent Mancuso, whose father, Michael, later founded Office Recycling Solutions, an East Greenwich company that collects unwanted office equipment like computers or air conditioners and delivers them to recyclers.

In the past two years Office Recycling has hired seven ex-ACI inmates for its warehouse operations. One, Eric Palmer, has been promoted to warehouse manager.

“They’re not hardened felons,” Michael Mancuso said. “They’re kids that got caught.”

Though it was a nice extra that hiring Capece’s referrals served a social good, Mancuso said his basic need was for men who were willing to work, and Capece got them for him.

“There are ways to give back,” he said, “but we’re trying to make money. We’re not a nonprofit here.”

For ex-convicts, it can be work just getting to work. Walter Studevent, who was incarcerated on a drug conviction, lives in Providence. He said he gets up at 5 a.m. to catch the 6:30 a.m. bus to Kennedy Plaza, where he gets another bus to East Greenwich to arrive at work by 7:30 a.m.

Palmer, 32, did his time for drug possession. It was two years before he landed the job at Office Recycling. The work is physically hard, lifting old cathode-ray tubes and stacking them on pallets, wrapping them in shrink-wrap and then strapping them down securely so they don’t shift and tip over during shipment.

“It means a lot to me,” Palmer said. “But it means more to the people coming behind me. I know the kinds of pressures they have. I want to be the one to improve their families’ chances.”

Capece and Delfino said combating that sense of frustration and rejection, and instilling a sense that the job is worth more than the money it pays, are things they work on most.

Delfino recalled a graduation ceremony for one of probation department job search programs.

“One guy at our graduation said ‘I’ve got to knock on 100 employers’ doors, and if every door closes, all I need is for one door to open’, ” Delfino said. “That is the kind of perspective we try to instill in them, that at some point a door will open.”

jhill@projo.com

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