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Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

Individuals leaving the prison system face countless amounts of obstacles in the attempt to re-enter society, and securing employment is crucial to decreasing recidivism rates and is vital for the individual's success. By educating career services providers, as well as the general population of these struggles and very real issues, formerly incarcerated individuals become much more likely to thrive in society after time in prison, and hopefully are better able to make the most of their second or even third chance at a life outside of crime.


[U]nemployment rate within this group is five times larger than the overall general population.

About nine million people are released from municipal or county jails every year, and 600,000 individuals are released from state or federal prisons. Of these individuals, two-thirds are rearrested within three years of their release, and about 50% experience re-incarceration (Benecchi, 2021). On top of that, research studies have shown that the unemployment rate within this group is five times larger than the overall general population.


Approximately 60% of formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed and struggle to jump back into the workforce after their sentences are over. Many formerly incarcerated individuals who are able to secure employment struggle with job retention (Wang & Bertram, 2022). Comparing the unemployment rate of those formerly incarcerated to the low unemployment rate (3.7%) of the general population (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022), we are able to see just how drastic this difference is.


There are quite a few factors that contribute to the unemployment of formerly incarcerated individuals. One of these factors is the lack of jobs made available to the formerly incarcerated. Individuals with a felony on their record are more often than not unable to properly secure employment in education, state and federal government, medical, and security fields. On top of this, the vast majority of jobs that require a license of some sort (barber, real estate, accountant, etc.) also require a crime-free background (Story, 2018). Restrictions such as these leave only low-paying, entry-level positions as a stand-alone employment option.



Another contributor to unemployment is limited education and training that is often seen in formerly incarcerated individuals. About 80% of people in prison don't have a typical high school diploma, but about 40% of inmates obtain their GED while in prison (Romero, 2014). A minimal or inconsistent work history is also prevalent in this issue. This then leads to the demonstration of few employ-ability skills, resulting in low self-esteem and lack of motivation (Brown et al., 2013). Many people who hold a felony record find it extremely difficult to engage in job searching. This could be for many reasons, but a large portion of this is due to lacking skills and/or confidence in resume writing and interviewing.


After prison, it is common for some people to revert back to their old forms of making money that require illegal activity. Drug dealing and shop-lifting are major components of recidivism. This could be for a multitude of reasons, but a large one could be barriers placed in the path for those with a criminal record to obtaining legal work that pays a living wage.


Securing employment for formerly incarcerated individuals is crucial to their reintegration into society.

Securing employment for formerly incarcerated individuals is crucial to their reintegration into society. When an individual is employed, their self-esteem is increased, they achieve a positive sense of self-identity outside of their past, and overall they are able to work towards a more steadfast lifestyle outside of crime.


Hiring formerly incarcerated individuals is also really good for the businesses involved. It provides employers with proof of practicing non-discriminatory hiring practices, possibly qualifies employers with free bonding services, potentially qualifies employers for tax credits, expands the pool of applicants, and reduces training costs, specifically when a candidate is hired that has completed specialized job training while incarcerated (Miller, 2018). On top of employer hiring benefits, taxes are collected on the earned income of the individual, poverty rates go down, and as collateral effects of incarceration are minimized, families are strengthened (Woodcome, 2022).



As individuals make their transition back into society from their lives in prison, it is vital that they have as much support as possible. Career service professionals in private industry are able to help and provide support. By acknowledging the flaws and mistakes in the current system that are not properly serving the formerly incarcerated, career service professionals are given the opportunity to make the system better and listen in order to hear how to provide proper support. Career service professionals can educate themselves on employment law and help the formerly incarcerated learn their rights in the work place. As many states are currently rewriting laws in order to make the process of sealing or expunging criminal records easier, the ability to secure employment will hopefully get easier with time (Hernandez, 2021). Career service professionals can also help this population in assisting with the hiring process, such as reviewing documents for errors as well as working with local legal aid offices to seal or expunge records.


Support groups are also an extraordinary resource for the formerly incarcerated. Support groups are able to provide real knowledge from lived experiences of others, information about other resources for a multitude of needs, as well as realistic and helpful advice. Career service providers can educate themselves and lead clients to career support groups for the formerly incarcerated to attain work and employment search skills.


Change and Reform



A resolution to these issues calls for acknowledgement and action, not only in regards to formerly incarcerated individuals, but the overall prison system as well. Below are acknowledgements and potential resolutions for these issues, found on FICPFM.org, an organization founded by formerly incarcerated individuals, dedicated to changing the lives of people with former convictions, people within the prison system, and the overall criminal justice system as a whole:


In the pursuit of changing the criminal justice system, the first goal is to establish and implement alternatives to incarceration, aiming for a society where prisons cease to exist. Advocation for an end to mass incarceration and an expression of dedication to opposing the construction of new prisons, juvenile detention facilities, and immigration detention centers is essential. Mass incarceration does not primarily contribute to public safety but instead redirects valuable resources away from other essential social needs. The extreme cost of the Prison Industrial Complex affects society's ability to provide fundamental services such as children's education, medical care, mental health care, and support for the elderly. In light of this understanding, commitment to pursuing a new approach that ensures genuine community safety and seeks to transform troubled areas into vibrant neighborhoods is absolutely requisite. It is important to acknowledge that alternate forms of criminal justice are imminent for the functioning of society. The system that currently exists is neither just, nor is it effective in the reformation and growth of human beings with convictions.


The demand for equality and equal opportunity is emphasized by individuals seeking to address lifelong discrimination faced by people with convictions. Advocation and awareness is entirely necessary for an end to all forms of structural and permanent discrimination based on arrest or conviction records, as this discrimination is widespread and severely hinders access to better opportunities in various aspects of life.


The right to vote should not be taken from individuals, regardless of current or former imprisonment. Participation in democracy should not be limited, as a US citizen is a US citizen, no matter their history or current state of incarceration. If a citizen can run for president from prison, a citizen should be able to maintain their contribution to democracy. For the purpose of maintaining representation, the vote of an incarcerated individual should be taken into account with the community and location that said individual lived before incarceration.


Respect and dignity for the children of incarcerated individuals is an absolute necessity. Oftentimes, parents are taken into the prison system without any explanation or specific plans for care set up for for their children. Fast-track adoptions must also be eliminated, for the greater good of the child, as well as the parents whose children are being stolen from; a conviction does not call for the stealing of someone's child. Parental rights should not have to be forfeited, and incarcerated parents should also be in attendance of all court proceedings in regards to custody and care. Parents of US citizens should also not be deported, and children should not be subjected to separation from their parents as a result of deportation.


The exploitation of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals should not be utilized for economic gain. Prisons have been considered "economic development projects" in regards to the communities that they are built within. Positive economic development will only be sustainable when the billions of dollars that are contributed to the prison systems yearly are redirected towards other areas in which they are needed: job creation, educational opportunities, and stable housing for everyone, no matter their history or where they come from.


"Crimmigration," the combination of immigration systems and the criminal justice system must be stopped, as it is having detrimental results for migrants of color, ripping families and communities apart. The deportation of immigrants with minor arrests has been infiltrated by Immigration Customs and Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE, causing an increase in deportation overall. Local police are currently required to check citizenship and conviction history, and then detain immigrants with any form of conviction for deportation. Deportation should not accompany a sentence bestowed upon an individual for a crime that has already been served for.


Racism is deeply ingrained into the criminal justice system, jails, and prisons. It is crucial that a racial divide under any circumstance is completely annihilated, and that equality for all human beings is implemented into every aspect of the justice system. Racial profiling by law enforcement and courts at various stages of the criminal process must be stopped. The issue of racial profiling is linked to the growing use of "gang injunctions" and "gang databases," which disproportionately target young men of color, leading to their unjust criminalization. Once labeled as a "gang member" and entered into a statewide gang database, individuals face increased police harassment, arrests, imprisonment, and harsher sentencing. Within prison, being labeled as a gang member often results in false gang validations, harassment, and coercion to become an informant, with severe consequences for those who resist.


When sentenced to prison, people become captive to conditions determined by guards and administrators. One concerning issue is the criminal monopoly in prison telephone systems, charging excessive fees and benefiting prison guards. High phone charges, commissary markups, and restrictions on packages must all be addressed and evaluated in order for improvement. Medical co-pays that hinder prisoners' access to necessary healthcare must be rejected. The use of prison labor since 1865 is seen as an extension of slavery, and fair compensation and protections for those working in prison is vital.


In the prison system, individuals of all genders, including men, women, LGBTQ, and gender non-conforming individuals, as well as children, are vulnerable to sexual exploitation by both guards and other prisoners. Additionally, the dehumanizing and oppressive practice of male guards conducting pat searches on female prisoners worsens the trauma they have already experienced before incarceration. It is important that cross-gender pat searches are eliminated. In addition, transgender prisoners face specific vulnerabilities and should be placed in prisons and housing that align with their own gender identification and choice.


Maintaining connections with families is vital for surviving prison and reintegrating into communities as whole individuals. The opportunity to visit, which helps nurture family bonds, friendships, and genuine community relationships, is crucial to surviving prison. Out-of-state transfers that disregard family connections are inhumane. Restricting contact visits should not be used as punishment; contact is essential for maintaining strong relationships with loved ones and community. Human touch, kindness, and love are fundamental human rights. Successful re-entry, reduced recidivism, and survival after prison heavily rely on positive relationships with families and communities.


Trying young people as adults and sending them to adult prisons is life-altering and trauma-inducing. Long-term segregation and sensory deprivation are torture. All U.S. government prisons should adhere to international standards against torture. Enhanced sentencing structures like California's Three Strikes law should be abolished, as they lead to excessive punishments beyond the crime. Guards who abuse prisoners are criminals themselves, and such abuse is systemic, not isolated, as these instances are shockingly common. The criminal justice system wrongfully convicts a high number of people, often forcing them into false plea agreements due to inadequate legal representation. DNA exonerations represent only a fraction of the innocent people in prison. It takes years or even decades to overturn cases, revealing the system's inability to review itself adequately. The death penalty needs to be obliterated completely, as it constitutes the ultimate violation of human rights.


In the current state of our nation's incarceration system, the harsh reality is the imprisonment of a million children, with half held in for-profit penal institutions.

Government should prioritize cost-saving through reduced mass incarceration while maintaining legal and moral standards for those in custody. Medical treatment for prisoners must meet community care levels, with no charges for accessing healthcare. All prisoners deserve adequate and nutritious food, including medical and religious diets, as well as access to natural light, fresh air, and outdoor exercise for better health. Licensed professionals should provide medical treatment for various conditions, including gender-specific care, without discrimination, punishment, or violence. Pregnant women prisoners should not be shackled, and prisoners over 55 should have retirement from forced labor and be considered for early release. Eligibility for medical parole and compassionate release should expand. All prisoners, including transgender individuals, must receive ongoing necessary medications. Withholding medications as punishment or pressure should be prohibited.


In the current state of our nation's incarceration system, the harsh reality is the imprisonment of a million children, with half held in for-profit penal institutions. This approach to human and community development is inhumane and damages the lives of young individuals, especially for minor offenses. It perpetuates intergenerational poverty and dysfunction.


In the past fifty years, liberation struggles and resistance to repression, both domestically and internationally, have caused significant turmoil. People and groups, driven by opposition to oppression, engaged in actions that were deemed criminal by U.S. courts. Similarly, our nation's birth was a result of resistance to oppression. Some political prisoners have been incarcerated for over three decades due to their acts of resistance, and their release is absolutely necessary. Others inside prisons have taken actions to assert their humanity and resist oppression, leading to new "criminal" cases and sentences. The rights to peacefully organize, free speech, and self-determination are universally recognized human rights. Certain religious beliefs and spiritual practices face discrimination and bans, and there is a dire need for religious freedom within prisons. Religious faith should not be used as evidence of criminal activity or as a basis for additional punishment in prisons.


Concluding Statements

Any life lived is a short one, and humans are absolutely prone to making mistakes, some far worse than others. While the impact that crime has on society is not to be taken lightly or overlooked, it is imminent that we as a nation acknowledge the failure that is our justice system. Recidivism rates and reoccurring crime are a direct result of the humanity, compassion, and empathy that the criminal justice system and society as a whole lacks. Every human being has had a lifetime of experiences that have gotten them where they are, and no one's story is the same. Getting to the root of the problem and assessing the situation with care, authenticity, and intent is crucial to healing, growing, and overall being better, no matter what the subject may be; a person's life, institutional systems, and even our nation as a whole can only be improved with acknowledgement, love and compassion.


To find resources and ways to help, visit FICPFM.org for more information.



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