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Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated: A First-Hand View

June 7, 2023
When given structure and treated with understanding, returning citizens are more often worth the investment of your time than doing an open call of the general population.

IndustryWeek's elite panel of regular contributors.

Manufacturers face challenges attracting and retaining good workers. People who have served time in prison, often referred to as returning citizens, face challenges finding good jobs with good companies. Returning citizens can make an excellent addition to your team.

As someone who has hired more than 200 returning citizens in my career, 80% of the time they are worth the investment of your time. Compare that to hiring people off the street (walk-ins), where there is a success rate of 60% or less.

In my 30 years of first-hand experience working returning citizens, the most successful candidates have served eight years or more. Those who have served less time may not have decided to change their previous way of life—and are typically easy to spot as they are very easily distracted and show a general disinterest in a good job or career opportunity.

Those who have served eight to 15 years have lost most of what was important to them. Family and friends stopped visiting, people stopped writing and any physical assets they had have been disposed of. Worse, they were forced into a survivalist environment with a culture and hierarchy unique to the prison system.

Many have learned a trade while incarcerated, but what is most important is they have begun learning how to learn. I have participated in several of these programs, pre-release and post-release, and a good number of them are fantastic.

The best program I found was called Second Chances (in more ways than one), where inmates are trained to care for retired thoroughbred horses. The program operates seven days a week, beginning at sunrise and working till the job is finished. Programs like these instill a positive work ethic and help the returning citizen learn to become reliable contributing members of the workforce. Like many other states, Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has a fantastic training program they call Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE). Although it is not widely known among manufacturers, the programs offered are outstanding.

There are several challenges the returning citizen must overcome, including:

  1. Little or no social skills.
  2. Living arrangements are poor, often in a group home or halfway house for the first several months.
  3. Transportation is difficult without a vehicle and driver’s license. (Their license expired while they were serving time.)
  4. There is minimal or no support from family or friends. Friends have moved on, family stopped visiting years ago and most relationships have soured. The returning citizen is starting over. It bears note that while rare, candidates rejoining their families (wife and children) are exceptional candidates. They are focused on earning a living wage and providing for their families.
  5. There is reluctance and fear from companies hiring returning citizens.
  6. People are reluctant to work alongside returning citizens.

Additionally, the company must overcome some challenges also:

  1. Returning citizens have a tendency to quickly engage in gossip. They are excited to speak with people and have a tendency to be quickly overstimulated by the interaction. Be patient. They thirst for human interaction.
  2. Patience is required. The learning part of the candidate’s brain has atrophied from limited stimulation. Training takes longer and often requires repeating.
  3. Many returning citizens must re-learn how to show and receive respect. They come from a violent environment where respect and submission are synonyms. An investment in coaching is required.
  4. Team members who have not worked with returning citizens are apprehensive. To overcome this, it is important that your team understand returning citizens are welcome as members of the workforce. If this is the first time, encourage questions and provide a comfortable environment for dialogue before adding your first Returning Citizen so they understand leadership’s position. The team must trust that the leadership will not knowingly place them at risk. Constant communication with everyone beginning the day each person is interviewed setting a clear expectation and an understanding Returning citizens are and will be a welcome part of the team.     
  5. It is very important for leadership to treat the returning citizen as if they had not served time. Bear in mind, the justice system has determined their debt has been paid; judgment is not up to us.  Avoid the temptation to categorize the candidate. Ignore who they were, focus on who they are. After 8 years of isolation from the public, returning citizens are very different people than before. Look for the man or woman who wants to earn an honest living so they can live in their own house, drive their car, and sit in their yard at the end of the day and watch the sun set.

Leaders bring out the best in others. Accept the challenge to bring out the best in these people. The investment is predominantly time, and the return on investment is seeing someone’s self-esteem and self-confidence restored in front of you. The satisfaction of seeing someone who has lost everything, restore their self-respect, and establish trust is overwhelming.

Don’t underestimate the value returning citizens place being on a team where they can be trusted. For people who have served their time in prison, where trust does not exist, an employer demonstrating a positive work culture and effective communication goes a very long way.

Carl Livesay is the general manager at Mercury Plastics in Baltimore. Carl brings more than 40 years of operational leadership and manufacturing experience as a lean practitioner. He currently serves on the BOD for the Maryland World Class Consortia and is appointed to both the District Export Council and the Governor’s Workforce Development Board. 

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