Convictions bar Wisconsinites from many jobs, making re-entry ‘a real struggle’ | #College. | #Students


Janie Ocejo is a program specialist and bilingual reentry resource specialist at JustDane in Madison, Wis. Ocejo spent two years in prison and struggled to find work after her release, despite a background in social work and knowledge of community resources and services. She was hired at JustDane specifically because of her background — her resume and criminal record — so she could put her lived experience to work helping others. Photographed April 27, 2021 at the JustDane office. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

After
graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Janie Ocejo put her social
work education and bilingual, bicultural background to work by supporting
Madison’s Hispanic folks through positions at various community organizations.

But
a series of bad decisions landed Ocejo in prison. While there, she expected to
find work once she was released. After all, she had a college education, work
experience, strong interview skills and had even previously been on hiring
teams.

However,
rebuilding her life proved to be much more difficult than she expected, and it
took months for Ocejo to land a job. She applied for anything, even positions
she was significantly overqualified for, and sought services and connections
from organizations where she had once worked.  

Because
of her criminal background, no one would hire her.

“Doors
were closed because of the stigma,” she said.

Today,
Ocejo has found a new cause, prompted by her struggle after two years in prison
to  re-establish a career and a life
outside the bars. She now works for Madison-based JustDane, which helps
individuals and families impacted by incarceration.

While
Ocejo found success, many incarcerated people are less fortunate, finding
themselves locked in a cycle of incarceration, unemployment and poverty. 

In
2018, one-fourth of the 5 million formerly incarcerated people in the United
States were unemployed — five times more than the general population, according
to the Prison Policy
Initiative
(PPI), a nonprofit that studies and offers solutions to America’s mass
incarceration problem.

This
high rate is not due to lack of trying — 93% of formerly incarcerated people
between the ages of 25 and 44 were actively looking for jobs compared to 83.8%
of the same age range in the general population, the same report found.

And
since Wisconsin and the U.S. disproportionately incarcerate people of
color  — 
with the disparity most pronounced among African Americans — the
long-lasting stigma of having a criminal record disproportionately burdens them
as well.

In
Wisconsin, roughly 6% of the population is Black but makes up about 38% of
people who are incarcerated in the jails, state prisons and federal
correctional institutions in the state, a product, many experts believe, of disproportionate
policing of Black people.

“There’s
… that social contract that says if you violate, this here is your punishment.
Once that punishment is concluded then you have the opportunity to reclaim
citizenship, your life. And that’s not the reality,” said James Morgan, a
formerly incarcerated person who works with Ocejo at JustDane.

Advocates
say more funding for pre- and post-release services and efforts to counter the
stigma attached to having a criminal record could boost the odds that people
will succeed after serving their sentences.

Reforming resources for re-entry

Wisconsin
invests far more to lock up residents than it does to help them succeed outside
of prison. The state spends $1.35 billion a year on housing to incarcerate
approximately 24,000 people but just $30 million on training and re-entry
programs for people who have been released from prison — two-thirds of which is
allocated for housing programs. That’s a huge problem, said state Rep. Shelia
Stubbs, D-Madison.

“We’re
incarcerating people much faster than we are reintegrating them back into our
community,” said Stubbs, a former probation and parole officer. “We spend way
too much money incarcerating people, and not enough money coming back out into
our communities, to help our loved ones. These are our brothers, sisters,
neighbors, friends in our community.”

Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, co-chairs the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities. She is seen at a public hearing held by the task force at the Wisconsin State Capitol on April 8, 2021. Stubbs, a former probation and parole officer, says Wisconsin spends too much money on locking up people and not enough on helping them succeed after incarceration. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

The
United States provides only the “bare minimum” when it comes to services and
training accessible to people during and after their incarceration, said Lucius Couloute, an assistant
professor at Suffolk University whose research focuses on mass incarceration
and its impacts. Improving this is crucial to helping the formerly
incarcerated rejoin society, he said.

Wisconsin’s
Department of Corrections offers a variety of programming to those who are
currently incarcerated including work-release programs, job training and
education, according to DOC spokesman John Beard. However, the COVID-19
pandemic temporarily cancelled a few of these opportunities.

Work-release
programs offer incarcerated individuals a chance at making a living wage
throughout their sentence and can help cover income taxes, child support or
restitution owed to victims, or save money for after they’re released,
according to the DOC. Prison and jail fees alone can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

But
nationally, the majority of
incarcerated individuals are stuck working jobs within their facilities — in
maintenance or food service — earning less than $1 an hour.

Only
6% of incarcerated individuals nationwide work in correctional industries,
state-owned businesses that typically produce goods sold to government
agencies. An even fewer find jobs through work release, according to a report by PPI.

Because
of her circumstances, Ocejo was ineligible for work release — and the $9 to $13
pay rate it could provide. Instead, she started out earning 26 cents an hour
working in the prison kitchen. Throughout her incarceration, Ocejo worked her
way up to the top rate of $1.60 an hour, driving a forklift for Badger State
Industries, Wisconsin’s correctional industry.

Although she would’ve preferred a higher paying job outside
the institution,  “(Badger State
Industries) gave me a chance to feel like I was doing something to help myself
and a sense of purpose with some income coming in that otherwise I would not
have received.”

Melissa
Ludin, a regional organizer for the Wisconsin ACLU’s Smart Justice Project,
said employment, housing and access to services are often in short supply for
the formerly incarcerated.

Calculated from 2010 U.S. Census data. Incarceration populations are for all types of correctional facilities, including federal and state prisons, local jails and halfway houses. Statistics for whites are for non-Hispanic whites. (Prison Policy Initiative)

“People
don’t feel the impact of what that felony does until you get released and you
realize how you are discriminated against,” Ludin said.

Criminal records often barrier

Wisconsin
law bars discrimination against a person because of a criminal record
— unless the crime is “substantially related” to the job. In addition, a
“ban-the-box measure” passed in Wisconsin in 2016 prevents government employers
from asking about criminal records on their initial application for
civil-service positions to reduce discrimination.

But
such bans do not keep employers from easy access to criminal records through
publicly available sources such as the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program
(CCAP), said Linda Ketchum, executive director of JustDane.

“CCAP
makes it really easy for people to do anonymous checks on people and make
decisions you will never be able to prove,” Ketchum said.

Carmella Glenn, Just Bakery program coordinator, and student Zachary Michael Wisniewski talk on June 5, 2018, in Madison, Wis. Just Bakery is a 12-week educational and vocational training program run by JustDane that works with people who are experiencing barriers to employment including past incarceration. Studies show people with criminal convictions face more difficulties getting jobs or qualifying for certain positions. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

Colleen
Rogers, director of human resources at Madison Kipp Corp., said the
manufacturer offers employment to currently and previously incarcerated people
— part of its social responsibility to reduce barriers to re-entry.

“Employers
need to put their biases aside, if that’s their problem, and give these folks
an opportunity … adults make mistakes,” Rogers said. “They make bad decisions
maybe when they’re younger, and why not give them opportunity to live?”

Certain jobs off-limits

Additionally,
people who have committed crimes face greater restrictions in licensing or
employment within specific industries, even if their crime
is unrelated to the job they would perform.

While Ocejo committed crimes — of fraud and forgery — she
emphasized that she “never used or misused my positions to leverage to commit a
crime.” Still, it was especially difficult for her to find positions similar to
what she had before her incarceration.

Kipp
Corp. sees hiring currently and previously incarcerated people as a win-win
situation — giving people skills and an opportunity to gain income and work
experience while helping fulfill Kipp’s needs as a busy manufacturer, Rogers
said.

Janie Ocejo is a program specialist and bilingual reentry resource specialist at JustDane in Madison, Wis. Ocejo spent two years in prison, and struggled to find work after her release, despite a background in social work and knowledge of community resources and services. She was hired at JustDane specifically because of her background — her resume and criminal record — so she could put her lived experience to work helping others. Photographed April 27, 2021 at the JustDane office. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

“They’re
our employees. We don’t care where they came from. I need your skills and we’re
going to invest in you,” she said.

People
with criminal records likely recognize that they’re in a fragile position in
the labor market and — when they are given a second chance — they work extra
hard to prove their worth, Couloute said. Research from Johns Hopkins bears this out,
finding that such employees actually perform better than people who had not
been incarcerated.

Rogers
has seen this counter narrative play out in real time as Kipp benefits from the
skillsets people acquired prior to going to prison and their motivation to
work.

“They’re
great employees. They want to work,” she said.

Ocejo ultimately landed a job at a nonprofit. Then she began
working for JustDane, which hired her because
of her background so she could put her lived experience to work as the
bilingual resource specialist and peer support program coordinator.

“There are many agencies who work with and say they support
individuals like me, but I can’t necessarily say they will actually hire us,”
Ocejo said.

Advocates: New strategies needed

Jerome
Dillard, statewide director of Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, said
Wisconsin has been slow to embrace the types of reforms that could help former
inmates succeed.

“Actually,
we are still under the tough-on-crime rhetoric, and I want to say that re-entry
is a real struggle for many returning from our state prisons in Wisconsin,” he
said.

Jerome Dillard, director for EXPO (Ex-Prisoners Organizing), speaks to a group of citizens gathered at the Capitol on March 13, 2018. Dillard says the state should spend more money helping the formerly incarcerated reintegrate into society. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

But
he is heartened that DOC Secretary Kevin A. Carr in January cut the 18 standard
release conditions in half. That change has helped drive down “crimeless
revocations”
which send people back to prison for rules violations — not new crimes — and
interrupts one’s ability to rebuild.

“I
really feel that Secretary Carr has heard us and felt the pulse of the
population and realized — and he said it publicly — that corrections can’t
continue doing business the way it is,” Dillard said.

Couloute
said policy changes — such as additional funding for education, mental health
and to treat addiction — will effectively cut incarceration.

“When
we think about mass incarceration, we often think about it as an individual
problem, as people making bad choices. But at its root, it’s people who are
given bad options,” he said.

Eventually,
things started to fall into place for Ocejo. A second chance was all she ever
wanted.

“Maybe
my story is unique,” Ocejo said. “I could’ve fallen through the cracks and
stayed there and not be the person that I really am. Because really it’s just a
series of mistakes — decisions I made that were mistakes — and to be never let
out of those mistakes, it’s horrible.”

This
story was produced as part of an investigative reporting class at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication
under the direction of Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin Watch’s managing editor. The
nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (
www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with
WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism
and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by
Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison
or any of its affiliates.



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