Dire US labor shortage provides opportunity for ex-prisoners

Jul 9, 2022, 4:43 PM | Updated: Jul 10, 2022, 4:46 am
Incarcerated at 15, Jackson, Miss., resident Antonio McGowan, Wednesday, June 29, 2022, says he had...

Incarcerated at 15, Jackson, Miss., resident Antonio McGowan, Wednesday, June 29, 2022, says he had limited prospects coming out of prison after being released in 2014. However, McGowan later enrolled in the Hinds County Reentry Program, which provides workforce training for formerly incarcerated people, which led to a work-based learning program at Hinds Community College, which placed him in a job that is giving him maintenance training in heating and air conditioning, while employed. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — When Antonio McGowan left the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman after serving 17 years, he was free for the first time since he was 15. But as an adult finally out from behind bars, he immediately found himself confined to menial labor.

McGowan needed stable work, for a paycheck and to keep busy, but temporary gigs were all he could find. Just as those around him counseled the importance of maintaining a routine, he became trapped in a cycle of odd jobs and irregular hours. He trimmed grass one week and painted a house the next. But he couldn’t land anything full time, and the unpredictability of his income proved challenging. Disconnection notices and unpaid bills piled up.

“Things weren’t in place,” McGowan said. “They weren’t where I wanted them to be as far as being an individual back in society. It was a struggle.”

After several years adrift, McGowan was finally able to regain his footing with the help of the Hinds County Reentry Program, a workforce training program for former inmates created in October. Reentry programs are one way employers are trying to fill some of the 11.3 million open jobs in the U.S. amid a dire national labor shortage. The practice of employing people with a criminal record is known as “second-chance hiring.”

In rosier economic times, many former prisoners faced steep obstacles to finding work. The labor shortage sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic now presents them with opportunities, said Eric Beamon, a recruiter for MagCor, a company that provides job training to people in Mississippi correctional facilities.

“We think the pandemic, in a sense, was a big help,” Beamon said. “If no one wants to work anymore or if everyone wants to work from home, employers are begging for employees.”

Some studies have shown that stable jobs are a major factor in reducing recidivism. Still, not everyone is willing to hire an ex-convict, and a lack of job opportunities for those with a criminal record is still stymieing workforce participation in the economy, Stephanie Ferguson, a senior manager of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a May report.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, barriers faced by people with felony convictions were linked to a loss of at least 1.7 million employees from the workforce and a cost of at least $78 billion to the economy in 2014, the year that McGowan left prison.

The current desperate straits in which employers now find themselves could help spur a change. In a 2021 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM; the SHRM Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute, 53% of human resource professionals said they would be willing to hire people with criminal records — up from just 37% in 2018.

That’s where programs like Hinds County Reentry and MagCor step in, helping to make former inmates more desirable as candidates by properly training them to reintegrate into society and matching them with jobs tailored to their skills and interests.

McGowan said he’d like to work in air conditioning and heating repair, and the program’s staff members recommended him to Upchurch Services, a Mississippi-based company that allows workers to take classes in repair services while gaining experience in the field. McGowan was hired the second week of May.

He makes $15 per hour, working 40 hours per week with paid overtime. He said he has full health care coverage — and he loves the work.

“Summer, winter, spring or fall, you’ll need either heat or air conditioning,” he said. “So I found something I can help people out with. At the same time, it can keep me in the working class, so I don’t fall back into the things I used to do.”

Beamon, one of numerous recruiters staffing booths at a job fair for ex-prisoners in Jackson recently — other companies represented included Waffle House, Amazon and Columbus, Mississippi-based Lyle Machinery — said he has seen an influx of new jobs and wages that are rising precipitously, some to as much as $20 per hour. Mississippi has not enacted a state minimum wage, and the federal standard is still $7.25.

In addition to skills training, the workforce reentry programs can provide parolees with mentors who have firsthand knowledge about the travails of life after incarceration. For Savannah Hayden, who was released from prison in November after serving time for five felony convictions, that person was Cynetra Freeman. Freeman is the founder of the Mississippi Center for Reentry, an organization offering work readiness programs to inmates preparing to leave prison.

Freeman remembers taking a bus to an employment agency the day after she was released from prison. She said the agency told her she would never get a job because of her record.

“This crushed me and made me think about others who felt the same devastation,” Freeman said. “Employment is one of the toughest aspects for a person who is just returning home.”

Hayden thought she might string together temporary jobs to make ends meet. But Freeman encouraged her to think long term, specifically about a job in which she could use her experience as a formerly incarcerated person to help others reentering society. Hayden now works for Freeman as the mental health and drug addiction coordinator at the Center for Reentry.

“After so many doors are slammed in your face, you get tired of asking,” Hayden said. “But there will be a person who says ‘yes,’ and that will change your life.”

Hayden was adopted and spent years in the state’s foster system.

“It didn’t dawn on me that I might be able to help people who grew up in the same position,” she said. “I think I found my niche.”

McGowan, who had been convicted of violent crimes, said his work is more than just a job.

“It’s the look on someone’s face,” he said. “When you fix something of theirs that’s been broken, they just smile. I spent so many years hurting people. So I know the look people have when they feel hurt. To see the reverse of that, it’s enough to make me happy.”

___

Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

A supporter of presidential candidate Raila Odinga holds a placard referring to electoral commissio...
Associated Press

Kenya calm a day after chaotic presidential declaration

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenya is calm on Tuesday, a day after the declaration of Deputy President William Ruto as the winner of the narrow presidential election over longtime opposition figure Raila Odinga — a vote closely watched in the East African country that has been crucial to regional stability. There were protests by Odinga […]
1 day ago
A currency trader walks by screens showing the Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI), right, an...
Associated Press

Asian shares mostly higher, echoing Wall Street rebound

TOKYO (AP) — Asian shares mostly rose Tuesday after a rebound on Wall Street, despite regional investor risks reflected in negative economic data out of China. The benchmark in Tokyo was little changed, erasing earlier gains, but indexes in South Korea and Australia gained. Hong Kong’s benchmark slipped, while Shanghai shares rose. Falling oil prices […]
1 day ago
FILE - In this photo released by the Taiwan Legislative Yuan, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left...
Associated Press

China sets sanctions on Taiwan figures to punish US, island

BEIJING (AP) — China imposed visa bans and other sanctions Tuesday on Taiwanese political figures as it raises pressure on the self-governing island and the U.S. in response to successive congressional visits. The sanctions come a day after China set more military exercises in the seas and skies surrounding Taiwan in response to what it […]
1 day ago
A man looks out from an apartment destroyed after Russian shelling in Nikopol, Ukraine, Monday, Aug...
Associated Press

2 injured in fire at ammunition storage site on Crimea

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A fire at an ammunition storage site on Crimea left two people injured on Tuesday, local officials said, coming a week after a series of explosions at an air base on the peninsula that was annexed from Ukraine by Russia. The blaze and blasts rattled the village of Mayskoye in the […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Germany flying 6 fighters 8K miles in 24 hours to Singapore

BANGKOK (AP) — A group of German air force fighter jets neared Singapore on Tuesday in a marathon bid to fly them some 12,800 kilometers (8,000 miles) from their home base to Southeast Asia in just 24 hours. The exercise comes at a time of heightened tensions between China and the U.S. and its allies […]
1 day ago
FILE — Giorgia Meloni holds an Italian flag as she addresses a rally in Rome, Saturday, Oct. 19, ...
Associated Press

Far-right Italian leader Meloni rides popular wave in polls

ROME (AP) — With a message that blends Christianity, motherhood and patriotism, Giorgia Meloni is riding a wave of popularity that next month could see her become Italy’s first female prime minister and its first far-right leader since World War II. Even though her Brothers of Italy party has neo-fascist roots, Meloni has sought to […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
...

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!
...

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
...

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]
...

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]
Dire US labor shortage provides opportunity for ex-prisoners