Don’t ‘Punish Them More.’ Effort Grows to Ease Job Barriers After Prison Release

From The Marshall Report:

Promise Stewart and Santonio Ford met 18 years ago, on a prison bus headed to a halfway house in Cleveland. They noticed each other’s edge-ups and began a conversation that changed their lives.

Stewart, now 58, had just served two years at the Mansfield Correctional Institution on drug charges. Before he was incarcerated, he operated a barbershop in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

Ford, now 48, was finishing a three-year sentence at the Richland Correctional Institution, less than a mile away, on a felonious assault charge. He wanted to become a barber as well, and was several credits shy of completing a state certification program at the prison before his release.

During the 90-minute drive to the Harbor Light Complex transitional facility, Stewart and Ford talked about using the barber skills they learned in their teens as a way to support themselves and stay out of trouble for good.

They shared ideas. They shared techniques. A brotherhood formed.

And they were able to beat the odds and land state-issued barber licenses, despite the many legal obstacles because of their convictions.

Ford and Stewart are just two of the nearly 2,000 people who return to Cuyahoga County each year from Ohio prisons and local jails, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. When formerly incarcerated people try to reintegrate into society, more than 1,600 laws and regulations often shut them out from employment, housing and educational opportunities.

Some of those limitations may soon change in Ohio and beyond. A bipartisan bill moving through the state Legislature would expand access to public housing and some rental properties for people who have been released. Also this year, President Joe Biden designated April as “Second Chance Month” to recognize formerly incarcerated people and reentry programs. The Biden Administration directed the federal Small Business Administration to offer more business start-up loans to applicants with criminal records.

“When you put somebody in jail, you’re punishing them right then and there,” Stewart said. “So, when they do their time, you should not punish them more when they are supposed to be free.”

An obscure two-word term is one of the greatest obstacles a person with a record will face.

“Collateral consequences” are laws or policies that prevent people with criminal records from obtaining employment, certifications, education and more. The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Convictionlisted over 1,600 consequences that bar such access due to a previous conviction stemming from 1,250 violations in Ohio on its database.

For instance, a person with a sexual offense on their record would be barred from working at a nursing home or hospital. And a person with any felony would also be ineligible to be a driving instructor or to apply for a license to operate an amusement ride.

Every year, people who have been incarcerated lose more than $55 billion in potential income, according to a 2020 report by The Brennan Center for Justice. The report states that 1 in 5 Americans have a criminal record, and that people who are imprisoned early in their lives earn about half as much annually as people who do not have criminal records.

Steve Lopez, an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, said that most jobs available for the formerly incarcerated don’t pay a living wage that would support a family — or even the ability to afford reliable transportation if the job was not close to their home. What’s more, a 2022 study Lopez co-authored found that steady employment can keep people from returning to prison.

“I see employment as a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition,” Lopez said. “Employment by itself is not a panacea for helping someone change their life … they have to figure out why they want to change their life.”

Entrepreneurship might appear to be an easier path, but even that is riddled with obstacles, said Ronald Crosby, an organizer with Building Freedom Ohio, an organization that works to restore rights for formerly incarcerated people.

“Being a barber is an honorable profession, but if you have a felony, it’s hard to get loans from banks or leases from landlords. A lot of people end up having to put the business in someone else’s name,” Crosby said. “Ownership and entrepreneurship move the needle. … You don’t have to stress and strain about how you can provide for your family.”

Stewart and Ford earned their certifications at different times and worked multiple side jobs — some lasted just a few days — to earn enough money to pay for barbering college. They had to find jobs that didn’t conflict with their post-release requirements and that also allowed them to complete the apprentice hours needed to earn their certifications.

“You have to fully commit,” Ford said. “I had to get a third-shift job so I could go to school from 9 to 5.”

Stewart said he wanted the barbering license because it was important for him to be his own boss. Barbering is a reliable way to earn income and is a service people will always need, Stewart said.

“With barbering, that is a good occupation because ain’t gonna be no computers or robots that can do that,” Stewart said.

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