Computer code written by an inmate during a class at San Quentin State Prison.
San Francisco Chronicle/hearst Newspapers via Getty Images | Hearst Newspapers | Getty Images
Companies in technology, banking, transportation, and numerous other sectors see a large portion of the US population as a promising source of much-needed labor: Americans with criminal records.
Today nearly 2.2 million people are behind bars in state and federal prisons and in prisons, and the vast majority of them will eventually be released. There are also nearly 80 million Americans with criminal records, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. Even an arrest without a conviction can result in lifelong employment obstacles leading to poverty, repeat offenders, and re-arrests.
But in recent years, driven by social justice reform and the intense struggle for talent, a growing number of companies are participating in formal programs to help these individuals re-enter the workforce.
Next Chapter, founded by messaging technology and a Salesforce subsidiary Slack is focused on helping criminals receive technical training and mentoring to build careers in the technology sector.
The Second Chance Business Coalition (SCBC), led by JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Eaton CEO Craig Arnold, was formed last year after the murder of George Floyd. The aim is to increase the number of companies that offer employment opportunities to people with criminal records and to prove that this is not only good for society but also for the bottom line. The company’s partners include Best Buy, McDonald’s, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Target and Walmart.
Research published by SCBC shows that 85% of human resources managers and 81% of company managers report that people with criminal records perform as well as or better than employees without a criminal record. Additionally, research shows that they have lower turnover and greater loyalty to their employers, an incredibly attractive trait amid rampant layoffs.
However, for many companies, the stigma attached to those who have been arrested or served time in prison has deterred them from hiring or even interviewing these individuals. In 2016, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield saw this problem firsthand when he visited the San Quentin prison. He was there to meet a group of men learning to code as part of a tech entrepreneur program in prison called The Last Mile. He quickly realized that although they were talented programmers, there was no path leading to full-time technical employment after they were fired. He also saw that the majority of the prisoners were blacks and other minorities who were woefully underrepresented in technology. Two years later, Slack launched Next Chapter and began recruiting other tech companies to join the effort.
Today, 14 technology companies participate in Next Chapter’s network of hiring partners, including PayPal, Zoom, Dropbox and Asana. Formerly incarcerated men and women enrolled in the program begin their journey to full-time employment by taking a test to assess their aptitude for the technical field. Those who pass must then complete a three-month virtual coding bootcamp administered by the Hack Reactor coding education program before being matched with one of the participating companies. The first five months are considered training and include extensive coaching on not only the technical aspects of the job but also the transition from prison life to the workplace.
“Many of these people have never had a salaried job, so it’s important that they are set up for success without slowing down business,” said Deepti Rohatgi, executive director of Slack for Good. Trainees are paired with various coaches over the course of the next chapter to help them navigate not only the work but the challenges that come with managing the responsibilities of life outside of prison. Managers also receive specific training on how best to support these new hires. To date, 31 formerly incarcerated individuals have been hired for full-time technical positions by companies participating in the Next Chapter program.
Break down barriers to entry
The SCBC has a similar mission but includes 42 companies from all sectors of the economy. Stan Ball, Eaton’s vice president and chief litigation counsel, said the organization was formed last year after the Business Roundtable, which includes Eaton CEO Craig Arnold, pledged to address the issue of re-entry into the workforce among ex-prisoners deal with
“Each of the companies that’s part of the Business Roundtable has a responsibility for hiring tons of Americans,” Ball said to support. We can look at the barriers that exist within organizations and see how they prevent us from accessing this talent.”
Union Pacific is among the companies participating in the Second Chance Business Coalition. Beth Whited, executive vice president of sustainability and strategy, said the railroad was drawn to the organization in large part because it aligns with her company’s goal of having a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
“People of color are much more likely to be imprisoned than white people as a percentage of the population, and this is one way to reach them,” she said. “They really need this opportunity and can lift up the communities if they find employment.”
Whited said Union Pacific has hired a dozen formerly incarcerated people since late last year and another 75 people are in the application process. Occupations include rail and locomotive services, and maintenance of the freight car fleet and locomotive fleet.
Key to the program’s success to date, she said, has been working with local organizations that can provide comprehensive support services for people making the transition from prison to work.
“Most people who get out of prison haven’t settled in, so we needed partners with grants to help with housing or buying the necessary equipment, such as B. Steel-toed safety boots, which can cost as much as $150 a pair,” she said. Some of the other partners that Union Pacific works with also provide psychological counseling and substance abuse support to these new hires.
“The partners are really critical to the success of the program,” said Whited. “I don’t think we could do it if we didn’t have partners like that.”
Of course, there are regulatory and legal issues that must be addressed before a company can consider hiring a formerly incarcerated individual. Because Union Pacific is a railroad company and is regulated by a number of federal agencies, Whited said a recent DWI conviction would prevent the company from hiring anyone. “But after a period of time, we would consider it,” she adds.
Kenyatta Leal, executive director of Slack’s Next Chapter, said the biggest resistance he gets when speaking to companies about hiring people with criminal records is fear.
“They wonder if these people have really changed and if they’re going to be able to get into the workplace and actually be productive,” said Leal, who served 19 years in prison, including in San Quentin. “There is no question that fear is fueled by the stereotype associated with incarceration.”
His hope, and that of the others involved in these programs, is that the opportunity to tap into this diverse talent pipeline will convince more companies to move forward and get involved.
“It’s not just about giving someone a job,” Leal said. “It gives them the chance to rebuild their lives, support their families and strengthen their communities. It’s good in many ways.”