The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 31, 2018

Poor job opportunities are a problem both in and out of prison

August 31, 2018

Incarcerated people around the country are refusing to work or eat in protest of conditions in America’s prisons. In a list of demands, the strike’s organizers take particular issue with low wages for their work, which can include building computers, raising livestock, or even fighting wildfires.

Conditions inside prisons and jails are only part of the problem. Any involvement with the justice system—ranging from an arrest to a long prison term—can create obstacles for someone seeking stable employment.

In the following conversation, Urban Institute Research Associate Marina Duane discusses how incarceration policies, low wages, and a lack of opportunities can affect people returning to society.

What are the job training opportunities for incarcerated people?

Job training is very important for incarcerated people and those reentering society, many of whom have below-average years of education or may have dropped out of high school. This is particularly an issue in cities like Washington, DC, where 75 percent of open jobs require a bachelor’s degree, yet only 4 percent of people returning from jail have that level of education.

Incarcerated people can work a variety of jobs to gain experience, but these jobs typically support the maintenance of the prison itself. Some prisons offer education or job training programs, but they can be of limited use for several reasons.

In DC, a convicted person may serve his or her sentence in another state, sometimes as far as California. If that person earns a certificate or a professional license in an out-of-state facility, it might not be valid when that person returns to DC.

Job training programs in prisons and jails are often not attuned to the economic needs of incarcerated people’s home communities. An incarcerated person could receive training in welding only to find that no welding jobs are available in their area when they return home.

How are job opportunities limited for those reentering society?

Many employers aren’t willing to hire people with criminal records.

Some states have laws intended to discourage employers from making decisions on job applicants with incomplete criminal records. But our interviews of employers and jobseekers in Washington, DC, show that, in many cases, an arrest is all it takes to damage a jobseeker’s hopes, even if a jobseeker was not convicted.

This is particularly concerning when considering that on average only 49 percent of arrests have matching convictions across the country, with wide variation from state to state.

Some jurisdictions are making headway to address the issue of incorrect or incomplete records. For example, Pennsylvania recently passed a “clean slate” bill that seals records and restricts employers from seeing incomplete records. A similar effort exists in DC.

Why does employment matter for formerly incarcerated people?

Research shows that the sooner a formerly incarcerated person finds a job, the less likely that person will be to recidivate.

And employment isn’t the only important factor—it’s also wages. An Urban Institute study found that individuals who made more than $10 an hour were half as likely to return to prison as those making less than $7 an hour.

And beyond employment, as noted in the demands of the prison strike organizers, people reentering society also need rehabilitation programs for issues related to substance abuse, family life, and the stress of reentering society. These programs can help formerly incarcerated people succeed at their jobs and in their life.

Inmate firefighters from Oak Glen Conservation Camp are transported to a work assignment under the authority of Cal Fire, which calls and treats them as firefighters rather than inmates while they are away from the minimum security prison, on September 28, 2017 near Yucaipa, California. Photo by David McNew/AFP/Getty Images.

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.