Out of Prison, Out of a Job, Out of Luck

Ex-convicts are 'at the back of the line' in their struggle to find work during the recession. It's a burden Gregory Headley feels all too well.

By Aaron Smith

convictIf you think it's tough getting a job during a recession, imagine what it's like for an ex-convict.

Gregory Headley, 29, knows exactly what it's like. The Harlem resident was released from prison in July after serving two years and eight months for the criminal sale of a firearm. Now that he's out, he said, the conviction is dogging his attempts to land a full-time job.

"There's no nice way of saying, 'I sold a gun,' " Headley said recently as he headed to his part-time job cleaning sidewalks.

Headley was placed in the temporary, minimum-wage job by the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit organization in Manhattan that helps ex-convicts transition into law-abiding lifestyles.

"I'm not going to lie: $40 a day hurts," said Headley, feeling the squeeze of the $28,000 in child support debt that he accumulated in prison. "But what I need to do is stay on the path I'm on, try to get used to the struggle instead of trying to beat the odds."

Terrence Mason, assistant director of participant services at the employment center, described Headley as a "good guy" and a "go-getter." But he acknowledged that many employers will look no further than his rap sheet.

"His conviction is a tough sell to employers," said Mason.

At the back of the line

For everyone right now, the job market is tough. The U.S. unemployment rate jumped to 10.2% in October, its highest level in more than 26 years, according to the Labor Department. Nationwide, 15.7 million people are out of work.

That is really bad news for the hundreds of thousands of ex-convicts who are released from prison every year.

"They're always at the back of the line, and the line just got a lot longer," said Glenn Martin, vice president of the Fortune Society in Queens, a nonprofit that trains ex-convicts in job hunting skills. "On top of that, our folks are losing jobs just like anyone else, but it's more difficult to replace those jobs, because of the stigma of criminal conviction. Our folks can't get through the door these days."

In the most recent available figures from the U.S. Department of Justice, 713,473 prisoners were released from incarceration in 2006. There are no nationwide numbers reflecting unemployment rates among ex-convicts.

But up to 60% of the formerly incarcerated in New York state are unemployed after one year of their release, according to a study from the Independent Committee on Reentry and Employment, of which Martin is a member. The number is even higher for parole violators, at 89%.

The temptations of the street can be overwhelming during a recession, said Martin, who was released from prison in 2000 after a six-year sentence for armed robbery. He said that his first post-prison job paid $16,000 a year, which paled compared to his ill-gotten gains.

"I used to make $16,000 a day when I was on the street," Martin said. "I used to rob jewelry stores for a living. Obviously, it would have been a lot easier for me to go back to the street to do what I was doing. But the idea is to move away from instant gratification."

Michael B. Jackson, an ex-convict and author of "How to Do Good After Prison: A Handbook for Successful Reentry," said the risks of recidivism during a recession cannot be overstated.

"Formerly incarcerated people and drug addicts, we don't need a lot of excuse to go back to what we were doing before," he said. "In these hard times, when ex-offenders can't get jobs ... they're going to be robbing people."

The conviction question

During a two-week job-hunting class at the Fortune Society in Queens, employment specialist Mitchell McClinton grilled 19 ex-convicts in a series of mock interviews. After coaching his students on how to present themselves, market their job skills and answer the dreaded "conviction question," he posed as an employer and put them in the hot seat.

"I noticed that you checked 'yes' on the conviction," he said to one of the ex-convicts. "Explain."

"Basically, I learned from the mistakes of my past, [that they] jeopardize my present and my future," replied the interviewee.

McClinton moved on to the next ex-convict, but she mumbled through the interview and wouldn't speak up until he threatened to skip over her. When she finally opened her mouth to speak, McClinton saw something he didn't like.

"Is that a tongue ring in your mouth?" he said. "You can't wear a tongue ring to an interview."

Many of the ex-convicts are seeking cleaning jobs, based on the skills they outlined in the interviews, and some of them are working towards their high school equivalency degrees.

Headley, during his citywide clean-up rounds, said his heart is set on college and eventually an office job at the Center for Employment Opportunities, where he could help other ex-convicts transition into the job market.

But for the short term, he said he's gratified to be a sidewalk sweeper.

"I'll take making minimum wage any day over prison or death," said Headley. "Now I can walk the streets more freely, without having to watch my back. Now, I consider myself a productive member of society. I'm not contributing to the city's downfall."

Next: How to Bounce Back After a Setback >>

Find a Job

Search by Company | Search by Industry

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

Aaron, you're a moron and a loser. Illegals do pay taxes. In fact they over pay because they never file. You are an ex con loser who never did anything with his life and now you're crying about illegals being the reason you can't find a job. I wouldn't hire an ex con.

March 14 2010 at 3:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


January 08 2010 at 12:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hi everybody,my company is hiring,I'll show you how to run it out of your home,part time ,fulltime,you make your schedule. It is sales related,but I will try my best to help you make your first few sales,even give you some if need be to help. So email me everybody is welcome to work,you're hired..My email address is wealthisgoodhealth@gmail.com

January 03 2010 at 7:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


Are you still looking to make some extra money per month?If you are I will help,contact me at wealthisgoodhealth@gmail.com


January 01 2010 at 9:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hi Ma'Lissa

Congratulations on turning your life around !!! Are you still looking to make some extra money per month?If you are I will help,contact me at wealthisgood health@gmail.com


January 01 2010 at 6:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Being an ex-con is extremely hard. But after being out almost six and a half years. I lost my last job. Been on unemployment for a full year. My former job paid 33 an hour. U nemplyment paid, 750 dollars every two weeks. Now I'm down to rock bottom. I'm 64 years old, drawing my social security which doesn't amount to much. Because I lost 22 years of my life behind bars, and those years had no pay earning jobs in them. I was fortunate enough to have a job for the past 5 years. So that I could have enough credits to draw my SS. But I need another job. I'm physically able, have good skills, and able to work. Still having a very hard time finding another job.

December 31 2009 at 1:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to James's comment

Hi James,

Are you still looking to make some extra money per month?If you are I will help,contact me at wealthisgoodhealth@gmail.com


January 01 2010 at 10:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh boy , the only job these ex cons can get is cleaning jobs. Great, as the owner of a janitorial firm the the first thing I look for is someone out of jail to work for me. I 'm sure its comforting for my customers to know that the cleaning crew is stocked with people with theft, rape or possible even worse convictions. Sorry guys I hear your plight but I can't take a chance. Your rep is the only thing you have in this business and I can't waste it on an ex con.

December 30 2009 at 11:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Judicial system creates criminals so all the lawyers prosecutors and judges will have a job

December 30 2009 at 10:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to serge's comment
Jenith Kalind

Really? Is that how you see it? Really? I mean, Really?!!!?????

April 06 2011 at 1:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Everyday i see illegals working..landscaping, painting,construction,restaurant jobs,they take thousands and thousands of jobs and no one does a thing about it....our Government turns a blind eye to it....there are millions countrywide working....nothing will be done until there is an outcry from the public

December 30 2009 at 10:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to serge's comment
Jenith Kalind

If you see a dark skin working their "you know what" off doing something that no one else would do, you don't have the rights to put a tag on them saying "Illegal Immigrants." All brown people are not illegals. I know more than 100 people myself personally who came in with diversity visa and a green card but ended up working either in construction or in gas station or as grocery store cashier where they are way underpaid for the job they do. I have seen many "God gifted" America born citizens who could have done the same jobs but would rather stay home and enjoy their Unemployment Benefits. Back in 2009 A lot of my friends were doing the same as we graduated from college and couldn't find jobs/ got laid off from our jobs. What did we do? ENJOYED UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS? WHY? COZ WE CAN!!! So, as long as there is this thing called "Unemployment Benefit" Americans will just use various excuses and sympathetically suck the money out of tax payers (who might be one of those illegals who pays tax but never gets it back!!) So, we need to watch ourselves in mirrors before calling all brown people ILLEGAL!

April 06 2011 at 1:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Eric Ericson

Share your comments with the White House.
I am sure, that they would like to hear YOUR Voice!

December 30 2009 at 7:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Search Articles

Picks From the Web