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 many other sectors see a huge segment of the American population as a promising source of much-needed workers: Americans with criminal records.
Today, there are nearly 2.2 million people behind bars in state and federal prisons and prisons, and the vast majority of them will be released at some point. There are also nearly 80 million Americans with criminal records, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Even one arrest without a conviction can create a lifetime of barriers to employment, leading to poverty, recidivism and re-arrest.
But in recent years, a growing number of companies, driven by social justice reform as well as the intense struggle to find talent, are participating in formal programs to help these people re-enter the workforce.
Next Chapter, founded by messaging technology and subsidiary Salesforce Slack aims to help people with criminal records get technical training and mentorship to build careers in the tech industry.
The Second Chance Business Coalition (SCBC), led by Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, and Craig Arnold, CEO of Eaton, was formed last year following the murder of George Floyd. Its goal is to increase the number of companies offering employment opportunities to people with criminal records and to prove that this is not only good for society, but also for the bottom line. Company partners include Best Buy, McDonald’s, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Target and Walmart.
A study published by SCBC shows that 85% of human resources managers and 81% of business leaders say that people with criminal records perform the same or better than employees without criminal records. Plus, research shows they have lower turnover and stronger loyalty to their employers, an incredibly attractive quality amid widespread quits.
Yet for many companies, the stigma attached to those who have been arrested or served jail time has prevented them from hiring or even interviewing these people. In 2016, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield saw this problem firsthand when he visited San Quentin prison. He was there to meet a group of men learning to code through a tech entrepreneurship program at the prison called The Last Mile. He quickly realized that even though they were talented coders, there was no path to full-time tech employment once they were released. He also found that the majority of prisoners were people of color and other minorities who were woefully underrepresented in the tech space. Two years later, Slack launched Next Chapter and began recruiting other tech companies to join the effort.
There are now 14 tech companies participating in Next Chapter’s Hiring Partner Network, including PayPal, Zoom, Dropbox and Asana. Formerly incarcerated men and women accepted into the program begin their journey to full-time employment with a test to assess their aptitude for the technology field. Those who pass must then complete a three-month virtual coding boot camp administered by the Hack Reactor coding education program before being matched with one of the participating companies. The first five months are considered an apprenticeship and include in-depth coaching not only on the technical aspects of the job, but also on what it takes to make the transition from prison life to the world of work.
“Many of these people have never had a white-collar job, so it’s important that they are prepared to succeed without slowing down the business,” said Deepti Rohatgi, executive director of Slack for Good. Apprentices are matched with various coaches through Next Chapter to help them navigate not only the job, but also the challenges of managing the responsibilities of life outside of prison. Managers also receive special training on how best to support these new recruits. To date, 31 formerly incarcerated individuals have been hired into full-time technical positions by companies participating in the Next Chapter program.
Breaking down the barriers to the start of the school year
The SCBC has a similar mission, but includes 42 companies from all sectors of the economy. Stan Ball, vice president and chief litigation counsel at Eaton, said the organization was launched last year after the Business Roundtable, of which Eaton CEO Craig Arnold is a member, broke up. was committed to solving the problem of the reintegration into work of former prisoners.
“Each of the companies that are on the Business Roundtable is responsible for hiring tons of Americans,” Ball said. “We realized we didn’t have to wait for policymakers in Washington to make a meaningful impact in helping people get back into the workforce. We can look at the barriers that exist between companies and understand how they’re preventing us from have access to this talent.”
Union Pacific is one of the companies participating in the Second Chance Business Coalition. Beth Whited, executive vice president of sustainability and strategy, said the railroad was attracted to the organization largely because it aligns with her company’s goal of having a hand -more diverse and inclusive workforce.
“People of color are much more likely to be incarcerated than white people as a percentage of the population and this is one way to reach them,” she said. “They really need that chance and can uplift communities when they get a job.”
Whited said Union Pacific has hired about a dozen formerly incarcerated people since late last year and another 75 people are in the process of applying. Jobs include those working in rail and engine services and maintaining the freight car fleet and locomotive fleet.
Key to the program’s success so far, she said, is partnering with local organizations that can provide comprehensive support services to people transitioning from prison to work.
“Most people coming out of prison haven’t settled down with a place to live, so we needed partners with grants to help with housing or the purchase of necessary equipment, like safety boots to steel toe that can cost up to $150 a pair,” she says. Some of the other partners Union Pacific works with also provide these new hires with mental health counseling and addictions support.
“Partners are really critical to the success of the program,” Whited said. “I don’t think we would be able to do this if we didn’t have partners like this.”
Of course, there are regulatory and legal issues that need to be resolved before a company can consider hiring a formerly incarcerated person. Since Union Pacific is a railroad and is regulated by a number of federal agencies, Whited said a recent DWI conviction would prevent the company from hiring anyone. “But once a certain amount of time has passed, we would consider them,” she adds.
Kenyatta Leal, executive director of Slack’s Next Chapter, said the biggest pushback he gets when talking with companies about hiring people with criminal records is fear.
“They wonder if these people have really changed and are they able to come into the workplace and be really productive,” says Leal, who spent 19 years in prison, including time in San Quentin. “There is no doubt that the fear is driven by the stereotype attached to incarceration.”
His hope, and that of others involved in these programs, is that the opportunity to tap into this diverse talent pool will convince more companies to step forward and get involved.
“It’s not just about giving someone a job,” Leal said. “It gives them a chance to rebuild their lives, support their families and strengthen their communities. It’s good in so many ways.”