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With 27 Percent Unemployment, Jobs Crisis Hits Ex-prisoners the Hardest

by Steve Horn

 A new study published by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) – the first of its kind – reports that unemployment in the U.S. has hit former prisoners the hardest.

Titled “Out of Prison & Out of Work,” the report, released in July 2018, crunched survey data to show that 27 percent of an estimated five million ex-offenders nationwide are unemployed – or around 1,350,000 people. That compares to an overall national unemployment rate of around four percent.

The Prison Policy Initiative obtained its data from the National Former Prisoner Survey, conducted in 2008 under the auspices of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. That data, not available online, is stored in a warehouse at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

To put the ex-prisoner unemployment rate in context, it is “higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression,” the PPI report explains. And it’s not a matter of being voluntarily unemployed or laziness, as critics often claim of those who lack a job.

“Our estimate of the unemployment rate establishes that formerly incarcerated people want to work, but face structural barriers to securing employment, particularly within the period immediately following release,” the study states. “This perpetual labor market punishment creates a counterproductive system of release and poverty, hurting everyone involved: employers, the taxpayers, and certainly formerly incarcerated people looking to break the cycle.”

For ex-offenders not looking for work because they have given up on finding a job, the statistics are even more alarming. “Joblessness” has been described by economists as a more accurate figure for measuring unemployment numbers than the unemployment rate, which does not include people without jobs who are not actively seeking work.

Over 51 percent of formerly-incarcerated Hispanic and African-American women fit within the jobless category, while over 40 percent of male African-Americans and more than 33 percent of male Hispanic ex-prisoners are jobless. Further, over 38 percent of formerly-incarcerated white women and 27 percent of white males are classified as jobless.

Compared to the general population of U.S. citizens who have never served time, the unemployment rate for ex-prisoners is over five times higher. And there is another startling discrepancy: the data indicates that ex-prisoners are actually more active in seeking jobs than those who have never been behind bars, according to the PPI report.

“Among 25-44 year old formerly incarcerated people, 93.3% are either employed or actively looking for work, compared to 83.8% among their general population peers of similar ages,” the report notes. “Though unemployment among formerly incarcerated people is five times higher than among the general public, these results show that formerly incarcerated people want to work.”

“These high unemployment rates reflect public will, policy, and practice – not differences in aspirations,” PPI study co-author Lucius Couloute explained in a press release.

While having a job and thus regular income helps to reduce recidivism rates, the opposite – not being employed – often means a whole world of trouble for ex-prisoners trying to rebuild their lives.

“The transition from prison back to the community is fraught with challenges; the search for employment is one of many tasks that can derail successful reentry,” the report states. “In the period immediately following release, formerly incarcerated people are likely to struggle to find housing and attain addiction and mental health support. They also face disproportionately high rates of death due to drug overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide, and suicide within this crucial period.”

Additionally, not all jobs are equal. The PPI report explains that ex-offenders frequently work in the most unstable, lowest-paying jobs, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and, all too often, re-incarceration. It’s a bleak picture that can have tragic outcomes.

But the study closes with suggestions to ensure that a bad situation doesn’t get worse. The policy changes recommended by PPI include giving a universal basic income to former prisoners to help them get back on their feet following their release, expunging criminal records to stop discriminatory hiring practices and offering tax incentives to companies that hire ex-offenders, among other reforms. The Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, also recommends that prior incarceration status be added to the list of protected classes for non-discrimination purposes, along with race, age, disability, religion, gender and ethnicity.

Couloute said the report was the first in a series of three studies that the Prison Policy Initiative plans to release that focus “on the struggles of formerly incarcerated people to access jobs, housing, and education.”

Sources: “Out of Prison & Out of Work: Unemployment Among Formerly Incarcerated People,” Prison Policy Initiative (July 2018);;;;


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