Anyone who clings to the belief that serving time in prison constitutes “paying one’s debt to society” has obviously never done time or tried to get a job after being released. Even if your crime was non-violent and non-invasive (e.g., drug possession) and your time in prison relatively short, when you get out and apply for a job, you quickly learn (if you didn’t already suspect) that you carry an ineradicable stigma.
There are simply too many people out of work, too many people without prison records, for an employer to take a chance on ex-cons. In short, people with prison records soon realize their so-called “debt to society” will very likely never be paid. And even when their past record doesn’t stand in the way of being hired (when they encounter a soft-hearted employer), they often lack the skills necessary for the job.
Which is why it was encouraging to read about Beverly Parenti and Chris Redlitz, successful technology entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, who established a six-month training program at San Quentin State Prison designed to prepare inmates for careers in the technology industry. Using their business connections, Parenti and Redlitz have gotten local experts to serve as volunteer instructors.
Parenti said, “We believe that when incarcerated people are released into the world, they need the tools to function in today’s high-tech, wired world.” She couldn’t be more right. Granted, the San Quentin program is open only to qualified individuals, and so far only a handful of “graduates” have landed jobs, but it’s clearly a step in the right direction.
While most people agree, in principle, that ex-convicts shouldn’t be released into the job market with no discernible skills, there’s always been opposition to prison job-training programs, and that opposition has always been about money. Opponents argue that if the state wants to spend taxpayer money on job-training programs, they should do it for needy citizens who’ve lived honest lives and never had to be locked up, and not for criminals who don’t deserve it.
The company I used to work for, Kimberly-Clark, was fairly enlightened when it came to ex-cons. Their willingness to take a chance on hiring them was commendable. Due to management turnover and privacy issues, it was hard to say with certainty how many of these guys were hired, but the figure I most often heard on the floor was nine. By the time I got there, only two were remained, and before I left, they hired one more.
As president of the union, I knew the first two very well. The older man was always in minor trouble and, therefore, always in need of union help, and the other fellow was, God help us, the elected shop steward of his department. Because he saw the union as a “power position,” he was instantly drawn to it. Union fraternalism aside, I can’t tell you what a royal pain in the ass he turned out to be.
If I were to characterize these men’s shortcomings, I would say they lacked discipline, sought immediate gratification, and were always looking for “angles.” I would also say they had a profound sense of “jailhouse justice,” which meant that they rejoiced in all forms of payback and revenge. Both were mediocre employees. In other words, exactly the traits one might expect in ex-convicts.
To be fair, K-C was no easy place to work. While the union wages and benefits were excellent, the jobs were demanding—not physically demanding, but unremittingly stressful. It was a 24-hour operation, shifts were erratic, forced overtime was extravagant, and peer pressure was extreme. So it wasn’t just the ex-convicts who found it demanding. There were lots “civilians” who hired in because of the attractive wages and bennies, but couldn’t hack it and wound up quitting.
Everyone—ready or not—has to work. The reason we felt sorry for these ex-druggies (even when their behavior frustrated us) was that we saw them as products of the system. Yes, they had broken the law, and yes, they had, in today’s parlance, “made bad decisions,” but it was also clear that they had been warped and diminished by prison. There was no doubt in our minds that they came out of jail worse than they went in.
David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org