In Search of the Felon-Friendly Workplace

By: Mark Obbie

ST. LOUIS — Rick Plowman’s business, installing suspended ceilings in offices, schools and hotels, could use new blood. But hiring is tough, he tells the man sitting in his office. The 20-somethings he sees haven’t had the work ethic, haven’t had the hustle.

“I have a hard time hiring people with that drive,” he says. “I go through a lot of employees that don’t have that drive.”

The man listening, Scott Anders, is a federal probation officer — and he spots the opening he came for: He pitches Mr. Plowman on the notion of hiring more ex-cons.

“What we really want is just for them to have an opportunity to interview with you,” Mr. Anders says.

Mr. Plowman isn’t sure that’s a good idea. What about his company’s truckloads of expensive construction tools, he wonders aloud. You send the new hire out with that truck, and “Your initial instinct is, ‘Is that coming back to me?’” Mr. Plowman says. “That’s unfortunate you think that. But that’s the fact.”

Mr. Anders knows this dance well. He is the architect of one of the most ambitious jobs-for-felons program in the federal courts system.

With significant gains in two crucial measurements — number of those employed and of those who stay out of trouble while under supervision — the Eastern District of Missouri’s program has served as a model for state and federal prisoner re-entry programs nationwide. Its mantra is that hiring people with criminal records can be good for business. That is a tough sell.

Mr. Anders is on the front lines of a fundamental challenge within the federal criminal system: the struggle to reintegrate former prisoners into society. When released prisoners can’t find work, it contributes to a costly, negative social and economic cycle of recidivism, crime, and ultimately perhaps a return to imprisonment, all at the expense of taxpayers and communities.

Prison-to-work programs over all are “desperately inadequate,” said Devah Pager, a Harvard sociologist. “At the moment, there’s very little systematic provision of assistance to match ex-offenders with jobs at release,” said Ms. Pager, whose research focuses on the barriers that race and criminal records pose in the workplace. The Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, in a report commissioned by Congress that was released in January, said it was “surprised and alarmed” by the system’s failures to curb recidivism with effective re-entry programs, particularly in employment.

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