The difficult road from prison to a middle-class job
A man got out of prison and took a job making $13.50 an hour. He worked well and got a two dollar raise. Things were looking up.
But then, at work, the man got into an argument with his co-worker. At first, it was a verbal exchange. The co-worker asked the man to calm down, and in doing so, he put his hand on the man’s shoulder.
The man punched him in the face. And he was fired.
Millions of young men have been to jail. A disproportionate number are Black or Latinx. When they get out, they need a job. Yet, the worlds they learned to live in – urban poverty and prison yards – did not teach them what their employers want. Interviews for middle-class jobs and workplace mundanities are slightly beyond their ken.
How do these men, socialized to look and be tough, get a middle-class job? And keep it?
Scaring the Civilians
John Halushka, social scientist, spent a year and a half, off and on, in Second Chances, a non-profit that runs a free 10-day workshop that teaches job skills to former prisoners. Halushka, a young white man and a civilian, meaning that he is not a former prisoner, observed the workshop and participated in its activities. They gave Halushka a desk to record his observations.
One workshop instructor is Walter. Walter is an African American man in his 40s, stands at 6 feet 5 inches tall, weighs 250 pounds, and had spent 15 years in jail. Walter walked up to Halushka’s desk, stopped a half foot from him, and said in an intimidating voice, “Hello my name is Walter. I’m here for the maintenance position.”
Walter turned to the class. “It’s scary [for a civilian] … You gotta groom people to like you.” Workshop after workshop, Walter tries to impart his hard earned wisdom. “Perception is truth until proven differently,” he likes to say. “You have to change the image people see … They know you have a conviction … For a civilian, that’s scary.”
For the former prisoner, a job interview is a do’s and don’ts minefield. As minesweepers, Walter and colleagues conduct mock interviews with the clients. Middle-class docility rules: they must smile and make eye contact and have a firm handshake. They mustn’t sit down without being asked, or gesticulate too much (it scares folks), or offer a handshake before the interviewer proffers. Walter tells them to practice at home in front of a mirror.
They coach prisoners how to talk. It’s “yes” not “yeah” and “no” not “nah.” Questions about when and why they went to jail are fraught with peril. Walter and co. tell them to speak with forthrightness, but with as few details as possible. Length of prison sentence is one such.
“If I had said I was sentenced to 5–18 years,” Walter said, “that leaves me open to the question of ‘Well why didn’t you get out in five years then?’”
They tell the clients to omit the words “accident” and “mistake” and embrace the language of personal responsibility.
“A mistake is when you do something that you didn’t mean to do,” Walter said. “If I said I made a mistake I’m trying to convey to an employer that I didn’t mean to do it.”
“You made a choice … You don’t mistakenly rob someone. Nobody here made a mistake … That’s you trying to justify, trying to make excuses.”
Walter goes on: “I spent most of my life in prison… I made bad choices. I made bad decisions… I had to change that.”
Men at Work
Walter tells the ex-cons that employers expect workers to be obedient and loyal. To drive that point home, Walter creates a make-believe: you see two co-workers get into a fistfight in the break room. Do you tell the boss? Some clients, not wanting to be considered a “snitch,” say no. Walter roleplays the boss. He fires the men who say no.
“I just want to know what happened,” Walter explains. “I never said anything about firing anyone. But now you’re lying to me and giving me reason to fire you. What works on the streets won’t work at work. You know the reason I fired you?”
Walter answers it himself. “Integrity,” he says. “When I hired you, you said you would be loyal to me and my company.”
The former prisoners are anxious. They have low self-esteem. They are hounded by their past and they are minority men in an unequal America. Their most recent immersive experience – prison – will intimidate the middle-class interviewer and their future work colleagues. Yet, their post-jail survival depends on how well they adapt to the middle-class civilian world.
Society creates the racial stereotype, but it’s the Black or Latino man fresh out of jail that is forced to transcend it.
“I’m not gonna tell you to change,” Walter says.
“But for 15 minutes… You gotta get someone to like you, and that’s what it comes down to.”
This was written by Josh Dubrow based on John Halushka’s “Work wisdom: Teaching former prisoners how to negotiate workplace interactions and perform a rehabilitated self,” published in Ethnography 17, no. 1 (2016): 72–91.
A man got out of prison… story told on p. 84
“Hello my name is Walter…” and “It’s scary [for a civilian] …” p. 73
Walter tells them to practice … p. 81
It’s “yes” not “yeah” … p. 82
“If I had said I was sentenced …” p. 79
“A mistake is when …” p. 80
“I just want to know what happened…” p. 84
“I’m not gonna tell you to change…” p. 81
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