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By Larry Keller
CNN.com/career Senior Writer(CNN) -- The odds are increasing that one or more of your co-workers is a felon. Even your boss may have served time. "Positions that normally wouldn't have been open or would have been a slow-track for ex-offenders have either become open or faster-track," says Errol Sull, president and founder of Correctional Education Company in Buffalo, New York, which provides training to prison inmates and corrections officers.

How would you feel about having a felon as a colleague at work?

I'd be OK about it. Work is the best thing to get somebody back on track.
It would depend on the person and job. I'd have to see a lot of initiative and dependability.
Couldn't hack it. I'd just never be comfortable knowing a co-worker had been convicted of a serious crime.

"You're finding them in positions that pay much more money than in the past, and in positions of much more responsibility." A tight labor market and a record number of inmates being released from prisons have a lot to do with this. In Memphis, Tennessee, Mayor Willie W. Herenton is making an effort to find felons jobs for another reason. "They have to feed families and if they don't have jobs, they're going to end up back in the system," says the mayor's executive assistant, Gale Jones Carson. "There are a lot of people who have made mistakes in their lives, and it's very difficult for them to get employment." A second chance

A felony is generally classified as a serious crime. Under federal and state law, a felony is punishable by a fine, a year or more in jail or prison, or even by death. Less serious crimes are usually referred to as misdemeanors. Herenton's Second Chance program offers Memphis residents with one felony conviction a chance to work in municipal government jobs. The city also has formed a partnership with industry in the area to screen potential new employees for private concerns, too. For three days earlier this month, the city handed out job applications to people with felony records. More than 1,000 takers showed up. The program is scheduled to be repeated weekly on Wednesdays, starting February 7, Carson says. "Basic jobs, to use an old expression, are not your grandfather's jobs any more. When you get on the outside, it's also becoming more and more of a requirement that someone know how to work a computer doing research on the Internet."

Before they're offered city jobs, felons are required to meet personally with the mayor. "I feel pretty good that we'll have some great success stories to tell," Carson says. "There are still a huge number of employers who see every ex-inmate as another Jeffrey Dahmer, another John Wayne Gacy, another Susan Smith," he says. That, Sull says, is felonious bunk. Some inmates are too dangerous to be released from prison, he says, but most "just want to slide back into society." Carson adds, "You pay your debt to society, but when you come out, people want you to pay for the rest of your life."

Almost all inmates, as a condition of release from prison, must obtain a full-time job within a specific period of time, Sull says. It's a large labor pool. Nearly 4.5 million men and women were on probation or parole at the end of 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Someone on probation has been placed in community supervision rather than being incarcerated. Slightly more than half of them have committed felonies. A person on parole is released to community supervision by a parole board decision or by mandatory conditional release after a portion of a prison sentence has been served.

In an effort to enhance prisoners' viability in the work force after incarceration, job fairs -- both mock and real -- are being staged by some employers in prisons.

Women at the end of 1999 comprised about 22 percent of the probationers and 12 percent of the parolees. More than 585,000 offenders are to be released on parole this year, says Sull, who has written three books, including "The Ex-Inmate's Complete Guide to Successful Employment" (Aardvark Publishing, 2000). While ex-inmates are doing better than in the past on the job front, most face two big obstacles when they leave prison, Sull says: honing their technical skills and their social skills. "Many of them have been pretty much institutionalized, or if not, are really out of touch with what society is all about." Trial by tech

Many inmates will take low-tech jobs on release from prison. But even ringing up an order at a fast-food joint requires familiarity with computers, Sull points out.

"Basic jobs, to use an old expression, are not your grandfather's jobs any more. When you get on the outside, it's also becoming more and more of a requirement that someone know how to work a computer doing research on the Internet," Sull says. "You can imagine there are obvious problems having inmates on the Internet." If you can't imagine, let Sull spell it out for you. Take instances in which companies have used prison inmates for tasks such as staffing their call centers or booking trips for travel agencies, Sull says. "The problem is, once in a while you have one inmate who'll take advantage of that and take somebody's credit card number or find a way to misuse it. That shuts it down for everybody." The quality of vocational programs varies from one correctional facility to another, Sull says. Some offer training in areas such as horticulture and auto repair. Others have formed partnerships with local industries, which provide internships to some inmates on release. Widening labor pool

Some prisons also offer so-called life or transition skills, but many inmates still comport themselves in the crude, rough manner of prisoners even after their release, Sull says. He tells a story of his own homecoming dinner with his family shortly after he walked out of prison. "In the course of this dinner, I asked my mother to please pass the f-----g spaghetti," he recalls. "Everybody froze. I had no idea what was wrong. My mind was not out of prison, even though my body was. This is a major problem for many ex-inmates." That can be especially troublesome at a new job. "I can hire you technically, but how you interact with the people in my employ is another matter," Sull says. "You'll find inmates that have been hired, but they may not have had the schooling inside on the importance of time management, of interacting with fellow workers in a team scenario." Despite these difficulties, former inmates are in many cases ascending to better jobs than many might expect, even in corrections. Some are working as wardens or assistant wardens, probation and parole officers and addiction counselors, Sull says.

Errol Sull has developed a list of reminders for convicted felons who find themselves on the job-search circuit. In many cases, they're tips anyone can use in a hunt for work.

"Who better knows addiction than somebody who's been there?" With the country's enormous correctional systems releasing growing numbers of inmates every year, it's a trend that Sull says he thinks will continue. "It's growing by almost 600,000 a year," he says of the number being released. "What you have ultimately is a society that's being forced to no longer turn its back on them because they're everywhere."

 

Errol Craig Sull
President
The Correctional Education Company
P.O. Box 956
Buffalo NY 14207
(716) 871-1900
(716) 871-1919 [fax]
prisonedu@aol.com