Why You Should Hire Someone Who Went to Prison

Why You Should Hire Someone Who Went to Prison

By Carly Stern


Because hiring formerly incarcerated people improves the bottom line while promoting social justice.

By Carly Stern

Just 90 days after Lester Young began working at the Tyson Foods factory in Columbia, South Carolina, he was promoted from grinder operator to backup operator, an entry-level management support role. Young, then 41, had earned it. He walked in each day with tenacity and a hunger to succeed. He stayed late when nobody else wanted to and proved he could quickly learn to operate new machines.

Six months earlier, Young had been released from Kershaw Correctional Institution in Lancaster County, South Carolina, after serving 22 years for murder. Young expected to face high barriers to employment but nothing prepared him for the relentless rejection. Criminal background checks, which include arrests on felony charges, are often issued early in the hiring process, so Young was denied job after job — some two dozen, by his count. “You’re standing on the field wanting to get in the game,” he says, “and they won’t let you show you’re capable of doing the job.”

That is, until he applied at Tyson Foods, which doesn’t do background checks. To Young, the company cared more about his job skills than his past. Since then, Young has taught workshops at a community library, founded a nonprofit called Path 2 Redemption and was recently hired as South Carolina’s statewide organizer for JustLeadershipUSA, an advocacy group dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. “I speak for the voiceless people,” he says.

Though Young’s success is remarkable, it’s not an exception. According to research this year:

82 percent of managers think employees with criminal records perform as well or better than workers with a clean sheet.

Never mind “as well” — what about the 16 percent of managers (that’s one in six) who consider the quality of those hires “better” or “much better” than hires without a criminal record? Seven percent of HR pros felt the same way. 

The 2018 survey of 1,052 managers and regular employees was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago on behalf of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Charles Koch Institute (CKI). NORC is a nonpartisan organization originally called the National Opinion Research Center. The libertarian-oriented CKI, which pursues conservative economic policies, helped develop survey questions but had no input on the research approach or methodology, according to Trent Burner, vice president of research at SHRM.


The news that formerly incarcerated people are welcome in the workforce couldn’t come at a better time. Almost one in three American adults has been arrested on a felony charge, according to PolitiFact. At the same time, the unemployment rate dropped below 4 percent in July. Put those two factors together, and you have a labor market that needs to tap into all labor pools for talent, says Liz Supinski, director of data science at SHRM.

Excluding formerly incarcerated job seekers from the workforce costs the U.S. up to $87 billion in lost GDP, according to a 2017 American Civil Liberties Union report. The report also notes the strong retention of these workers can reduce training costs by about $4,000 per employee for lower-skilled white-collar positions. This bottom-line-friendly data can unify people who might otherwise not take an interest in the issue, says Megan French-Marcelin, fair hiring project manager at JustLeadershipUSA.

Am I worth it?

DriveChange fellowship recipient

And now a word about terminology. Ex-con and ex-felon are out, while formerly incarcerated person or returning citizen are in — meaning someone who  is transitioning back into society after incarceration. Changing the language helps create a more receptive hiring environment, says Jordyn Lexton, CEO of DriveChange, which offers paid fellowships for returning citizens through the food truck and hospitality industries. The organization also encourages businesses to change HR language from “second-chance hiring” to “fair-chance hiring.”

Lexton wasn’t surprised at the SHRM study’s conclusions. DriveChange consistently hears managers comment on the strong work ethic of returning citizens, particularly in the high-caliber restaurants where they’re placed. Managers tells Jennifer L. Williams, COO of DriveChange, about the fellows’ ability to listen, ask questions and execute tasks with focus. 

Still, SHRM’S Burner warns that HR shouldn’t adopt a blanket policy about job applicants with criminal backgrounds. The type of crime, the type of position and public and employee safety should factor into hiring decisions, he says. Concerns about future behavior could be warranted, as a recent report by the Brookings Institution shows 77 percent of prisoners released in 2010 were re-arrested within five years. But because the risk of recidivism is highest immediately after release, employment could be critical to lowering that return rate, according to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative. 

Numerous companies and organizations are involved in a ban-the-box movement that would prohibit questions about a job candidate’s criminal history until after a personal interview or a provisional job offer has been extended. Thirty-one states, the District of Columbia and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted some version of ban-the-box or fair-chance policies, according to the National Employment Law Project. French-Marcelin, however, is skeptical about the intentions of some businesses and super PACS funneling millions of dollars into these initiatives, concerned they’re creating a “race to the bottom” for job quality and workers’ rights.

After a long workday, Williams of DriveChange finishes résumé building and interview prep with one of the organization’s fellowship recipients and rises to leave. The fellow stops her. “Am I worth it?” she asks.

“Worth what, my love?”

The fellow wants to know if Williams thinks she’s worth the time and effort that DriveChange devotes to her. Williams reassures her she’s more than deserving — she has worked extraordinarily hard each day. The fellow begins to cry.

Later, Williams reflects on the exchange. “There’s nothing like pouring back into individuals who question their own worth,” she says, “because society has told them they’re not worthy.” 

* Correction: The original version of this feature misspelled Liz Supinski’s name.