Jeff was 60, fresh out of prison and looking for a job as an asbestos remover. Larry, 56, was in the same situation.
Both had credentials from prison education and training programs saying they were good workers with marketable skills. Jeff used his credential and landed a good job. Larry feared how potential employers would react and decided to never share his credentials with them.
That’s what Sadé Lindsay calls the prison credential dilemma, and it is a quandary that confronts thousands of formerly incarcerated jobseekers who know little about how companies that are seeking help evaluate these credentials.
“Employers may use, or misuse, the credentials in varying ways,” Lindsay said. “Some may even use the credentials to efficiently screen out formerly incarcerated applicants, thwarting their efforts to secure good jobs.”
Lindsay, a sociologist and a member of the faculty of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, conducted personal interviews with 50 formerly incarcerated men in Franklin County, Ohio, to understand how they deal with the uncertainty this dilemma brings when searching for work. An article about her findings, “Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t: How Formerly Incarcerated Men Navigate the Labor Market With Prison Credentials,” published March 11 in the journal Criminology.
The experiences of Jeff and Larry illustrate the dilemma.
Jeff contacted companies to inquire about job openings and attributed his success to his prison credentials: “I never did a lot of work outside the institution besides asbestos. ... Once you have asbestos training ... they [employers] know that you know the job ... you show them your credentials and they know you know what you’re doing, you got a job.”
Larry took the opposite path, describing his skills in job applications but not how he obtained them: “That’s where it gets bad because they ask what school, [and I say] ‘Newfield Correctional.’ I didn’t want a certificate that said, ‘Newfield Correctional.’ You put Newfield Correctional [and] the first thing is like, ‘What? You was in prison?’” At last word, he was still looking for a job that matched his skills.
Prison credentials – program certificates and work experiences obtained in prison – were seen as a solution to counter the negative mark of a criminal record by signaling to employers that a formerly incarcerated person was not a lawbreaker and was ready for a job. Yet, Lindsay says the efficacy of these credentials in the labor market has been highly variable across studies dating back to the 1960s.
Lindsay attributes these inconsistencies to the prison credential dilemma and found usage of these credentials vary dramatically among formerly incarcerated men as a result. In her study, participants often considered whether they should even use their prison credentials, and if so, how to ensure that they did not merely signal negative qualities that they desired to counteract by obtaining them.
“On the one end are proactive strategists like Jeff who fully disclose their criminal records and the affiliation of their credentials to others, directly confronting and challenging criminal stigma,” Lindsay said.
“On the other end of this continuum, researchers have identified reactive strategists like Larry who may conceal and selectively disclose their criminal records, including the institutional affiliation of their prison credentials,” she said. “They attempt to ‘pass’ as ordinary job applicants to avoid rejection, the devaluation of their expertise from prison, and obtain quality employment.”
Race plays a role in the dilemma. Black men are reluctant to present prison credentials because they fear being stereotyped and relegated to low-wage work due to racial discrimination and structural racism, Lindsay found. Yet, Black men are especially reliant on prison credentials to tangibly demonstrate redeemable qualities that combat these dominant stereotypes.
One practical, short-term solution comes from something as simple as changing the name of the institution on the credential. All prison credentials could come from educational and vocational organizations outside of prison to ensure it is formally tied to these organizations rather than to the prison itself, Lindsay said.
Jim Hanchett is assistant dean for communications in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.