Reentry Barriers: Employment and the Technology Divide

Last Mile participants (Forbes Magazine)

Last Mile participants (Forbes Magazine)

This week, Saturday Night Live ran a skit ridiculing the overuse of hashtags on twitter. If the word “hashtag” means nothing to you, you are not alone. Social media is a fairly new and rapidly evolving online communications medium. Although younger generations have assumed the technology with ease many people who were not raised during the existence of the Internet struggle.

Yet, basic Internet and computer skills are increasingly an expected and necessary part of employment. Businesses rely on email, staff training can be conducted by webinar, cell phones are slowly replacing landlines, and in the Bay Area, tech companies are providing a much-needed influx of job opportunities in their growing industry.

But what if you’d never seen the Internet and don’t have access to a computer? For Bay Area residents returning from decades of incarceration, understanding technology can present a significant barrier to success. Obtaining steady employment is one of the key factors that contributes to lower recidivism and reduced crime rates. Yet, for many returning residents who have never used a word processor or checked their email, formatting résumés and job searching is an extra challenge.

Fortunately, there are some options out there. Profiled by KALW radio this week, the Last Mile is a program housed at San Quentin that teaches people basic business skills and entrepreneurship while they are incarcerated, in preparation for reentry. Participants learn about technology and how the world has changed since they have been incarcerated. It’s a 6-month program and aims to prepare people to find employment either as a startup business owner or at an already established business.

The program has had to overcome some practical hurdles, such as teaching participants about social media and new apps without using them directly. Teachers describe Facebook and mobile apps to participants using books and videos. Participants are able to tweet, blog, and answer questions on Quora through written hard copies transcribed online by voluntary intermediaries.

Outside prison walls, community-based organizations are also trying to fill the void in reentry services by providing employment readiness classes for returning residents that focus on résumé building and interview techniques.

As Hadar Aviram explains, despite the many collateral consequences of incarceration, reentry programming is scarce in the correctional system and local communities are picking up the slack:

“There’s lots of things that attach to an incarceration sentence. There’s a criminal record, there’s the fact that people can’t vote, there’s the fact that housing and job opportunities are very very scarce outside. There’s immense stigmas that go everywhere you go and basically affect all areas of life. …There are people stepping in where the government has completely failed, and trying to fill in that gap by offering people this helping hand.”

However, there remains an unnecessary structural obstacle to employment for even the most tech-savvy. Many businesses screen out applicants with prior criminal convictions on the initial application form regardless of their qualifications or suitability for the position. This process is highly discouraged by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which recently issued new guidance on criminal background checks requiring an individualized assessment of past convictions.

selena tejiIn California, Assembly Bill 218, otherwise known as Ban the Box, is set to provide more relief by prohibiting prospective employers from asking about criminal records until it is established that applicants meet the minimum qualifications for the job. The bill is designed to reduce the reflexive denial of employment opportunities to formerly incarcerated people and is currently on the Governor’s desk. You can show your support for the bill by signing this support letter, or perhaps even sending a tweet to the Governor @JerryBrownGov. #BanTheBox

Selena Toji
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Friday, 27 September 2013


  1. Diane says

    Thank you. Very true. And there’s another inexcusable barrier to reentry. When people are incarcerated, they lose all their documents. Why on earth can’t our prisons make sure people have birth certificates, California photo ID, and Social Security cards before they are released? Men and women come out with only a prison ID which is not acceptable identification in our state. Try to get a job, open a bank account, drive a car, rent an apartment when officially you don’t even exist. It took 8 months of persistent effort for one man I know to get ID. That’s extreme, but 4-6 months of hard work and bureaucratic runarounds is common. Many reentry programs and tax benefits to employers of the formerly incarcerated only serve those who’ve been out 6 months or, at most, a year and even those possibilities are lost when someone has no ID.

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