Michael Watkins spent a lifetime finding work after prison.
The Raleigh resident struggled with low-wage jobs – if he could find one – more than three decades after doing a six-month stretch for felony breaking and entering as a 26-year-old. Without the economic means to support himself in a series of low-wage jobs, Watkins was homeless for 20 years and battled a cycle of unrelenting destitution and uncertainty.
“I was released from prison in March of 1989 with the hopes of getting great opportunities in Raleigh,” Watkins, 59, remembered. “I was only able to land fast-food jobs, or at best, work in call centers; in either event, I never made more than $10/hour, and as you know is impossible to live on in Raleigh. I would soon become homeless in the streets of Raleigh.”
Watkins’ experience is far from exceptional. More than 22,000 people are released from North Carolina’s state prison system annually and 98% of all incarcerated will be released at some point in the future. The stakes are higher for Black people, who make up 61% of the state’s incarcerated. What happens to them upon their release often determines whether they return to prison or become contributing members of society.
“It’s very difficult but every re-entry is a separate story and as different as the people that are coming back into the community,” said Kenn Shrader, a volunteer with Reentry Housing Alliance in Charlotte and a former offender. … “There’s a stigma of once a criminal always a criminal. Nobody seems to really understand the concept that we say we believe in that once people served their time they paid their debt to society, but in reality that’s not really true.”
Statistics bear out Shrader’s assertion. According to the Raleigh-based North Carolina Second Chance Alliance:
• More than 90% of large employers conduct criminal background checks and often will automatically reject applicants based on dismissed charges, long-ago convictions, and convictions that aren’t related to a job’s qualifications and responsibilities.
• Applicants with a criminal record are half as likely to receive a call back, with the chances of being passed over doubling for Black applicants.
• More than 1,000 state laws and regulations could deny people privileges and rights based on a criminal record. For instance, a conviction disqualifies people from earning a barber license.
Barriers beyond bars
Employer hesitancy isn’t the only obstacle the formerly incarcerated face. Housing can be daunting as well, especially with property managers and owners leery of renting to people with a criminal background.
The Reentry Housing Alliance has been pushing Charlotte City Council to adopt “fair chance” housing rules that bars landlords from asking potential renters about their criminal background until after the candidate’s qualification has been established. A change in city policy, advocates argue, would help eliminate recidivism and housing insecurity.
“Our neighbors with criminal records make up about 8% percent of Charlotte’s adult population,” Shrader said in a November email. “For someone with a record, a chance to get back on track is more difficult because they are denied a safe place to live before the rental application is completed.”
Even as government and nonprofit programs provide resources to re-introduce the formerly incarcerated into the workforce, the results are relatively small compared to a couple decades ago. The COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out thousands of jobs across the state and weakened the economy, has made the situation more difficult for people looking to start over. Without opportunities and hope for the future, many formerly incarcerated will re-offend and be sent behind bars.
“Part of the reason it’s so difficult is a lot of people commit crimes because they don’t see that they have any other choice,” Shrader said. “They may be literally at the end of their rope and maybe a single mom who’s trying to keep her kids fed, and she starts writing bad checks because she just didn’t have the money. Or it could be a guy that just makes a poor choice wrong place at the wrong time.
“A lot of times women become involved with the criminal justice system just because they’re having a relationship with the wrong man. So, if he’s selling drugs, she gets convicted for possession and dealing as well and she may not have anything to do with it. So a lot of times the circumstances, when they come back out, they have changed. So what are they going to do? They’re going to go into what they know.”
‘You really need that home base’
Andrew Berger-Gross, in a 2019 report for the North Carolina Department of Commerce, cited that formerly incarcerated people were “benefiting from improved job prospects as our labor market heats up. However, they continue to struggle with low rates of employment and poor wage earnings compared to the rest of the population.”
Data from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety covering the years 2015-2017 found that people who were incarcerated in state prisons were more likely to find a job after release than at any time since the Great Recession. In 2017, 45% of formerly incarcerated people landed a job within a year after release, compared to 31% in 2009 when the recession was at its worst.
Still, there were challenges.
Unemployment rates and wage earnings among the formerly incarcerated were low compared to the rest of the general population. While 61% percent of North Carolina residents were employed at some point in 2017, only 45% of former prisoners were similarly situated.
Even those who found work within a year after their release earned a real median annual wage of around $6,000, compared to around $28,000 for the general workforce. Although an improving labor market can lift the fortunes of workers, economic growth doesn’t erase barriers former offenders face.
“In the late 1990s,” Berger-Gross wrote, “it was relatively normal for people to find work after exiting prison; in 1998, 62% found employment in North Carolina within a year after release. Now, only a minority of former prisoners find work after release, despite record-high employer demand for labor in our state.”
There are initiatives to get the formerly incarcerated on their feet.
The North Carolina Division of Adult Correction, for instance, provides transition services like independent living, workforce training, housing, health care and family responsibilities.
The State Reentry Council Collaborative, a combination of government, law enforcement, advocacy, faith-based and judicial organizations that formulated a Reentry Action Plan, aims to remove barriers people face upon return to their communities and reduce recidivism, which is 40% over a three-year period, according to the North Carolina Justice Center.
Local government agencies such as the Mecklenburg County District Attorney, Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office and nonprofits like Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont and Urban League of Central Carolinas have programs that work with the incarcerated or recently released to develop workforce and academic skills. Community groups like Formerly Incarcerated Transition and Reentry Housing Alliance connect former offenders with health care and housing advocates.
“Having a stable home environment is necessary to find a job, to start seeking mental health help if you need [it], to go find veterans benefits or Social Security benefits,” Shrader said. “To start working with some of the nonprofit organizations like Centers for Community Transitions or Change Choices to get into their life skills programs to learn how to interview for jobs and things like that. You really need that home base first.”
A way out of no way
Watkins didn’t give up on improving his situation. He located stable housing two decades after his release and enrolled in college to improve his employment opportunities.
“Years passed and in June 2010, after having been homeless for 20 years, I got a housing voucher from Wake County and got my first apartment,” he said. “I stayed there for 10 years, but while I lived there, I went back to school to earn an associate degree in medical office administration in 2017, then … my bachelor’s degree in business administration in healthcare management.”
Watkins, who graduated Campbell University last year, is pursuing a master’s degree in healthcare administration at Walden University. He’s also building a new career with a Portland, Oregon, nonprofit that provides substance abuse and suicide prevention counseling. After 32 years, he’s found purpose and responsibility. All he needed was an opportunity.
“I got a great job in the same week I began my classes at Walden in January 2021,” he said. “I work for a FEMA-funded nonprofit called Lines for Life. We are the 2.0 version of 211. We provide community resources to Oregonians who need them, and after having been employed there for three months, I was promoted to a team lead and now have my own staff I am responsible for.”