Out of Prison, Out of Jobs: Unemployment and the Formerly Incarcerated

By Alfonso Serrano Jul 10, 2018

The jobless rate among formerly incarcerated people in the United States stands at nearly five times the level for the general population—that’s higher than the total unemployment rate during the Great Depression, according to a report released today (July 10).

"Out of Prison & Out of Work," a report from nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, draws on the Bureau of Justice StatisticsNational Former Prisoner Survey data for 2008, the only year available. It showed that the unemployment rate for the 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States was 27.3 percent, compared to the 5.8 percent experienced by the general population. "Contemporary unemployment rates may differ," authors Lucius Couloute and Daniel Kopf write, "but we are confident that formerly incarcerated people are still substantially disadvantaged compared to the general public."

Black women bear the outsized brunt of incarceration, according to the study, which places their rate of unemployment at 43.6 percent, compared to the 6.4 percent unemployment rate for Black women in the general population.


The toll of imprisonment extends far beyond formerly incarcerated individuals, according to the study, given that women are likely to be the primary caregivers for their families. And the dearth of services for Black women after incarceration only compounds the difficulties.

"Formerly incarcerated Black women, in particular, experience compounded disadvantage—they are Black, women and criminalized—all statuses that are negative in the eyes of employers," Couloute told Colorlines. "The problem, however, is that although the rate of incarceration among Black women has skyrocketed in the last few decades, we’ve done very little to examine what this has meant in their lives."

Race and gender, the report notes, plays a significant role in not only who finds employment after incarceration, but also who finds jobs that pay livable incomes. Whereas Black women are least likely to find work, White men are most successful in finding employment after prison. And White men are also most likely to find full-time positions. Black women, conversely, are most likely to find part-time or occasional work, according to the report.

Employment hurdles do not stem from an unwillingness to find work. The report notes that among the formerly incarcerated, ages 25 to 44, 93.3 percent are actively looking for work, compared to 83.8 percent of the general population.

The report suggests that the exclusionary practices of employers, not individual shortcomings of the formerly incarcerated, contribute greatly to the high jobless numbers. Although employers express a willingness to hire people with criminal records, their actions contradict their statements. The report points to evidence showing that having a criminal record reduces employer callback rates by 50 percent. The resulting perpetual unemployment not only takes a toll on the formerly incarcerated, but on employers and taxpayers.

To reduce the post-imprisonment employment hurdles and provide people with the economic stability that reduces the likelihood of returning to prison, the report suggests the implementation of a temporary basic income upon release. This short-term economic investment would not only increase public safety, but would result in long-term cost savings.

The automatic expungement of criminal records would also go a long way toward increasing employment among the formerly incarcerated, the report concludes. A system that weighs offense type would help the formerly incarcerated succeed while boosting public safety. 

"Formerly incarcerated people are actually really good workers," says Couloute. "Studies from both the public and private sector are showing that formerly incarcerated people are actually outperforming their never incarcerated peers. They know that if an employer is giving them a job opportunity, it’s also an opportunity to disprove stereotypes."