With a first degree possession of a firearm and a second degree possession of a controlled substance on his record, Jason Sole had a tough time finding meaningful work when he got out of prison.
“[Employers] didn’t see my value, they only saw me as a deficit,” said Sole. His first job out of prison was working at a Holiday Inn for $10 an hour. Sole pointed out that employers know there are a limited amount of jobs, so when they see you’re an ex-offender, they take advantage of it. “The things they make you do because you’re an ex-offender is appalling,” adding, “They just wanted me to be a worker, they weren’t trying to make me a boss.”
Sole didn’t want anybody to be able to oppress him so he figured out how to be his own boss. He started out with his firm Jason Sole Consulting, he got his bachelor’s and master’s degree in criminal justice and is now the president of the Minnesota NAACP.
Now a published author and adjunct professor at Metropolitan State University, Sole pointed out that his struggles with meaningful employment are common among ex-offenders. “That’s how the system works, it wants to break you, it doesn’t want you to come out feeling like you can really thrive and grow,” he said.
Despite serving their time and paying their dues to society, past convictions follow around ex-offenders for the rest of their life. Sole believes that stigma is the hardest thing for ex-offenders to overcome. “That prison label feels like a life sentence,” he said.
But some local Twin Cities organizations are working to build businesses and structures that discard the labels and stigmas in favor of focusing on life skills and rehabilitation. At All-Square, a soon-to-open local nonprofit fast-casual grilled cheese restaurant, founder Emily Turner wants to revamp how ex-offenders are viewed in the workplace. The incoming restaurant will employ mostly ex-offenders at a living wage.
“I think the outright denial of people with records is still a major problem and still a problem in employment,” said Turner. At All-Square, the name holds a double meaning. Not only referring to the shape of the food they are serving but also to the people they are targeting for hire: ex-offenders – people who have paid their debts and are “all square” with society.
While there is not an opening date set in stone yet, Turner said she and the All-Square team are close, awaiting the final word on investment before setting the date. Turner came up with the concept for the restaurant while she was working as a civil rights attorney.
“For several years I saw the criminal justice system and how it isn’t working and frankly the disproportionate impact that it is having on non-white communities,” she explained. After seeing this, Turner asked herself, “How can I be part of the solution?”
“If I can leverage my privilege to really help share upward mobility with other people who have been systematically excluded, that would be a dream for me,” Turner said.
However, providing job opportunities for ex-offenders is just the base for what Turner hopes to provide. “Essentially the restaurant is a vehicle for workforce development,” she said. With plans to implement in a 13-month curriculum program for all employees they will learn things like resume building and take financial literacy classes.
While there are other re-entry programs in Minneapolis and across the state, Turner didn’t think they were quite getting the job done. One indication of the failure of re-entry programs as a whole is the high recidivism rates said Sole. In 2011, Minnesota had a recidivism rate of more than 61 percent, the highest in the country, according to a study done by the PEW Research Center.
While constructing her board Turner has been mindful in ensuring the voices of people most affected were included in the decision-making process. People like Calvin Duncan, who spent more than 28 years in prison on a wrongful conviction and went on to found the nonprofit Rising Foundations, and Tommy Franklin a writer and organizer who was born in a prison and also served time.
“All Square is what is needed for citizens returning home from prison. When individuals are released from prison, they desperately need not only a job and a place to live, but they also need a community that will support them as they reintegrate and better themselves,” Duncan said, in support of All-Square’s successful Kickstarter.
“After I was released in 2011, I was welcomed into a community that helped me with housing, a job and assistance in furthering my education in paralegal work. All Square’s mission focuses on building a community that will provide the similar support that I received when I was released from prison,” Duncan said.
Most jobs for ex-offenders right now are in plumbing or construction noted Turner. But she hopes to leverage her professional network to help land her employees with jobs in the field they are ultimately interested in.
Since 2014, Minnesota has implemented the “ban the box” legislation, where employers – in both the public and private sectors – are not allowed to ask on applications if the person applying has a criminal record. But, Turner doesn’t believe this legislation is enough. Even if an ex-offender isn’t automatically turned away because of their application, an employer will eventually find out an ex-offender’s record when they run a background check.
“I think that sometimes [ban the box] is actually working to a disadvantage. It gets people’s hopes up until the background check comes,” she said.
One aspect Kevin Lindsey, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights pointed out was that since the ban the box legislation has passed, more employers are reaching out to the department to see how they can create opportunities for ex-offenders.
But, Lindsey admits there’s more that needs to be done. Recently, the Department of Human Rights’ duties have expanded to include investigation of violations of “ban the box” rules. In addition, his department has been discussing expanding protections for employers should an ex-offender worker cause injury or violate the law while employed, a protection known as negligent hiring liability.
“When ban the box was initially passed, there were some employers that said if they know they would not be liable for negligent hiring they would be more welcoming and take more chances on hiring somebody with a criminal record,” said Lindsey.
The extension of liability would look something like this: A law that states after a certain period of time that an employer cannot take into consideration somebody’s criminal past. And in exchange for that the employer would not be subject to a negligent hiring suit.
Sole was instrumental in advocating for the ban the box legislation three years ago, but he said it hasn’t solved the problem or accomplished what he had hoped.
“We need an overhaul of the system because the system is perpetuated on that slave labor, so you’re going to have some programs doing really well but it’s just not enough, we need a lot more,” he said.
Another problem, Lindsey pointed out is race. “There is still the issue of how race and criminal conviction get paired together and the negative consequences that flow from that,” he explained.
James McCants Jr. and Weston Berry-Belton work for the Northpoint African American Men Project. The project focuses on African American men who are facing serious health and lifestyle issues. With programs like life coaching and re-entry training, McCants and Berry-Belton have helped ex-offenders get jobs.
“The biggest challenge is most of the men we work with never had a job, so they don’t understand the importance of employment…. They are used to earning money in an illegal way. It is a quick way, but it is not a positive way. So their mindset is totally different when it comes to employment,” said McCants.
“It’s way easier to sell a bag of dope than to do the grunt work and keep looking for jobs … that gets draining,” said Sole.
For an ex-offender to be able to find a job and keep a job is a process said McCants. “When you’re coming out of jail, you must crawl before you walk and walk before you run,” he said.
One of the hardest things for ex-offenders when adjusting to life outside of prison is finding housing. It’s harder than getting a job Sole said. Many ex-offenders are forced to live right back in the same neighborhoods where they were arrested, which can make it hard to stay out of trouble.
“Without a good foundation it’s hard to get the type of job you know you deserve,” said Sole.
Applying that mentality to employment can be tough for ex-offenders who are used to quick money said Berry-Belton. “One of our longtime participants has a degree in culinary arts… what he told me is that at the end of the day [restaurants] are not trying to see a Black man run the kitchen.” When one considers that the participant is not only facing racial discrimination, but is also an ex-offender, getting a job is even more difficult for him – even though his conviction was over 10 years ago.
“I would say [All Square] is most likely going to be a pioneer, with this, only because we have had guys try to get into the food industry, um, with criminal records and a lot of the time it is difficult. For that reason, a lot of food industries are not looking to hire those with criminal backgrounds.” Barry-Belton said.
All this work, ultimately, is about one common goal.
“But we are talking about trying to generate a livable wage [for these ex-offenders], you know,” McCants said. “It’s difficult, it’s difficult.”
Jayme Oberman assisted in reporting this article.