Bob McDaniel sits across from me in a chair in one of the offices at STRIVE New Haven, a career resource organization, calmly laying out the darker details of his past, and how they have made his present and future so difficult.
It’s a short break from the job search that has brought him to STRIVE’s computers every day since the beginning of July, but he might chalk it up to practice. That’s because employers will inevitably be asking him to explain the third degree burglary plastered onto his record-that is, if he is lucky.
Yesterday he wasn’t.
“I went to an interview yesterday with an environmental group,” McDaniel says. “It was about eight minutes into the interview and she seemed really impressed with my work history. I have a lot of experience in pest control. I did that for about twelve years.”
But then his prospective employer read further down the application and saw that he had checked the box asking whether or not he has been convicted of a crime more severe than a misdemeanor. McDaniel told her that it was a burglary and tried to elaborate, but he didn’t get the chance.
“She didn’t even let me finish,” McDaniel says. “She jumped up, shook my hand, and said, ‘sorry, but you’re not going to be a good fit for this company right now’. It seems to happen a lot.”
And it does. So much, in fact, that in 2008 the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that the 12 million to 14 million working age ex-offenders lowered the U.S. male employment rate by between 1.5 to 1.7 percentage points, according to a report released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2010.
In other words, having a record makes finding work difficult, and in Connecticut, where the general unemployment rate was 6.6 in July-compared to 6.2 nationwide-it’s going to be harder for those with baggage.
“The first thing is the stigma of having been in the justice system,” says Edgar Jones, a jobs developer for the group Project MORE, a prisoner reintegration program in Fair Haven. “They [employers] shy away from it, not giving them a chance to show that they’re rehabilitated. There’s always a story behind a charge or conviction. It’s just a matter of whether or not you’re willing to listen to it.”
For McDaniel, who is 43, that story begins in Florida in 2011.
He admits that he wrestled with drug problems in his early twenties, but he kicked that and got his life together.
“I owned my own home,” McDaniel says. “I was married. I had two children.”
And he had a job that supported them, but in 2011 that changed.
“Another company bought us out,” McDaniel says. “And they basically pushed me out.”
McDaniel managed to find other work, but it wasn’t cutting it.
“Other companies didn’t pay as much,” he says. “I was making about 60 percent of what I had been. I lost my house.”
And his family followed. Arguments about money prompted a divorce, and McDaniel was left alone with his old habits. He held on for a little bit longer, but suffered another loss-his mother died.
“I just went back into the whole cycle of that,” he says. “It’s not an excuse, but I just had a lot of things happening in a short time.”
A year later he came to Connecticut to live with his brother. One thing led to another, and the two found themselves in handcuffs for an attempted burglary in Waterbury that May. Two years served and a 90-day drug treatment program later, and McDaniel is out on parole and beginning to rebuild his life for a second time. He is currently on work release and will be staying at a halfway house until the end of his sentence in February.
“When you’re actively involved in the addiction, you’re not the same person,” McDaniel says.
McDaniel wants the person he feels he was right before he was incarcerated gone forever, but will society give him that chance? That’s the question all ex-offenders face, and if the answer is no, the impact goes beyond just the individual, Jones says.
“That’s the biggest obstacle,” he says. “These guys have families, which is why a lot of them got into the situation that they did-trying to feed their families.”
And that’s ultimately why many end up back in that situation-if they can’t make ends meet the legal way, they’ll find some other way, Jones says.
“If individuals don’t have jobs, they revert back into what they did before they were incarcerated,” Jones says.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a yearly average of 590,400 individuals released from state or federal prisons since 1990, according to a report published by Congressional Research Service in 2014. Of the 404,638 inmates from 30 states released in 2005-or 75 percent of all prisoners let out that year-more than three quarters were re-arrested within a five year period, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Property crimes accounted for most of the cases, with drug offenses not far behind.
At STRIVE, an estimated 60 percent of job seekers come from the criminal justice system, according to Kendrick Baker, a program manager at the organization’s New Haven branch. Since 2000, they have placed 743 ex-offenders in jobs, he says.
“Employers in New Haven will hire ex-offenders,” Baker says. “It’s possible, but it’s hard when you’re fresh out. They want to see you off probation, like when ‘I’m not here because my probation officer sent me’.”
The Catch 22 is, the “fresh out” stage tends to be when the highest rates of recidivism occurs. More than 43 percent of the re-arrests from the 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics study occurred within the first year of a former inmate’s release, according to Congressional Research Service.
Those re-arrested in their second year out of prison made up 28.5 percent of the cases and the number drops in each of the proceeding years, according to the study.
McDaniel doesn’t plan on becoming part of that statistic. After our conversation, he’s right back at the computers plugging away. Last week he sent out more than 100 applications for openings in everything from restaurant work to construction.
“Every field,” McDaniel says. “I really don’t have a choice.”