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I learned about wants and needs in an economics class. Food, clothing, and shelter are needs; everything else is a want. Many wants are based on an emotional viewpoint, whereas most needs come from the realm of survival. Having a job is a want—a job is a want that fulfills basic survival needs. To formerly incarcerated people (FIPs), the emotional components of wanting a job upon reentry are inseparable from needs.

While this post separates FIPs from the general working population, the want/need cycle applies to everyone who depends on working for a living. I experienced being unemployed while my criminal case crept slowly through the court system. For reasons discussed in my book Derailed, I resigned from the California State Bar in March 2003. That act immediately put me in the unemployment lines in Orange County, California.

Not knowing how long the criminal process would take, and not being certain of the outcome, I sought work. I first looked for jobs that fit transferable skills gained by lawyers, but that was unsuccessful. I began to question my self-worth and play other pernicious mind games. Each Sunday, I would spread the Orange County Register want ad pages on the floor and camp out while I went through the opportunities. I also registered with online job placement services. Each passing day without success pounded into my psyche like a fence post being beaten into the ground. I even felt physically smaller; rejection turned into internalized disrespect. Eventually, I was hired as a substitute teacher by a local school district. Although my need was fulfilled, the pay was poor and my monthly wants often weren’t covered.

Each person reentering society after serving years, or even decades, in prison has his or her want/need cycle. However, the dynamics are often even more strained than mine were.

Survival in the context of prison is not a function of economics; it’s a visceral response to instincts humans have when living in a forced loss-of-freedom environment. Prison provides the basic creature needs of food, water, and shelter, but there are no frills associated with state-provided needs. In prison, wants are reduced to how to make it another day without being hurt or killed, a distinction from the wants of free people. The lesson learned from economics class is that wants are one step up from needs and are simply things people desire to have, regardless of whether they can obtain them.

Once the prison experience is over, the want/need cycle necessarily pops up. In California, FIPs leave confinement with $200 cash from the state. For those with no support system on the outside, the money is exhausted in a day or two by the purchase of food and temporary housing. Most reenter with an expired driver’s license, no auto insurance, and little or no direction for meeting their life-sustaining needs. Resumes have voids in time that must be explained away, and the job acquisition process is complicated by the status of the FIP. (Please see my post Ban the Box about how felony conviction questions hit this population hard.) Prison strips people of their identities: Who am I? What is my value? Where do I fit in? What can I do now?

Pope John Paul II Weighs In

Here’s a good humanistic/spiritualistic perspective about work, according to John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical:

Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being.”

The pope’s perspective expands the want/need cycle into the department basic of secular human rights. Putting his words another way, a person who does not engage his or her humanity through work or employment is living an attenuated/marginalized human experience. This is very powerful stuff. FIPs fit squarely into the class of people the pope could have been speaking about in his encyclical.

Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO)

My research for this post led me to CEO, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in New York in 1996. According to its website, CEO’s mission statement exemplifies important after-prison reform in the category of reentry employment:

The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) is dedicated to providing immediate, effective and comprehensive employment services to men and women with recent criminal convictions. Our highly structured and tightly supervised programs help participants regain the skills and confidence needed for successful transitions to stable, productive lives.

The CEO’s theory of change is straightforward:

If the employment needs of persons with criminal convictions are addressed at their most vulnerable point—when they are first released from incarceration or soon after conviction—by providing life skills educationshort-term paid transitional employmentfull-time job placement and post-placement services, they will be less likely to become reincarcerated and more likely to build a foundation for a stable, productive life for themselves and their families.

The website goes on to say that “CEO provides employment services to men and women returning home from incarceration in 15 cities across six states.” The breadth of CEO’s influence spans the country from New York to California. Click here to see the qualifications for participation in the CEO program.

Recommended Related Reading

A related topic of interest is covered in an article entitled “How Ex-Convict Unemployment Cripples the Economy.” Written by Caitlin Curley, this expose discusses a “2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research [that] estimates that not hiring ex-offenders costs the U.S. economy $57 to $67 billion annually in lost economic output.”

Having a job soon after reentry is an integral element for successful transition from prison to independence. Having a job should be considered a right, a right that is available to reentering FIPs who want to become productive members of society. Really.

Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section.


Image courtesy of 123rf

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