17. More Than 25 Percent of Formerly Incarcerated People are Unemployed

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

A 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that people released from prison are disproportionally discriminated against in the pursuit of work. The study—by Lucius Couloute, at the time a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Massachusetts, and Daniel Kopf, a reporter for Quartz—found that an average of 27 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. That figure, Couloute and Kopf wrote, is greater than “the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression,” when the unemployment rate reached nearly 25 percent.

Their study, “Out of Prison & Out of Work,” drew on statistics from the 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics’s National Former Prisoner Survey data—the most recent available data—and showed that the unemployment rate for the five million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States was more than 27 percent, compared to 5.8 percent for the general population. (“Contemporary unemployment rates may differ,” Couloute and Kopf wrote, “but we are confident that formerly incarcerated people are still substantially disadvantaged compared to the general public.”)

Their report found that blacks, Hispanics, and women faced the most significant disadvantages in the search for work after leaving prison. From the 2008 data, 39 percent of Hispanic women, 27 percent of Hispanic men, 44 percent of black women, 35 percent of black men, 23 percent of white women, and 18 percent of white men faced unemployment after being released from prison. The numbers document what the study’s authors described as a “prison penalty” that puts formerly incarcerated people—and especially blacks, Hispanics, and women—at disadvantages when it comes to finding work. (Couloute and Kopf acknowledged that “prison alone” does not account for high unemployment rates among formerly incarcerated people, but observed that “a wealth of data suggests that going to prison does negatively affect labor market outcomes.”)

Couloute and Kopf also found that formerly incarcerated people were more likely to be actively looking for work than the general population. Their analysis showed 93 percent of formerly incarcerated people were either employed or actively looking for work, compared to 84 percent of the general population. Couloute and Kopf summarized, “Formerly incarcerated people want to work. Their high unemployment rate reflects public will, policy, and practice—not differences in aspirations.”

The Prison Policy Initiative study also reported “promising policy choices available to lawmakers at each level of government” to help formerly incarcerated people gain employment, including implementation of a temporary basic income upon release, a short-term economic investment that would result in long-term cost savings; the expungement of criminal records, taking into account offense type and length of time since sentencing, so that prison sentences do not result in “perpetual punishment”; and banning of employer discrimination, potentially under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, owing to racially disproportionate incarceration rates.

Despite the Prison Policy Initiative’s study being what Couloute and Kopf described as “the first ever estimate” of unemployment among formerly incarcerated people in the United States, their findings appear to have received nearly no coverage in the establishment press. In July 2018, the editorial board of the Southern California News Group produced an editorial, “No One Benefits When Formerly Incarcerated People Can’t Get a Job,” that provided a reasonably detailed summary of the study, including its recommendations. A number of local newspapers belonging to the group, including the Orange County Register, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, and Pasadena Star-News, published the editorial. Otherwise, relatively limited coverage of what Couloute and Kopf termed the “prison penalty” has left out the study’s findings and recommendations.

In August 2018, USA Today published an opinion piece on former inmates’ experiences, which mentioned in passing that “[u]nemployment among former inmates is 27%” without citing the Prison Policy Initiative’s study or discussing its recommendations. A March 2018 CNN article reported that, in 2014, as many as 1.9 million formerly incarcerated people were out of work, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Noting that many former inmates lack “relevant skills and work experience,” the article also reported that employers are often reluctant to hire former inmates: “More than 60% of employers,” CNN reported, “say they would ‘probably not’ or ‘definitely not’ be willing to hire an ex-offender.”

Alfonso Serrano, “Out of Prison, Out of Jobs: Unemployment and the Formerly Incarcerated,” ColorLines, July 10, 2018, https://www.colorlines.com/articles/out-prison-out-jobs-unemployment-and-formerly-incarcerated.

Prison Policy Initiative, “New Report Calculates the First Unemployment Rate for Formerly Incarcerated People: 27 Percent, Highest since Great Depression,” San Francisco Bay View, September 29, 2018, https://sfbayview.com/2018/09/new-report-calculates-the-first-unemployment-rate-for-formerly-incarcerated-people-27-percent-highest-since-great-depression/.

Student Researcher: Briana Earls (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Mutombo M’Panya (Sonoma State University)