The Prison Credential Dilemma

The Prison Credential Dilemma

Excerpted from The Crime Report article by Charlotte West

Since Terrance Simon got out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary last year, he’s mentally prepared himself for the fact his record might mean he doesn’t get the job when talking to employers.

“I go into a job interview with the mindset they’re going to know, and they’re going to tell me ‘no’ because of it,” he said. “That’s the worst-case scenario.”

Simon is always honest about his conviction – but only if interviewers ask. “I don’t lie,” he said. “But I won’t tell you the truth if I don’t have a reason to. If I see someone hinting at the possibility that I have any criminal record, I’m going to be forthcoming, and give it all to you.”

He explains why he went to prison, but also what he’s done since then. “Yes, I’ve been to jail, but this is who I became because of it,” he said.

In Simon’s case, he was hired as a reentry specialist at the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit in Baton Rouge, precisely because of his background.

New research out of Cornell University looks at the conundrum that many formerly incarcerated job seekers like Simon face, which sociologist Sadé Lindsay calls “the prison credential dilemma.”

They have to decide whether to share the training and educational certificates they did in prison – or not. Credentials acquired in prison may not be perceived by others as positive.

In her research, Lindsay found that formerly incarcerated people often have little insight into employers’ perceptions of prison credentials, which can include GEDs, college degrees and vocational certificates.

“Imagine trying to make an important decision with no information to work with,” she said. “For formerly incarcerated people, this lack of information about employers’ perceptions is costly.”

If formerly incarcerated job seekers don’t list relevant education experience acquired in prison, they may not have other qualifications that make them attractive as candidates. At the same time, employers might use prison credentials to screen formerly incarcerated people out of the applicant pool, Lindsay said.

The study, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: How formerly incarcerated men navigate the labor market with prison credentials,” was published in Criminology in February.

Lindsay interviewed 50 formerly incarcerated men about how they used their prison credentials in their job search. The study draws heavily on existing research about criminal records and employment.

“Black and Hispanic populations, regardless of a criminal record, face an immense number of barriers to employment due to historical racism and discrimination,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay also looks at how the men did choose to share information about their prison credentials with prospective employers. Many listed degrees and other certifications they earned while incarcerated but did not share where they earned them.

Mark, one of the interviewees, assumed employers wouldn’t see a degree earned inside as good as one earned on the outside.

Another formerly incarcerated job applicant, Thomas, said of his resume, “What I’m putting on there is ‘Perryville College.’ I’m not saying ‘in prison’.”

Lindsay argues that the prison credential dilemma highlights the limitations of policy solutions such as ban the box, fair chance, criminal record expungement and concealment laws.

Even in places where employers are prohibited from doing background checks, criminal records can still come out through job applications and interview questions.

“By focusing on ‘the box’ and formal background checks, we miss how prison credentials can inadvertently work to maintain ‘the box’ throughout the job search process in these overlooked ways,” Lindsay said. “Our solutions must account for these possibilities to see meaningful change.”

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