jail.jpgAttempted murderer. Armed robber. Two decades in the notorious San Quentin State Prison.

These are difficult circumstance to emerge from and become a productive member of society. Who would bet on such a man? Maybe Johnny Cash, but would you?


But by all accounts, Randall Countryman of Chula Vista, CA, appears to be beating the odds, even though he walked out of jail “a wiser, weaker man,” as Cash sang it.
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I wrote about him, and other excons earlier this year, in a story about the difficulties ex-offenders face finding jobs when they leave prison. His outlook did not look good.

Countryman was released last May from prison and his job prospects were dim. All he was able to land was a five-week temporary gig with a printing company.

“People want to hire the best they can get right now,” he said. “Someone with a felony conviction is not best you can get.”

By the end of 2008, more than 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole — about one in every 31 U.S. adults, compared with one in every 77 adults in 1982, according to a 2009 report from the Pew Center on the States.

About 700,000 inmates are released from state and federal prison each year. Of those released, about two-thirds re-offend within three years.

With national unemployment hovering just under 10 percent, former inmates are competing for jobs with those who never served time behind bars. Although the U.S. Department of Labor does not track the unemployment rate for former offenders, experts estimate the jobless rate for individuals with a prison record is from 40 percent to 60 percent.

With those kind of numbers, Countryman knew he was facing a tough road ahead.

I checked in with him recently to see how things were going and I was surprised to get good news.

“I am doing very well, I have been working full time for an attorney service in San Diego for almost three months now,” he wrote in a message to me on Facebook. “I like my work and the people I am working for and with. For awhile I was working two jobs and working seven days a week, plus going to college, but now I am just working the one job and still carrying a 4.0 GPA with about a year left before earning my Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management. It is a grueling schedule, but I’m a hard worker at anything I do and it will all pay off in the long run.”

There are tactics that can help excons and individuals with convictions in their past get jobs.

Peter Cove, the founder of America Works, suggest parolees move quickly to land a job, any job, right out of prison so they’re not dragged into the criminal world yet again.

Experts suggest former inmates find an agency in their town that focuses on finding jobs for hard-to-place candidates and take advantage of whatever skills training they can get from the government, nonprofit groups and employment agencies with parolee experience.

America Works has locations throughout the U.S. that can be located on their Web site.

Uggen also suggests checking out the following Web sites for help: The Sentencing Project, The Legal Action Center, and The Prisoner Reentry Institute.

And there is a movement to get excons into green jobs, thanks to a program developed as part of the Recovery Act.

The key to getting a job — especially for an ex-con — is references, experts say. To that end, some former inmates may have to take a low-level job, work their tails off, and use that employer for recommendations for the next gig.

Networking also is important. In today’s economy, where jobs are becoming more and more scarce, few people are able to land jobs without connections. There are many support groups for ex-inmates throughout the country that could be great resources.

Once parolees land a job interview, one of the hardest things is explaining their tainted past.

“Go: Getting On After Getting Out,” a book on re-entry put out by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, and one of the only books I’ve come across with any real detailed advice on this, offers some great guidelines on how to answer questions about a conviction.

Don’t lie, give excuses or harp on the details of a conviction, the authors write. Instead, they recommend showing remorse and describing the efforts former inmates have made to improve themselves. The interviewer is ultimately looking for a future employee, so parolees could talk about how they’re ready to move forward with life and how hard they’re willing to work to get there.

I know many of you may be thinking, “who the hell cares about a criminal’s job outlook when law-abiding citizens are struggling to keep their jobs and find work?”

I don’t blame people for feeling that way. But what about redemption, forgiveness?

Millions of excons need work or they’re likely to re-offend. How does that help society?

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