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'It's discouraging': After incarceration, many face barriers finding employment

Lonnie Lockhart Bey (right) spent more than 26 years in the Missouri Department of Corrections. Since being released in 2021, he has co-founded the R.I.S.E. Initiative, which works with at-risk youth in Columbia. (Rebecca Smith/KBIA)
Rebecca Smith
Lonnie Lockhart Bey (right) spent more than 26 years in the Missouri Department of Corrections. Since being released in 2021, he has co-founded the R.I.S.E. Initiative, which works with at-risk youth in Columbia. (Rebecca Smith/KBIA)

After Lonnie Lockhart Bey left prison in 2021, he began looking for a job. He put in applications and went to interviews. But companies wouldn’t hire him because he had a criminal record.

“I'm constantly hearing about a second chance,” Lockhart Bey said. “I'm constantly hearing about ‘Oh, we got you.’ And the more I put in applications and things like that, the worse it got, almost.”

Once he was able to explain why he was incarcerated and the factors that contributed to it, Lockhart Bey found a warehouse position. Lockhart Bey has since co-founded the organization R.I.S.E. Initiative which provides resources and education to kids in hopes of decreasing the number who end up incarcerated.

People with felonies face many challenges reentering society, such as finding stable housing, food security and employment. Without an income, it’s difficult to meet state requirements and find stability.

Mataka Askari wears a white collared shirt and a dark blue jacket. He looks into the camera.
Rebecca Smith
Mataka Askari spent almost 23 years in the Missouri Department of Corrections. He now works as a peer support specialist and with youth in Columbia. (Rebecca Smith/KBIA)

Nationally, people who are formerly incarcerated have an unemployment rate of around 27%, as reported by the Prison Policy Initiative analysis. For Black men, like Lockhart Bey, that statistic increases to about 35%.

In Missouri, the unemployment rate for people who are on parole was about 45% in 2020, according to a Missouri Department of Corrections report. That’s nearly 17 times the state’s current overall unemployment rate of 2.7%.

When people leave prison, their parole officer almost always requires the person to have employment and housing or else they can be in violation of their parole. This could potentially result in the person having to go back to prison. So, getting hired and keeping a job is a priority.
“If you can't get employment, you can't pay bills,” said Mataka Askari, a mental health and prison reform advocate in Columbia. “And so it's a whole ‘nother can of worms that opens up.”

Askari was in prison for almost 23 years. He remembers filling out applications for jobs and going through the interview process. When it was time to explain his conviction history, Askari answered honestly. Each time, he was rejected.

“I'm trying to do right, and I continue to run into things that frustrates me,” Askari said. “It's discouraging. And then, because sooner or later, the money that I'm using to maintain while I'm looking for a job is gonna run out. Then what?”

The recidivism rate, or the percentage of people who go back to prison, is almost 44%, according to a 2016 report from the Missouri Department of Corrections A number of reasons contribute to people’s repeat offenses, including unemployment.

Efforts to reduce barriers

When formerly incarcerated people apply for a job, it is usually necessary for them to share their history by checking a box on an application. Employers see their record and many choose not to move forward with the interview process, making the conviction status question an obstacle for someone with a felony.

“I'm trying to do right, and I continue to run into things that frustrates me. It's discouraging.”

- Mataka Askari, a mental health and prison reform advocate in Columbia

Ban the Box is a national campaign that promotes removing this question on job applications. Ban the Box helps people with convictions move forward in the hiring process because employers don’t automatically see someone’s criminal record.

An ordinance currently exists in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia that bans this question. Kansas City’s Ban the Box ordinance went into effect in 2018 and one in St. Louis went into effect in 2021. Columbia’s Fair Chance ordinance, which is inspired by Ban the Box and also gets rid of the conviction status question, was passed in 2014.

The passing of Ban the Box has allowed more formerly incarcerated people to get first interviews and hopefully be hired, said Steve Smith, the president and CEO of Columbia organization Job Point, which helps low-income people, including the formerly incarcerated, find employment.

“They answer the questions that are asked and are honest,” he said. “That background check comes into play, if the employer is looking to make an offer, and then they can address any legal history or that sort of thing on the tail end.”

This way, a potential hire with a conviction status has the opportunity to show their abilities without immediate judgment of their record. They can explain the circumstances around their criminal record thoroughly.

Ban the Box is working to improve the outcomes of employment in urban areas of Missouri. Another campaign, called the Missouri Clean Slate campaign, wants state-wide change. The campaign created legislation to automatically expunge records of people with convictions after a certain number of years.

The campaign states only about 1% of eligible Missourians get their records expunged. Gwen Smith, the criminal justice policy manager of the campaign, attributes this miniscule percentage to the significant amount of time and resources needed.

“It’s expensive, it's time consuming, (and) it's extremely confusing,” she said.

For someone to get their record expunged there are multiple requirements they must meet. First, a person’s offense must be eligible for expungement. For example, Class A felonies and registered sex offenders are not currently eligible. A person with a felony can apply for expungement three years after the end of their sentence, and they cannot commit a crime after finishing their sentence.

This process typically requires a lawyer. But hiring one can be expensive, especially when people who are formerly incarcerated may not have the funds to afford one.

From a productivity standpoint, Gwen Smith said more expungements would benefit workers and boost the state’s economy. That boost could be as much as $2.9 billion per year, according to an analysis from nonprofit Missouri Budget Project.

Lockhart Bey said re-entry into society is a difficult process for formerly incarcerated people because of blatant institutional problems.

“It is designed that way. But that's the system,” he said.“I'm not a part of the system. I'm a part of a network that is fighting for the lives of these children who don't have anybody fighting for them.”

This story was produced in collaboration with Missouri Business Alert.

For an audio transcript, click here.

Katie Quinn works for Missouri Business Alert. She studied radio journalism and political science at the University of Missouri- Columbia, and previously worked at KBIA.
Missouri Business Alert keeps business decision makers and entrepreneurs informed about the stories important to them, from corporate boardrooms to the state Capitol.
Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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