Kayla Stone started drinking when she was 14 and didn’t stop until she was 32 and in prison, where she spent nearly three years.
She never held down a job for long because her alcohol abuse and multiple felonies meant she’d have to check the corresponding box on most job applications.
“Every time I’ve had to check that box I’ve almost cried because you automatically feel like that’s it. That’s the only thing they’re going to see,” she said. “It makes you feel incredibly ashamed because that’s not the person I am now, but it’s there on paper.”
She was given an opportunity at Hyatt Regency Tulsa, where she was hired on as a night auditor, then was promoted to p.m. supervisor and then a.m. supervisor before being named front office manager last week.
“To go from where I came from to this is really crazy,” she said.
She credits a lot her success to Resonance Center for Women, which helps women affected by incarceration through diversion and re-entry programs that provide substance abuse counseling, case management and mentoring services.
“Resonance gave me the confidence I needed to look past my own felonies myself and let me put myself out there in a way that other people could see I have changed,” she said.
Resonance works with a number of employers who are willing to give a second chance to someone with a criminal background.
“However, we have no employer that says all felons welcome. It’s really about who fits with their organizational environment and culture,” said Cathy Hodges, re-entry director with Resonance. “They just don’t hold the felony against them.”
According to a report from PEW Charitable Trusts, past incarceration reduces wages by 11 percent, cuts annual employment by nine weeks and reduces yearly earnings by 40 percent.
Barriers facing people leaving prison include lack of transportation and housing, a history of generational poverty, past trauma, lack of access to treatment and limited education and job experience.
“They’ve got exorbitant court costs and fees hanging over their head immediately, and if you don’t pay those things, they will put you back in jail,” Hodges said. “There’s a lot of pressure.”
Last year Resonance served more than 560 clients in its re-entry program, a 25 percent increase over the previous year.
“We aren’t running out of people who need help, and employment is a major issue,” Hodges said.
Ban the box
“Ban the box” is a growing movement aimed at removing the box that asks about arrests or convictions when people are applying for jobs.
Kelly Doyle, regional director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, said she encourages businesses to not include questions about felony convictions on job applications.
“We feel like the little box that they provide to explain the biggest mistakes of someone’s life is not really helping employers and maybe screening out people that are really good candidates.”
The Center for Employment Opportunities employs people coming out of prison on parole in transitional jobs where they build skills and experience before helping to place them in permanent jobs.
“We try to encourage employers to wait until they meet a candidate to determine if they are qualified before entering into questions about their background,” Doyle said. “That way it gives them an opportunity to get to know a person and learn what skills and abilities they have and then hear directly from the person about their criminal history.”
Waiting to discuss a potential employee’s criminal background until the interview process allows the candidate the chance to explain their past and also show what positive steps they have taken since conviction.
A 2017 count of Oklahoma’s corrections system found 34,710 people under supervision, 25,730 in state prisons and 1,569 in county jails awaiting transport to state facilities.
“That’s a giant pool of workers you’re missing out on,” Doyle said.
Excluding candidates for certain types of offenses is also limiting for employers and keeps people out of jobs in which they could excel.
Violent offenses can range from causing harm to someone to being intoxicated and aggressive with an officer during an arrest.
“It’s difficult to exclude people with violent crimes when the nature of them is so murky,” Doyle said.
CEO Tulsa has placed more than 1,000 participants with 400 companies since opening in 2011. Around 40 companies have hired five or more participants.
“We all want people who are coming home from prison to have a job,” Doyle said. “When we exclude them from the workforce, we are excluding people who are living next to us, who are parents, who are looking for a second chance.”
HiCORP, a 50-year-old Tulsa company specializing in point of purchasing advertising, advertising specialty items and warehouse fulfillment, has 24 full-time employees and 15-40 part-timers.
The owners and staff view the company as a place for second chances and have hired several people with felony convictions over the years.
“We bring them in and love them, and as long as they are making good decisions, we want to keep them on,” said Forrest Carpenter, warehouse services manager.
At any given time there could be 10 employees with a criminal background, and that can increase when the number of part-timers increases.
“It’s very hard for them to find good work,” Carpenter said. “The world is very harsh, and a lot of companies look for that and stay away.”
He said it takes more time, understanding and caring to hire people who are in need of a second chance.
“A strong part of making the community better is by helping people who are wanting to re-establish their lives after they’ve made bad choices,” Carpenter said.
HiCORP works with programs like Resonance to find employees in need of a second chance as well as taking in those who have not received re-entry assistance from an area agency.
Drea Murray found herself with limited options when she was released from prison in 2012. She was convicted of kidnapping and could not participate in a re-entry program while incarcerated.
She found part-time work at a fast-food restaurant before being referred to HiCORP by a friend in her recovery group.
Murray, who worked her way into a full-time position as a display coordinator at HiCORP, is thankful for the opportunity.
“Without a job you can’t be a productive member of society, and without a job people fall back into their old ways,” she said.
“The main stress when you get out is how are you going to support yourself and eat and take care of your children. And it’s really sad because I’ve seen so many people from my past go back into prison because they’ve been unable to reintegrate.”