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For black women, finding work after prison has added challenges

Ingrid Archie might still be unemployed if A New Way of Life, a nonprofit organization helping formerly incarcerated women, had not offered her a job.

“It was close to being very difficult for me to find employment,” said Archie, 36. “I didn’t find employment outside of the organization.”

Archie has been incarcerated more than once. Growing up in foster care, surrounding herself with the wrong crowd, and dealing with postpartum depression all led to decisions that landed her in prison.

At 18, she was living with someone involved in gangs and drugs. Their home was raided, and officers seized a large amount of marijuana. She spent three years in state prison.

After she got out, she tried to get her life on track. She worked at Verizon for a couple of years when the company instituted a stricter policy involving employees with felonies. She was laid off, triggering several more rough years.

Finding work after prison, especially if you have a felony conviction, is “like an invisible wall that everyone faces,” Archie said.

And for black women, the outlook can be even bleaker.

A new report by UC Riverside sociologist Susila Gurusami details how employment requirements after prison disproportionately burden formerly incarcerated black women. And, failure to find a job can land black women back behind bars for violating terms of their parole, she found.

Gurusami’s analysis shows how people’s perceptions of black women, especially those with criminal records, can add to the difficulties in finding reliable work after prison. There is a belief that black women, who have had to grapple with stereotypes including the Ronald Reagan-era “welfare queen,” need to find particular types of work in order to be perceived by state agents as evidence of their moral rehabilitation, Gurusami said.

“There is a consistent underlying logic that seeks to devalue black women, particularly through the labor market,” she said.

Life After Prison

Gurusami — a South-Asian American woman — studies race, gender, and politics. She was particularly interested in learning how formerly incarcerated women experience life after prison.

She said she concentrated on women of color because this kind of research typically focuses on the experiences of white women.

Gurusami, 29, embedded herself at a South L.A. re-entry home for formerly incarcerated women. She spent time with 35 women, 24 of them black. Most were convicted for offenses related to drugs or sex work. Two of the women convicted for homicide said they acted in self-defense.

In about 18 months, Gurusami drove the women to medical appointments, attended their court hearings as advocates, helped with their job applications, and spent time in their homes.

Gurusami, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Riverside, noticed that as the women sought to convince parole and probation officers they were making efforts to find reliable employment, state agents often chastised them for attending school instead of finding full-time work. The women were also scolded for working temporary or contract-based employment.

For example, one woman attended trade school to compensate for not finding full-time work three months after her release. Her parole officer called her “lazy,” according to the report.

A woman who made some money doing work for websites was pressured to quit because her parole officer wanted her to find full-time work. Her job, according to her parole officer was too non-traditional, the report said.

Another woman who held two jobs — one of which was at Jack in the Box — was sent back to prison when a judge ruled that her employment was “insufficient evidence of her rehabilitation.”

Gurusami said parole officers can use significant personal discretion in determining what counts as an appropriate job.

These instances caused anxiety for some of the women “because there was little reliable work available to them and because they consequently faced threats of reincarceration from parole and probation officers,” Gurusami wrote.

Starting Over

These observations are not surprising for Vonya Quarles, who co-founded Starting Over, a transitional housing program focusing on post-conviction relief. It serves the areas of Long Beach, Los Angeles, Lakewood, and Corona.

“For whatever reasons, it’s a lot more difficult for African-American women even accessing re-entry services,” Quarles said.

“The perception of who and what an African-American woman is, is a barrier,” she added. “Often times, African-American women are viewed as almost inhumane, or disposable, or not of value.”

Additionally, Quarles said there are not enough black people working in service positions to extend opportunities to African-American women.

To help formerly incarcerated people find work, Starting Over contacts with private employers and encourages them to change hiring policies that can particularly help black women, Quarles said.

“We’ve seen some success,” she said.

Becoming An Activist

Many of the women Gurusami encountered searched for full-time employment with little success. However, many who did move forward did so by advocating for incarcerated people.

Such as Archie with A New Way of Life.

Archie has regained full custody of her two daughters. She’s working full-time at the agency, where her role is to inform people about Prop. 47, the ballot initiative California voters passed in 2014 that reduces certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors.

She also drives for Uber on the side.

But for now she’s focused on helping build that support system that helped her along the way.

“I just advocate a lot for women who have gone through the system,” she said.

By The Numbers

Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising
from 26,378 in 1980 to 215,332 in 2014.

In 2014, the imprisonment rate for African American women (109 per 100,000) was more than
twice the imprisonment rate for white women (53 per 100,000).

The rate of imprisonment for African American women has been declining since 2000, while the
rate of imprisonment for white women continues to rise.

Source: The Sentencing Project

Alejandra Molina
The Press-Enterprise

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