Brock McCourt got lucky when it came to finding a job after being locked up on felony drug, weapon and burglary convictions.
The 31-year-old from Wasilla, who became addicted to methamphetamine after his father died in 2008, happened to meet a manager from the Travelodge Hotel on the day he was released from Lemon Creek Correctional Center to a Juneau halfway house. He was hired as a housekeeper.
“That got me started,” McCourt said of his first job after prison, adding he is now sober, works in construction and is able to provide for himself and his family.
McCourt was one of the guest speakers at LCCC on Saturday for a program, called “Success: Inside and Out,” that helps inmates with their transitions back into society. The sixth annual event aimed to provide resources — as well as inspirational messages from former inmates — to help inmates secure housing, education and employment.
Finding work isn’t easy for those bearing the label of convicted felon. They face innumerable barriers to employment, according to Michael Hutcherson of the Juneau Job Center, who sat down with inmates one-on-one Saturday, offering tips on resumes, job interview skills and general life advice.
Some of those barriers include being barred from certain occupations, lack of job experience, skills or education and employers who are unwilling to risk hiring someone with a criminal record. Hutcherson said helping recently released inmates find work in entry-level jobs, such as in the food industry, is hard, but not impossible; Juneau businesses are probably split 50-50 in terms of those who hire people with criminal records, he said.
The struggle, he said, is to finding them careers that are lasting and offer benefits. The Juneau Job Center recently polled about 150 such businesses in Juneau, and found only 10 identified as being “felon friendly” as far as hiring practices, he said.
“Having been at this job center for 20-plus years, you get to see individuals who succeed and fail, and what has become glaringly obvious is the individuals that have had these challenges in their background have found it incredibly tough to secure employment that’s really going to allow them to work in a career that’s going to provide a living wage, benefits, all that stuff,” he said.
For Nicole Jean Clayton, who has been in and out of jail and drug treatment facilities since she was 12 years old and received her first felony conviction at 19, said her biggest employment barriers are her lack of job experience and her sobriety.
“I’m not OK with the way I’m living, I’m not OK with not having a place to live, I’m scared of getting out and not finding a job,” she said. “I don’t know how to do that (hold down a job) because I chose to sell drugs instead.”
She’s worked as a barista before, but it didn’t work out. She is now thinking of getting into carpentry or construction when she’s released in May.
“I’ve been doing this stuff since I was 12,” she said. “I want to be free. I want to see if I can make it on my own.”
Hutcherson said one of the biggest barriers lies not with employers who won’t hire people with a criminal record, but with the inmates themselves who struggle with the stigma of being a felon. He said it’s typical for that label to affect their sense of self-worth, which discourages them from applying for jobs.
“Their self-esteem is so low, they don’t think of pursuing something along the lines of a career. They’re ashamed, feel less-than and less valued,” he said. “Instead of having them feeling sorry for themselves or being rejected to the point where they think, ‘Oh, what the hell, I might as well re-offend or re-use,’ we try to get them to see the possibility of a different way of life and different outcomes as opposed to the thing that led them to be incarcerated in the first place.”
The job center provides a vocational counselor to help “build them up,” to encourage them to consider careers that would be a good fit for them, he said. Hutcherson visits inmates on a monthly basis to get them thinking about careers, and he helped host the job center’s first re-entry workshop specifically tailored to former inmates at the center last month.
Joel Mundy remembered the feelings of low self-worth. He was at the jail Saturday informing inmates about the opportunities the University of Alaska Southeast offers, but it wasn’t long ago he was the one behind bars.
A self-described pill-taker, Mundy said he struggled with drug addiction and landed up in Lemon Creek for 80 days on a drug-related offense. Upon his release, he said he felt alienated and his self-esteem was at an all-time low.
“Being labeled a felon just really affects your perception of yourself,” he said.
Mundy sought solace at the university, and they offered him a student job in the IT department. Two years later, he was hired full-time.
He talked with inmates Saturday about how to apply for grants to pay for college and informed them about certain classes and programs UAS offers. He encouraged them to check out the school’s programs as an alternative to a menial job.
“You gotta just apply and see what happens,” he urged.
UAS Associate Dean of Career Education for Juneau Programs Robin Gilcrest said UAS is an open enrollment university and there’s no problem with convicted felons applying so long as they have a GED. The school has many people currently in custody at the halfway house that are enrolled in some of its career programs (such as the auto, construction and mining programs), she said. That number is sometimes as high as 15 percent of the student population of the programs.
“We’ve really been impressed with the students through the halfway house, and how successful they’ve been,” she said. “At first I was a little skeptical, but they’re just like everybody else.”
Inmate Melanie Long, who has been in and out of prison about eight times, said she wants to go back to school, but right now she’s focused on her sobriety. The 34-year-old said she used to lie during job interviews in the past to explain the three-year gap in her resume. She told employers that she took time off to have a child when she really was serving time for a drug offense, admittedly not a good start to a job, she said. More recently, she’s been up front about her past and directly asks employers to give her a chance. She said that did the trick for her last job she had a fishery in Sitka.
“I was just allowing it to be another obstacle,” she said of her status as a felon.
Likewise, Nicole David, 35, of Seattle, wants to go back to school. Before she got mixed up in drugs and was caught transporting heroin at the Juneau airport last summer, she was a broker and loan officer.
Katie Chapman, the head of the Juneau Re-entry Coalition, said helping inmates find work after prison is one thing that can help cut down on recidivism. When people who have been released can’t find work, it increases the chance they will re-offend and land back in jail, she said.
“It’s a continuous cycle,” she noted.
The coalition, a group of concerned citizens that formed last January to find solutions to high recidivism rates, recently began a push to educate employers in the capital city about the benefits of hiring people with criminal records. Such benefits can include tax breaks and fidelity bonding as a form of business insurance.
Retired Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti told the audience at the jail that recidivism rates are still “shockingly high” in Alaska. More than two-thirds of state prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release, and half are reincarcerated, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Hutcherson said that, at the job center, he can really can only help people who have worked to address the root issues of their troubles. If the real problem is not addressed, it’s likely the person will re-offend.
“When I see individuals who re-offend and go back in, it’s usually drug-related,” he said. “If you don’t get that treatment and issue resolved, you multiply that by not having worked, then it’s a recipe for possible disaster, it really is.”
He hopes businesses will hire the most qualified applicant for the job. But he also hopes felons or those with criminal records get a fair shot, too, if the job seems like the right fit.
“(If I were an employer) I would look at person’s skills training and experiences first, and then I would consider the charges or offense, if it would directly affect my business or hours of operation or any other inside consideration,” he said.
He noted, though, with a chuckle, “The thing about it is oftentimes the person when they’re getting a second chance is a lot better employee than someone who isn’t.”
Inmate Shane McCourt, Brock McCourt’s older brother, said he doubts anyone would hire him once he’s released from prison between his extensive criminal history and face tattoos.
“It’s difficult,” he said, pointing to the industrial-looking gears tattooed along his hairline and over his scalp.
The 34-year-old has been in and out of prison his whole life for a variety of felony offenses including burglary, robbery and theft. He’d rather create his own job than face the near-certain rejection of potential employers.
“I’m an artist,” he said, adding that maybe once he gets out in four years he will continue carving wood. He doesn’t entertain the idea of trying to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a mechanic and restoring old cars like his late father used to do.
“I wouldn’t even know where to start,” he said.
He paused, though, and looked at his younger brother, who was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and walking among the other inmates, even chatting with the jail’s superintendent.
“He’s doing it,” Shane McCourt said. “So I guess if you want it, go get it.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.