Female convicts seem to face greater challenges at least in part because the jobs they are suited for are more restrictive to ex-cons.
When Twanda Cleveland was growing up, she says her dad was nowhere to be found and her mom was on drugs. Things got so bad at her home in West Philadelphia that, at 16 years old, she moved out.
But she was determined to overcome the lousy hand she’d been dealt.
Cleveland, a petite 28-year-old with long, black hair that she often sweeps into a bun, graduated from high school and then enrolled in nursing school — something she had hoped to do since she was a kid.
“I wanted to become a nurse because I wanted the career. I wanted the future,” she said. “I always thought that in life, you can be anything you want to be if you put your mind to it.”
These days, though, she’s not so sure.
Back in 2005, Cleveland was charged with criminal trespassing and attempted theft. She denies any wrongdoing, but a Common Pleas judge found her guilty and sentenced her to a minimum of two years’ probation.
Ever since, Cleveland says she’s been like kryptonite to employers.
The only full-time work Cleveland has found in recent years has been temporary, and even that’s tough to get nowadays. She applied for dozens of jobs this summer, but got turned down by all of them.
“I’ve been putting in job applications, doing all I know how,” she said, “and nothing came through yet.”
A body of research has found that a criminal record can spell economic disaster for men. But for many years, few experts looked at how female ex-convicts fare in the job market — even as the number of women locked up in Pennsylvania and other states skyrocketed.
Recently, though, researchers have found evidence that women with criminal records might actually have a harder time finding a job than their male counterparts.
Experts say background checks, gender norms hold back women in the workplace
In April, Cleveland walked through the doors of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Community Legal Services. She was looking for help getting her criminal record expunged.
To her dismay, though, she found that felony and misdemeanor convictions can’t be erased in Pennsylvania.
Hundreds of other women have joined her in recent years. Jamie Gullen, an attorney at Community Legal Services, crunched the numbers and found that in 2012 and 2013, more female ex-convicts asked the nonprofit for help with expungements and other employment issues than their male counterparts.
This is despite the fact that many more men are incarcerated in Pennsylvania than women (in 2009, for instance, there were 48,656 men and 2,831 women in state prisons, according to the Department of Corrections).
“It really made us sort of stop to think about what was going on here,” said Gullen, “and look for ways we can better address the needs of this population.”
Gullen dove into research about the job prospects for women with criminal records. She could only locate a handful of studies, but they seemed to reflect what she was seeing at work.
In the mid-2000s, the D.C.-based Urban Institute surveyed 1,100 former prisoners in Ohio and Texas almost a year after they were released. More than half the men were employed, whereas only one-third of women had a job.
The men had also worked for more months than the women, and reported more positive employment outcomes.
Gullen says no one has collected this information in Pennsylvania. But a survey of about 300 ex-cons in Baltimore generated similar results as in the study on Ohio and Texas.
Gullen has a hunch about why this is: Women tend to apply for work in the retail and healthcare fields, she says, which rely heavily on criminal background screening.
Men, on the other hand, often look for jobs in the construction and manufacturing industries, says Gullen, which are more open to hiring people with criminal records.
Eighty-seven percent of retailers in the United States use criminal background checks as part of their hiring process, according to the trade group National Retail Federation. Robert Moraca, the NRF’s vice president for loss prevention, defended the practice in the statement.
“Retailers have a moral as well as a legal responsibility to ensure a safe and secure workplace,” he said. “Background screening is essential during the hiring process and provides employers a clearer sense of the individuals they are trusting to represent their brand, have close contact with their customers, and handle customers’ most private financial information.”
A number of felons are also barred by Pennsylvania law from working in home health care, nursing homes and other long-term facilities unless they meet certain requirements.
Academics say other potential reasons that women ex-cons may have trouble finding work include substance abuse issues, problems securing childcare, and gender stereotypes.
As part of a 2010 study, researchers at Arizona State University polled roughly 50 employers about hypothetical job applicants, including men and women who had the exact same criminal record. The employers reported they would have called back about 57 percent of the men for an interview, but only 30 percent of women.
“I think this goes back to the stereotype that crime is a man’s world, and that women who engage in it are seen as somehow not conforming to those gender stereotypes,” said Cassia Spohn, a co-author of the report and a criminal justice professor at Arizona State.
Cleveland says she has watched with jealousy as male ex-cons in her Philadelphia neighborhood have obtained work. She, too, believes gender norms may play a role.
“People put their trust so much in women,” she said. “I feel as though everybody is looking at us as women, like, ‘Oh no, she shouldn’t have a record.”
Spohn and other researchers cautioned that more work must be done to definitively say that women with criminal records face a bigger hurdle in the job market than men.
Few programs nationwide aimed at helping female ex-cons find work
Because the number of incarcerated women in Pennsylvania has grown exponentially over the last few decades, advocates for ex-convicts are desperately hoping for more research. According to the Department of Corrections, there were 597 women in state prisons in 1986; by 2009, that figure jumped to 2,831, an increase of 374 percent. The state’s male inmate population grew at the slower, though still rapid rate of 233 percent in the same time period.
Others argue that additional research could be used to help craft job-training programs for women with criminal records.
“We know that the the factors that predict success for men and for women are not identical,” said Spohn, “and so [focusing] specifically on women is vitally important if we’re going to understand how to ensure their success once they’ve been released from incarceration.”
That’s critical, criminal justice experts say, because there is a dearth of programs throughout the country dedicated solely to helping female ex-cons find work.
One exception is a 32-week class offered by the nonprofit MercyCorps Northwest in Portland, Ore. Since 2007, it has taught nearly 180 incarcerated women at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility how to start a business.
Surprisingly, deputy director Doug Cooper says the main goal of the program isn’t to turn the women into entrepreneurs, but to make them think like entrepreneurs.
For instance, he said, the instructors will ask women, “‘If you’re going to run your business, how do you interview somebody?'”
“That gives them a whole different perspective on when they do interviews,” he said.
To further explain, Cooper pointed to one of his former students. She applied for a job at a shoe store, but her first interview was cut short when the employer found out she had a criminal record.
Instead of giving up, Cooper says she wrote a letter to the employer outlining why she would make a good employee. Without the class, the student told Cooper she wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that.
“She also said that she wouldn’t have had the perspective of the employer to outline what she could bring as an employee, from the employer’s perspective, to the job,” he said.
The woman was hired and, soon after, promoted to store manager.
“I pray and I try to keep the faith”
Back in Philadelphia, Cleveland says she understands why employers have concerns about people with criminal records. But she wishes they would sometimes give people like her a second chance.
Cleveland and her three children — a 6-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son and toddler — get by on food stamps, some money from the children’s father, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a cash benefit from the federal government.
“Sometimes, I sit down on the couch, I cry,” she said. “My son be like, ‘Mom, it’s going to be alright.’ He be wiping my tears from my eyes.”
In March, Cleveland began receiving a stipend for work she did at the nonprofit Turning Points for Children, but says she was fired when the School District of Philadelphia, one of the group’s partners, found out she had a criminal record. (Under Pennsylvania law, felons are barred from working in schools for 10 years after completing their sentence.)
Following her conviction, Cleveland also abandoned her childhood dream of becoming a nurse. She became convinced that she wouldn’t ever get a job in the health care industry after being rejected by several employers in the field.
“Why should I go to school if I can’t pursue my career because of this record?” she said. “I gave up in life on everything. I wanted to have a future for my kids and them not to say, ‘Okay, Mommy’s sitting home. She’s on welfare.’ … But it got frustrating, so I really gave up.”
Gullen, the CLS attorney, agreed that while Cleveland isn’t barred by law from working in home health care or nursing homes, “it is extremely unlikely she would get hired” in those areas due to her criminal record.
On Cleveland’s block in North Philadelphia, there are more vacant lots and properties than occupied homes. Trash is strewn across the sidewalk, some of it so old it’s been bleached by the sun.
It’s hard for her to see a way out of here.
“The only thing I do is, I pray,” she said, “and I try to keep the faith.”