Job seekers face dilemma of prison credentials


ITHACA, NY – New research published March 11 in Criminology by Sadé Lindsay, a sociologist at the Cornell Brooks School of Public Policy, finds that formerly incarcerated face a “prison credential dilemma” when deciding to use credentials from prison education and training programs when seeking employment.

The research article, “Damn if you do, damn if you don’t: How formerly incarcerated men navigate the job market with prison credentials”, discusses the dilemma faced by thousands of formerly incarcerated job seekers who know little about how companies seeking help evaluate these credentials.

“Employers can use or misuse credentials in different ways,” Lindsay said. “Some may even use credentials to effectively screen formerly incarcerated applicants, thwarting their efforts to get good jobs.”

Lindsay conducted personal interviews with 50 formerly incarcerated men in Franklin County, Ohio to understand how they deal with the uncertainty this dilemma brings when looking for a job.

Prison credentials – program certificates and work experiences obtained in prison – were seen as a solution to counter the negative mark of a criminal record by signaling to employers that a formerly incarcerated person was not an offender and that she was ready for a job. Still, Lindsay says the effectiveness of these degrees in the job market has been highly variable across studies dating back to the 1960s.

Lindsay attributes these inconsistencies to the dilemma of prison credentials and has found that the use of these credentials varies widely among formerly incarcerated men. In his study, participants often wondered if they even had to use their prison degrees, and if so, how to ensure they weren’t simply reporting negative qualities they wanted to counteract by earning them.

Race plays a role in the dilemma. Black men are reluctant to present their degrees because they fear being stereotyped and relegated to low-paying jobs due to racial discrimination and structural racism, Lindsay found. Yet black men especially depend on prison credentials to tangibly demonstrate redeemable qualities that combat these prevailing stereotypes.

A practical short-term solution comes from something as simple as changing the name of the establishment on the title. Any prison references could be from educational and professional organizations outside of prison to ensure they are formally connected to those organizations rather than the prison itself, Lindsay said.

For more information see this History of the Cornell Chronicle.

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