It’s a common story: people serve their time in prison in a useful manner, remaking their lives, so when they return to the world they are able to move forward and start fresh with new employment. That’s their goal, but it’s rarely the reality. Moving forward after a prison sentence and re-making one’s life can be a lot more difficult than even making the decision to change because obtaining employment is almost impossible.
Shari L. Thomas knows this story all too well. More than 25 years ago, she went to prison for killing the man she alleges abused her as a child. During her prison sentence she remade herself, becoming the first woman in Virginia’s history to receive a college degree from behind bars. After being released she went on to earn a master’s degree in biotechnology. She has been able to keep her record clean since leaving prison. She also has a full time career, managing research laboratories for major hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.
Despite the fact that she’s moved on an achieved so much with her career, her criminal record still takes ahold of her life – Thomas has been rejected or terminated from several high-paying jobs. A little over six years ago she had been making $150,000. Now she subsists off of food stamps. Even jobs applications at Sheetz, Wal-Mart and other retailers have been denied. She now faces losing her home in Cecil County, Md.
Though Americans are starting to reconsider their views on crime and punishment (we can see this is the relaxing of drug laws across the nation, and the new prison term laws that have gone into effect in Los Angeles over the last year) there are a number of possible reasons: the nation’s fear of crime, its litigiousness, or maybe how easy it is to research a person’s background information on the Internet.
“I came home and got my master’s degree,” said Thomas, 50. “I’d been working 18 years with no problem. When is enough enough?”
This isn’t just Thomas’ story though. Many ex-convicts are hopeful they will have a second chance when their time is served. Because she was a violent offender, her path to acceptance is a harder one.
Each year, more than 600,000 former inmates return home to their communities. Of that 600,000, about half return to prison. Even minor convictions can prevent someone from finding a job, and as a result, they return to crime.
The Shift in Viewpoint
President of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, feels that the moment has arrived: people’s views about rehabilitating felons is starting to shift in conjunction with the nation’s growing concern over large and costly prison populations.
“We’re at a potentially transformative moment in American history,” said Brooks.
To continue the push towards breaking this cycle, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and other organizations have been pushing “Ban the Box” legislation. This new legislation would prohibit employers from disqualifying job seekers on the basis of a criminal record when they do their preliminary hiring screening. This practice already exists in fourteen states and the District, as well as a 100 cities and counties, according to the National Employment Law Project.
A Virginia bill that would have made it illegal for state agencies to inquire about criminal background records until after the job offer had been made passed the Senate but died in the House. Recently, Maryland’s legislature unanimously passed the Maryland Second Chance Act. This Act allows people to be able to petition a court to seal records of certain nonviolent offenses.
Employers and Seeking Employment
Though these kind of reforms are happening across the nation, employers are still resistant to the idea.
“It’s well intended and valid in its ambition, but this is not the way to go about it,” said Jack Mozloom, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business. According to him, these types of policies are serious burdens on small companies, he said.
Small businesses that are often unable to afford the time or expense to investigate an applicant’s criminal background, should have the right to ask about a matter of public record, Mozloom said.
“You hire somebody with a felony record, you want to have the conversation: ‘I see you’ve done this. Why should I trust you?’ ” Mozloom said. “They need to explain why they deserve a second chance.”
Shari L. Thomas’ Story
When Thomas entered the criminal justice system in Virginia it was just around the time the public was reexamining its view regarding women who had killed husbands or close companions after suffering years of abuse. During that same time in Maryland, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer freed eight females who had killed their abusers. He then argued that it was time for the circumstances around Thomas’ crime be reexamined.
According to Thomas, at 12 years old, her mother’s live-in boyfriend began molesting her. Even after Thomas alerted adults to the situation, the abuse continued for five years more.
Thomas dropped out of school, got married and had three children. But the trauma of the abuse remained with her. According to her, it transformed her into a “mannequin” that seemed normal to everyone on the outside, but completely empty on the inside.
She attempted suicide three times. And then at 26, armed with a gun, she decided it was time to confront her abuser. She demanded to know why he had done it. He replied that she must have liked the sex or else she would have stopped it. At that point, according to Thomas, she shot him. She turned herself in the following day.
Thomas plead guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years, with 20 years suspended. She was incarcerated at the Virginia Correctional Facility for Women in Goochland. After seven years served, due to the circumstances of the killing and her model behavior during her time served, she was released. Since her release her record has been clean. The only blip was a minor, non-moving traffic violation for failing to notify the Motor Vehicle Administration of an address change within the allotted time.
When Thomas is asked about her criminal records on job applications, she answers depending on how the application is worded. She is able to check “no” on applications that ask whether she has been convicted of a crime within the past 10 years or another specified period. If the application asks if she has been convicted for a felony, she answers yes, but usually adds in that she wishes to explain further in person. For the jobs she is hired for, she is often let go after employers run a more extensive background check.
During background checks has become a much easier practice over the past few years thanks to the Internet. Firms such as Intelius, PeopleSmart and PeopleFinders have made it easy, and large corporations are often able to run their own extensive checks.
“I can’t tell you how many jobs she’s been through. It’s frustrating,” said Douglas Van Nostrand, director of nuclear medicine at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Van Nostrand hired Thomas for an entry-level position in his research program years ago. Since then he has been a reference for her.
“I have a great deal of sympathy for her situation and new insight — that I had never understood that when someone comes out with a first-degree felony, it’s going to be very difficult for that person to get a job anywhere,” Van Nostrand said. “. . . This is, as she phrased it, paying the punishment continually, and she’s 25 years out.”
Last year, a California pharmaceutical firm conducted telephone interviews with Thomas. Passing that, they flew her out for three days of interviews and offered to bump up her previous $148,000 salary. Thomas then disclosed her criminal record.
“I need to tell you something that you’re going to find out,” Thomas said she told a human resources representative. She was thanked for her honesty. And then, according to Thomas, “Before I could get on the airplane . . . I got a call saying, ‘You were lovely, we really enjoyed having you here, but we decided to go with someone else.’ ”
Just earlier this year, Thomas was hired at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company. She spent exactly one week there. The recruiting company that had placed her there had run a background check that went back seven to 10 years. After GSK ran a check that went back 30 years, she was escorted from the premises. She was in tears as a result of the public humiliation.
GSK, citing privacy reasons, would not comment on the specific case, but also defended its hiring practices. “GSK’s recruitment and retention practices related to an applicant’s criminal record are consistent with [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] guidance and state and local laws,” GSK spokeswoman Melinda Stubbee said in an e-mail.
Before GSK, Thomas was hired on at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Princeton, N.J. She was there only a month, from Jan. 12 to Feb. 13 — a dismissal that was especially odd because she worked mostly from home.
Bristol-Myers Squibb denied allegations that they dismissed Thomas because of her criminal record. According to spokesman Ken Dominski, Thomas was not a full-time employee with the company and had been placed there by Spectraforce Technologies, a staffing agency based in Raleigh, N.C.
Dominiski went on to say that Spectraforce had cleared Thomas based on its background check, and Bristol-Myers Squibb had no access to her criminal record. Thomas was let go because of “unsatisfactory performance,” Dominski said. He did not elaborate.
But the termination was a shock – Thomas had just received a promotion with a possible increase in pay a little more than two weeks earlier.
Though Thomas asked in writing for them to waive her rights to privacy, Leah B. Poplin, human resources director for Spectraforce, declined to comment.
Thomas has also sought the help of W. Keith Watanabe, an employment lawyer to help her with her situation. Watanabe says employers seldom state the reason for dismissal, especially for contractors such as Thomas.
“The reason why the performance reason is given as a reason is it covers all manners of sin,” Watanabe said. “Because of its vagueness and its ambiguity, it can mean whatever the employer wants it to mean.”
While Thomas knows other discriminatory factors might also be strikes against her, including: age, race and gender, the evidence all seems to point to the fact that she’s still paying for a crime that occurred half a lifetime ago.
“I just feel like the punishment never ends,” she said.