Unemployment after incarceration is common, with roughly 27% of previously incarcerated people unemployed in 2017.
While finding a job after incarceration can be challenging, it's possible with the right knowledge and preparation.
The tips in this article can help you save time during your job search, put a positive spin on your incarceration, and improve your odds of success.
If you’ve recently been incarcerated, finding work again may feel like an uphill climb. However, you’re not alone. Roughly 27% of previously incarcerated people (“returning citizens”) were unemployed in 20171—and 2022 data suggests the situation hasn’t improved since the pandemic.
Reentering the workforce after incarceration can be challenging, but “challenging” isn’t the same as “impossible.” With the right knowledge and resources, you can find meaningful work after your release. We’ve shared some tips to help you navigate your path forward.
Tips for finding a job after incarceration
1. Know which jobs you won’t be able to get.
Some jobs are off-limits if you have a felony conviction on your record. Understanding what these are can save you time and make your job search a more positive experience.
Many states prohibit people with felony convictions from applying to jobs in law enforcement. There are also laws allowing employers to reject your application if your conviction is related to the job at hand. For example, someone convicted of a money-related offense may be banned from working in a bank or other financial institution. A person with a firearm offense on their record will be unable to work in a setting where weapons are used. Previously incarcerated individuals may also have difficulty obtaining a state-issued license required for jobs in real estate, healthcare, accounting, education, and child care.
The passage of time can create more opportunities for employment. This is because many organizations place limits on hiring restrictions (10 years post-conviction, for example).
Hiring restrictions for returning citizens are complex and vary from state to state. It's important to learn about the mandates that apply to you before starting your job search.
2. Review your record of prior convictions to make sure it’s accurate.
It’s not uncommon for a record of convictions to contain errors. Since many employers run background checks, you’ll want to make sure what they see is 100% correct. You can request a copy of your record by contacting the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the relevant agency in your state (e.g., your state police department).
3. Be honest about your past.
You don’t have to share every detail about a prior incarceration or what landed you there. However, since the vast majority of businesses run background checks on candidates, it’s important to be truthful about your history. Resist the temptation to put false information on your job application. If you are dishonest and it’s found out later, you could be immediately terminated.
4. Take time to develop your narrative.
A prior incarceration on your record may not instantly take you out of the running for a job. But it’s up to you to show employers why you deserve a second chance. That why it’s important to think up front about what you’re going to say during interviews.
How do you put a positive spin on your incarceration? Frame it as a story of personal growth and redemption—not a black mark on your past.
Show you’ve learned from your mistakes and you’re ready to turn your life around. Explain how this humbling experience changed you and provided you with new goals to strive for in life.
You’ll also want to emphasize any degrees or certifications you earned or jobs you held while incarcerated, as well as practical skills you gained. Transferable skills include not only technical or trade skills, but also problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership skills.
5. Know which companies are open to hiring returning citizens.
Many businesses are open to hiring previously incarcerated people. Not only that; these companies have strict policies in place to prevent discrimination. You can find thousands of open positions from employers like this at Felony Record Hub, an online resource and job board dedicated to helping returning citizens find work.
Start by reading the site’s comprehensive job guide, which explains what to expect during your job search and provides tips on making yourself stand out to employers. When you’re ready to look for work, you can search job listings and sort by keyword or location.
Another good resource is ReentryWorks.com, which provides an alphabetized list of employers that routinely hire formerly incarcerated candidates.
6. Find support to help you get back on your feet.
If you were recently incarcerated, the federal government has programs that can empower you to find employment and start your new life. One of these is American Job Centers, which help returning citizens find work through career counseling and job skills training as well as assistance with housing, child care, and health insurance.
Jails to Jobs is another organization dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated people reenter the workforce. Their website offers job-search strategies and resume-building tips and provides access to networking and training opportunities.
Your state may offer its own reintegration services as well. For instance, Boston Project Rebound Re-Entry Services helps previously incarcerated men and women have a smooth and safe transition back into their communities.
7. Look for a "transition" job first.
You may not find your ideal job right after incarceration, but don't be discouraged. Think of your first post-release position as a steppingstone to an eventual better one. Use any skills you acquired while incarcerated (such as cooking or carpentry) to increase your odds of finding an opportunity. This "transition" job will allow you to earn some money and build trust with an employer. With your newly gained experience and credibility, you'll be better positioned to find your dream job.
8. Explore the option of starting your own business.
If you have a certain talent or skill, you might skip the job search and start your own business instead. Programs like Inmates to Entrepreneurs offer free entrepreneurial training to returning citizens. Small-business loan programs may be able to help you find funding to get your business off the ground.
If you like the idea of setting your own hours but don't necessarily want to start a business, consider gig work—such as being an Uber driver or a delivery person for DoorDash. Both companies have their doors open to returning citizens. In fact, Uber explicitly supports initiatives and policies that promote opportunities for previously incarcerated people.
9. Volunteer in your community.
Building relationships after your release—beyond friends and family—is vital to your reintegration. Consider volunteering your time and talents to a local charity, nonprofit organization, or church. Volunteering gives you the opportunity to:
- Create ties in your community and feel a sense of belonging
- Do important work that you can put on your resume
- Build your network, an essential part of finding a job
10. Above all, don’t give up.
Repeated rejections can wear on you and hurt your confidence. But when it comes to finding employment after incarceration, perseverance is key. As time goes on, new and different jobs will become available, and the mistakes of your past will drift further away. It just takes that one opportunity to prove your worth—so hold your head up high and keep going.
1. Out of Prison & Out of Work: Unemployment among formerly incarcerated people, Prison Policy Initiative. Found on the internet at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/outofwork.html