‘At any time, I have to relive all that negativity:’ Barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated people

Dave Wilkes was wrongfully convicted in 2010 of murdering his son based on the unproven diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Wilkes’ fight for his freedom ended nine years later when he worked with the Montana Innocence Project to overturn his conviction. But upon his release, a new battle ensued: finding a job. 

“I either didn’t get a callback or didn’t get an interview,” Wilkes said. “…‘Oh my god, this guy’s a convicted murderer. He’s a baby killer.’ I think that played a big role in it.”

Dave Wilkes and son Gabriel
Dave Wilkes and son Gabriel (Photo courtesy of Dave Wilkes)

The Barriers

For returning citizens, securing employment is often difficult and sometimes impossible due to the stigmatization of incarceration and the new barriers that incarceration creates like having a gap in your work history. According to the Prison Policy Institute, formerly incarcerated people are almost five times more likely to be unemployed than people who have never experienced incarceration, and when returning citizens are successful in finding employment, they usually fill positions with poor job security. 

Benny Lacayo is the Community Organizer for the re-entry organization Welcome Back and a leader on Missoula Works’ Get It Done Crew, which assists formerly incarcerated people with barriers to employment. He said one of the biggest hurdles for returning citizens is checking the box that asks if you have ever been convicted of a crime. Lacayo said another challenge is finding a job that provides enough financial security to cover court-related costs like drug tests that also has the flexibility to make appointments with supervisory entities like parole and treatment programs. 

“They expect you to pay for these things, and you’re already working a job that pays you very minimal, and then you have to go to that class, which takes away from you going to work,” Lacayo said. “Sometimes, jobs don’t want to hire felons because they know that there won’t be consistency.”

According to criminologists Mark Berg and Beth Huebner, employment decreases recidivism because having a steady job gives returning citizens a sense of identity while also placing restrictions on their routines, which reduces exposure to situations that may be conducive to criminality. Lacayo has seen this cycle in action.

“With guys who were down for years, it’s like, there’s this excitement that they have a chance,” Lacayo said. “And you get out, and the realization is that the opportunities aren’t there, so you go back to the mindset of, ‘Okay, what can I do to hustle to make ends meet?’ So your mindset isn’t that you just want to go back to doing bad things. It’s that you’re trying to survive.” 

The Impact 

Prior to his wrongful conviction, Wilkes owned a tattoo shop, but he was only able to secure a job upon his release from prison because of a personal connection with someone who worked at a commercial cleaning company. When his case was finalized and he was able to leave Missoula, he moved to Missouri to be near family. Again, Wilkes found a job through a personal connection. This time, it was his brother who vouched for him. But by the time he got to Missouri, the employer denied him the position, citing an issue in the company as the reason. 

“Well, I knew it was bullshit because he probably read into my story a little more,” Wilkes said. “It’s beyond difficult not just for the people who are trying to hire someone who is willing to work but the mental health for the guy or gal that’s trying to get a job because they continue to get turned down, turned down, turned down.” 

These obstacles existed for Wilkes despite his conviction being overturned. He said that some employers do not believe he was wrongfully convicted and others do not believe it enough to take the chance. 

“What’s sad is I was one of the people who sat on the sidelines like, ‘Yep, that guy’s a piece of work,’ and then right back to my daily life,” Wilkes said. “Never gave it a second thought until what I went through. God forbid anyone should have to go through that to open their eyes, but, again, I think most people are like, ‘Well, I can’t hire him. He’s a murderer. What if he decides to go off one day, or loses his shit, or whatever.’ I can respect that, but if you’ve been wrongfully convicted, then that actually didn’t happen. But too many people will just be done and on to the next.” 

When Lacayo was released after spending two and a half years in prison, it took him months to find a stable job. He was in a position for about a year when a change in management at the business led to him being laid off.

“You have to start all over again every single time,” Lacayo said. “At any time, I have to relive all that negativity all over again.”

Potential Remedies

Lacayo is now an advocate for returning citizens in the Missoula community. But the fear of having to relive his past is ever-present. Because of this, he supports examining re-entry through a restorative justice lens, which he defines as a system of criminal justice that focuses on rehabilitation and makes opportunities for those who have offended to have reconciliation with their victims and the community at large. 

“When something’s been restored, there’s no need to constantly remind the person who offended of their past, and it allows both parties to grow in their life,” Lacayo said. “I think if we change the way we look at criminals, and we stop polarizing things where you’re either good or your bad, knowing that sometimes good people do bad things, then people aren’t going to be focused on your past. They’re going to be focused on where you’re at now and where you want to go in life.”

Welcome Back Logo (Photo courtesy of Benny Lacayo)

In addition to promoting forgiveness and healing for those who have offended and those who have been victimized, Lacayo suggests normalizing the need for help as a crime-prevention tool. 

“If you’re thinking a certain way that isn’t normal, being silent and not coming forward because they’re afraid of what people are going to think…if that fear was not there, then I feel like crimes would go down a lot,” Lacayo said. “Even with me and my crime, I am not using it as an excuse, but I believe there’s a big chance that if I could have sought help that I wouldn’t have committed that crime.”

Another remedy is certificates of rehabilitation. The Montana Coalition for Public Safety, which the Montana Innocence Project is a part of, advocates for the creation of a certificate that signals to employers that individuals have paid their debt to society and should now be given job opportunities. 

And for the wrongfully convicted who face these obstacles despite having proved their innocence, there is the remedy of exoneree compensation. While no amount of money can give innocent people time back that they spent wrongfully incarcerated, it can assist by minimizing the impacts of the barriers to employment. The Montana Innocence Project worked to pass an exoneree compensation bill earlier this year and remains committed to improving the legislation in the 2023 Session. 

Nelson Mandela famously said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

“That really speaks to me and just how our society really needs to change,” Lacayo said. “We say we’re such a great nation, but we cause a lot of harm, and we don’t like to focus on those things.” 

To continue the discussion about re-entry, join us for our virtual Wrongful Conviction Day panel featuring Lacayo, Wilkes, and Missoula-based social worker Jenea Buhler on October 1 from 2-3:30 p.m. Follow us on social for more information!