By Lisa Rab
William Camper searched for jobs for six years after being released from an Ohio prison in 2011. He had spent more than a decade behind bars for selling cocaine while battling his own addiction. Even after he got out, he still felt trapped. He interviewed at McDonald’s and signed up with temp agencies that rarely sent him on assignments. He was homeless for a while, struggling to live on $20 a month, and could not pay child support for his 10 kids. Hiring managers would size him up quickly: round face, wire-frame glasses, a butterfly tattoo on his forehead. “Once they see me with tattoos on my face, it’s basically downhill from there,” he recalled.
Each year, about 23,000 inmates like Camper leave prisons in Ohio, and 640,000 are released from prisons across the country. Nearly two-thirds of them can’t find a job within the first year and a majority of them are arrested again within three years. Not getting a job doesn’t hurt just the former inmate, it hits the whole economy. One think tank estimated that the cost of not hiring felons is $87 billion in gross domestic product every year. Governments have tried to address the issue. In 2016, the Obama administration invited corporations to sign a “fair chance” business pledge to help reintegrate felons into civilian life. Major companies such as Total Wine & More promised to hire people with criminal records. Koch Industries and Walmart no longer perform a background check until after an applicant has been offered a job.
Joe DeLoss, a serial entrepreneur in Columbus, viewed former prisoners as business assets, not charity cases. He knew they were potentially loyal employees who would not take an entry-level job for granted. DeLoss aspired to build a company with a double mission: make money using a workforce the rest of the private sector had largely ignored. And he wanted to accomplish this goal using a somewhat unusual product: spicy fried chicken.
Four years ago, he opened his first location of Hot Chicken Takeover. Today, about 70 percent of his 150 employees are people who were once imprisoned or homeless, recovering addicts and others who have struggled to find employment. He also has a thriving business that has three restaurants and ambitions to expand regionally and even nationally. In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, DeLoss’ workforce comprises a tiny fraction of the 70 million Americans with some kind of criminal record, but he’s promoting a concept that social scientists have long said reduces the chances they will re-offend.
“Our own research found that people who get jobs are less likely to return to prison,” says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “It’s not just getting a job, but retaining that job over time”—particularly one that pays a living wage.