How Systemic Barriers Keep the Formerly Incarcerated From Rebuilding Their Lives
Lara Love Hardin on Reaching Her True Potential After Prison—And Helping Others Do The Same
In the real world, one graduate degree does not trump one felony, much less thirty-two.
Because one of my felonies is for drug possession, I can’t get any cash welfare benefits. The welfare system automatically assumes anyone with a prior drug conviction will spend their money on dope rather than rent, utilities, gas, and food. It doesn’t matter that all my drug tests are clean, or that I’m a graduate of Sobriety Works. The conviction is on my record and that’s the only context that matters. If I had gone to drug court this wouldn’t be an issue—my record would have been expunged. The only way around this is to go back to court, appeal this particular conviction, and get it reduced to a misdemeanor.
Another giant hurdle that my short legs can’t clear. Plus, I don’t have childcare and the idea of bringing my son Kaden to criminal court is untenable. I couldn’t leave him sitting in the back of the courtroom while I stand in front of the judge. And what if something went wrong and they tried to take me back to jail? I can catastrophize at an Olympic level, and I imagine him sitting alone in the back of the courtroom while I am dragged away in handcuffs.Someone who’s been behind bars already knows that crime doesn’t pay.
Every job I apply for asks me to check a box if I have a criminal record and then explain the charges. There’s not enough space on the application to list all my convictions. And, like welfare, there’s no room for context in these applications, and certainly no place to explain that as long as I’m not on drugs I am a valuable and productive member of society worthy of employment. Online I check the box even though I know it means I’ll be automatically screened out.
I could choose not to check the box, but, unfortunately, my recovery program is built on a foundation of rigorous honesty.
Rigorous honesty seems great in principle, but it doesn’t translate well to a job search. Or the dating scene, where I’m not having much luck either. It’s hard enough for any soon-to-be-twice-divorced mom of four to hook up, but add the Sentinel headline and my criminal history, and my dating profile should just show a picture of a red flag. I’m lonely but resigned to the fact my future will not contain romance. I also know that picking great life partners is not part of my skill set.
Sometimes, I sit on the back porch after Kaden is asleep and imagine someone loving me again. But the idea is as distant and unreachable as the stars I stare at. I feed my melancholy by listening to sad Irish love ballads by David Gray and sad American love ballads by John Mayer.
A part of me just loves to wallow.
Kaden starts kindergarten, and I am on high alert at back-to-school night and parent-teacher meetings, searching for signs that anyone recognizes me or knows about my past. He makes friends easily, but when other parents want to organize playdates I am at a loss. I’m embarrassed by my tiny apartment, and I don’t want to face the prospect of taking Kaden to their homes and making the small talk that would either reveal my felonious, addictive past or break my code of rigorous honesty.
I enroll Kaden in a subsidized after-school program for working parents so he gets to socialize, and I get to be just one of many harried parents trying to afford childcare who have no time or energy to make new friends or linger over coffee. We wave to each other at pickup, but it’s from a safe distance.
Cynthia from the Gemma Program (a 10-week life skills program I did while locked up) calls and says she has a temporary job for me, and I lunge at the opportunity. She wants me to case-manage other formerly incarcerated women with minor children and help them find jobs in the community under a state grant for the Community Action Board. CAB is the nonprofit agency that the Gemma Program runs under. It’s barely enough money to pay the rent, but it pays the rent.
My job is to convince employers to hire the formerly incarcerated, match women with the employers, and then case-manage the women so they don’t fuck it up. Basically I have to Mama Love them into compliance—make sure they go to meetings, get out of toxic relationships that might interfere with their employment, help them find the right clothes, and coach them on how to act in different professional settings. I listen to their problems and work with them to find solutions. I do the same with employers. In theory, it seems like a no-brainer for business owners because half the employee’s pay comes from the grant money, but most of my job with the employers is convincing them that a formerly incarcerated woman makes the best employee.
And it’s easy, because they do.
Someone who’s been behind bars already knows that crime doesn’t pay. They’ve lost everything and appreciate the simple joy of having a job. They’ve dealt with prison politics, so office politics present no challenge. They understand power structures. Each is on probation or parole, so they follow all the rules. They’re used to getting up early and working hard for no pay, so they appreciate minimum wage. But most important, every one of them has something to prove. That they are valuable, worthy, and so much more than a criminal record.
I know this about them because I am them.
I met extremely smart women in jail—CEO-level smart. Former drug dealers who were sales and marketing geniuses, others who were hustlers and designers and innovators. I’d like to see Elon Musk design Ikea-level modular furniture out of Tampax boxes and toothpaste. I challenge any beauty influencer to create a full glam makeover out of hot water and a box of colored pencils. Or any Michelin-starred chef to make a delicious meal out of Cheetos, ramen, leftover hard-boiled eggs, hot water, and mystery meat.
I’m not great at advocating for myself, but I’m really good at advocating for others, and I make some great matches in the business community. I help the women I manage form a co-op with other women in the program to help with childcare. I reach out to other nonprofits to help with résumés, business clothing, and transportation vouchers. Arden loves books, so I find her a job at a local bookstore. Hannah tells me about her childhood love of horses—the thing that gave her meaning before meth took over—and I find work for her at an equine therapy program. After her wage subsidy runs out, they keep her on and promote her.
The women work harder than is asked, always taking pride in their jobs and exceeding expectations. By all measures, the grant is a success, but, for reasons I cannot guess, the state doesn’t renew it.
During my work for CAB, I see that my struggles are hardly mine alone. The barriers to becoming productive members of society are huge for just about anybody who’s been incarcerated. As a condition of probation or parole you have to have a job; to get a job you have to check that box that says you have a criminal record, which excludes you from getting a job. In order to show up to work every day you need somewhere to live; to find somewhere to live, you must have a job. The system is cobbled together out of catch-22s. I learn that if you’ve been incarcerated, you’re ten times more likely to be homeless, and if you’re homeless, you’re eleven times more likely to become incarcerated.The system is illogical in its design, broken in its execution, and guaranteed to fail those it allegedly serves.
It’s a crazy loop-the-loop that’s somehow overlooked in all the conversations about how to reduce recidivism. The system is illogical in its design, broken in its execution, and guaranteed to fail those it allegedly serves.
I find an online job at a company called Content Divas where I write blog posts on different topics. There was no background check, just a writing assignment. I have to produce 1,600 words a day. First, it’s ten different posts about savings accounts, then travel in Hawaii. The pay is only enough for gas and rice, but it’s something while I look for a full-time gig. The writing is fun, and I like having a deadline each day and the creative challenge of finding yet another metaphor to highlight the benefits of an online savings account. I imagine walking trails on Diamond Head in Waikiki and write as if I am there, smelling the plumeria and gardenia and being transformed in such a profound way that readers are driven to book their tickets through Content Divas’ client.
I’m all too aware of the irony that both a savings account and travel to Hawaii are far out of reach for me. The reality is that I am out of a job, out of money, and out of options. The car I got from my mom’s friend now leaks oil faster than I can afford to replace it, and it can’t accelerate uphill. Today I have an appointment at the county welfare office to appeal the rejection of my application for cash benefits because of my criminal record.
I’ve avoided Craigslist when looking for a job because I don’t want to get scammed or murdered, but I realize it’s the only chance of reaching employers without being disqualified by the criminal background question. I decide that if I’m asked, I will reveal my background, but if not I won’t volunteer the information. It’s a don’t ask, don’t tell policy that I feel still jibes with my rigorous honesty policy.
I find an ad that’s ten days old, which is a lifetime in Craigslist years, but I call anyway. The woman who answers tells me they are about to make a decision, so I should send an email immediately. It’s an extensive ad for a part-time job as an assistant at a literary agency, but it seems like a fun writing exercise and a way to practice answering honestly without ratting myself out.
I think about how great it would be to work with books—my first addiction.
Along with my résumé, I’m supposed to write a paragraph about how I exemplify each required quality: organized, integrity, problem-solving, communicator, investigative, computer savvy, flexible, good with money, committed, and educated.
I quickly google the company and Doug Abrams to make sure he’s not a serial killer, while at the same time doubting that someone who works with Archbishop Desmond Tutu is actually advertising on Craigslist.
I say a quick prayer and pull up a blank screen to write a letter to go with my résumé. I write about how good I am under pressure, at meeting deadlines, at multitasking. How there is no task too small or too unimportant for me to do, and that I’m willing to work hard. I share my education and my writing experience.
The integrity topic stumps me for a while, but I define integrity as keeping my word and showing up to do what I’ve committed to doing. I don’t want to lie about my criminal background, but nowhere in the application does it ask me about my past. I read it over and am happy with my responses. I allude to mistakes I’ve made without saying what they are.
Don’t ask. Don’t tell.
That has to be good enough for now, so I send the email. Hours later, when I read it all over, I realize that I’ve misspelled my own email address on my résumé. So much for that job.
Excerpted from The Many Lives of Mama Love: A Memoir of Lying, Stealing, Writing, and Healing by Lara Love Hardin. Copyright © 2023 by Lara Love Hardin. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.