After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Janie Ocejo put her social work education and bilingual, bicultural background to work by supporting Madison’s Hispanic folks through positions at various community organizations.
But a series of bad decisions landed Ocejo in prison. While there, she expected to find work once she was released. After all, she had a college education, work experience, strong interview skills and had even previously been on hiring teams.
However, rebuilding her life proved to be much more difficult than she expected, and it took months for Ocejo to land a job. She applied for anything, even positions she was significantly overqualified for, and sought services and connections from organizations where she had once worked.
Because of her criminal background, no one would hire her.
“Doors were closed because of the stigma,” she said.
Today, Ocejo has found a new cause, prompted by her struggle after two years in prison to re-establish a career and a life outside the bars. She now works for Madison-based JustDane, which helps individuals and families impacted by incarceration.
While Ocejo found success, many incarcerated people are less fortunate, finding themselves locked in a cycle of incarceration, unemployment and poverty.
In 2018, one-fourth of the 5 million formerly incarcerated people in the United States were unemployed — five times more than the general population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a nonprofit that studies and offers solutions to America’s mass incarceration problem.
This high rate is not due to lack of trying — 93% of formerly incarcerated people between the ages of 25 and 44 were actively looking for jobs compared to 83.8% of the same age range in the general population, the same report found.
And since Wisconsin and the U.S. disproportionately incarcerate people of color — with the disparity most pronounced among African Americans — the long-lasting stigma of having a criminal record disproportionately burdens them as well.
In Wisconsin, roughly 6% of the population is Black but makes up about 38% of people who are incarcerated in the jails, state prisons and federal correctional institutions in the state, a product, many experts believe, of disproportionate policing of Black people.
“There’s … that social contract that says if you violate, this here is your punishment. Once that punishment is concluded then you have the opportunity to reclaim citizenship, your life. And that’s not the reality,” said James Morgan, a formerly incarcerated person who works with Ocejo at JustDane.
Advocates say more funding for pre- and post-release services and efforts to counter the stigma attached to having a criminal record could boost the odds that people will succeed after serving their sentences.
Reforming resources for re-entry
Wisconsin invests far more to lock up residents than it does to help them succeed outside of prison. The state spends $1.35 billion a year on housing to incarcerate approximately 24,000 people but just $30 million on training and re-entry programs for people who have been released from prison — two-thirds of which is allocated for housing programs. That’s a huge problem, said state Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison.
“We’re incarcerating people much faster than we are reintegrating them back into our community,” said Stubbs, a former probation and parole officer. “We spend way too much money incarcerating people, and not enough money coming back out into our communities, to help our loved ones. These are our brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends in our community.”
The United States provides only the “bare minimum” when it comes to services and training accessible to people during and after their incarceration, said Lucius Couloute, an assistant professor at Suffolk University whose research focuses on mass incarceration and its impacts. Improving this is crucial to helping the formerly incarcerated rejoin society, he said.
Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections offers a variety of programming to those who are currently incarcerated including work-release programs, job training and education, according to DOC spokesman John Beard. However, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily cancelled a few of these opportunities.
Work-release programs offer incarcerated individuals a chance at making a living wage throughout their sentence and can help cover income taxes, child support or restitution owed to victims, or save money for after they’re released, according to the DOC. Prison and jail fees alone can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.
But nationally, the majority of incarcerated individuals are stuck working jobs within their facilities — in maintenance or food service — earning less than $1 an hour.
Only 6% of incarcerated individuals nationwide work in correctional industries, state-owned businesses that typically produce goods sold to government agencies. An even fewer find jobs through work release, according to a report by PPI.
Because of her circumstances, Ocejo was ineligible for work release — and the $9 to $13 pay rate it could provide. Instead, she started out earning 26 cents an hour working in the prison kitchen. Throughout her incarceration, Ocejo worked her way up to the top rate of $1.60 an hour, driving a forklift for Badger State Industries, Wisconsin’s correctional industry.
Although she would’ve preferred a higher paying job outside the institution, “(Badger State Industries) gave me a chance to feel like I was doing something to help myself and a sense of purpose with some income coming in that otherwise I would not have received.”
Melissa Ludin, a regional organizer for the Wisconsin ACLU’s Smart Justice Project, said employment, housing and access to services are often in short supply for the formerly incarcerated.
“People don’t feel the impact of what that felony does until you get released and you realize how you are discriminated against,” Ludin said.
Criminal records often barrier
Wisconsin law bars discrimination against a person because of a criminal record — unless the crime is “substantially related” to the job. In addition, a “ban-the-box measure” passed in Wisconsin in 2016 prevents government employers from asking about criminal records on their initial application for civil-service positions to reduce discrimination.
But such bans do not keep employers from easy access to criminal records through publicly available sources such as the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program (CCAP), said Linda Ketchum, executive director of JustDane.
“CCAP makes it really easy for people to do anonymous checks on people and make decisions you will never be able to prove,” Ketchum said.
Colleen Rogers, director of human resources at Madison Kipp Corp., said the manufacturer offers employment to currently and previously incarcerated people — part of its social responsibility to reduce barriers to re-entry.
“Employers need to put their biases aside, if that’s their problem, and give these folks an opportunity … adults make mistakes,” Rogers said. “They make bad decisions maybe when they’re younger, and why not give them opportunity to live?”
Certain jobs off-limits
While Ocejo committed crimes — of fraud and forgery — she emphasized that she “never used or misused my positions to leverage to commit a crime.” Still, it was especially difficult for her to find positions similar to what she had before her incarceration.
Kipp Corp. sees hiring currently and previously incarcerated people as a win-win situation — giving people skills and an opportunity to gain income and work experience while helping fulfill Kipp’s needs as a busy manufacturer, Rogers said.
“They’re our employees. We don’t care where they came from. I need your skills and we’re going to invest in you,” she said.
People with criminal records likely recognize that they’re in a fragile position in the labor market and — when they are given a second chance — they work extra hard to prove their worth, Couloute said. Research from Johns Hopkins bears this out, finding that such employees actually perform better than people who had not been incarcerated.
Rogers has seen this counter narrative play out in real time as Kipp benefits from the skillsets people acquired prior to going to prison and their motivation to work.
“They’re great employees. They want to work,” she said.
Ocejo ultimately landed a job at a nonprofit. Then she began working for JustDane, which hired her because of her background so she could put her lived experience to work as the bilingual resource specialist and peer support program coordinator.
“There are many agencies who work with and say they support individuals like me, but I can’t necessarily say they will actually hire us,” Ocejo said.
Advocates: New strategies needed
Jerome Dillard, statewide director of Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, said Wisconsin has been slow to embrace the types of reforms that could help former inmates succeed.
“Actually, we are still under the tough-on-crime rhetoric, and I want to say that re-entry is a real struggle for many returning from our state prisons in Wisconsin,” he said.
But he is heartened that DOC Secretary Kevin A. Carr in January cut the 18 standard release conditions in half. That change has helped drive down “crimeless revocations” which send people back to prison for rules violations — not new crimes — and interrupts one’s ability to rebuild.
“I really feel that Secretary Carr has heard us and felt the pulse of the population and realized — and he said it publicly — that corrections can’t continue doing business the way it is,” Dillard said.
Couloute said policy changes — such as additional funding for education, mental health and to treat addiction — will effectively cut incarceration.
“When we think about mass incarceration, we often think about it as an individual problem, as people making bad choices. But at its root, it’s people who are given bad options,” he said.
Eventually, things started to fall into place for Ocejo. A second chance was all she ever wanted.
“Maybe my story is unique,” Ocejo said. “I could’ve fallen through the cracks and stayed there and not be the person that I really am. Because really it’s just a series of mistakes — decisions I made that were mistakes — and to be never let out of those mistakes, it’s horrible.”
This story was produced as part of an investigative reporting class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication under the direction of Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin Watch’s managing editor. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.