In 2020, more than 11,000 Californians came home from prison. Many of these individuals, largely nonviolent offenders, had experienced overcrowding and unmanageable COVID outbreaks. Their releases were part of the state’s attempt to address pandemic surges in prisons. As a result, by the fall of 2020, California’s prison population had reached a 30-year-low.
This wave of releases also meant that the state’s reentry programs were immediately overwhelmed. People struggled to access transportation, housing, and food services. Once settled, many of those who’d been incarcerated for lengthy periods of time realized they had returned to a job market that looked completely unfamiliar.
That’s how it was for Oakland resident Adam Garcia, who came home in November 2019 after serving nearly 20 years of a 20-to-life sentence. The last time he had applied for jobs, LinkedIn and Indeed didn’t exist.
Garcia told The Oaklandside about some of the challenges he faced while he was applying for jobs. While he acknowledges that he can’t say for sure whether he experienced employment discrimination, he did say he recognized a pattern whenever he’d reach the end of an interview process.
“I went through so many different final interviews and I noticed that, on face level, everything was going good,” said Garcia. “And then I noticed when it came time for the background check, tones and demeanors started to change and that I was given this vagueness and almost this complete shift in attitude and approach of how our conversations initially were.”
Garcia read between the lines. “It’s one of those things where it’s just like, well, what other reason if not for that?” he said, referring to his criminal record. Oftentimes, he said hiring managers would cite a lack of professional experience as the reason for not moving forward with his application, even for entry-level positions.
Other times, he said, hiring managers were more candid with him. “They were like, ‘I’m gonna be open and honest with you. My company, we don’t have a protocol for this. I feel like you would be a great fit, but I know if I kick this upstairs, it’s not gonna work.’”
Discrimination happens despite ‘Ban the Box’ law
Employment discrimination against people with criminal records is widespread. In 2018, California enacted the Fair Chance Act as a remedy. Also called the “Ban the Box Law,” Fair Chance makes it unlawful for companies with five or more employees to ask job candidates about conviction history at any stage of the hiring process.
But Stacy Villalobos, a staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work, said it’s a law that companies consistently circumvent. In 2020, her group collaborated with the Inland Empire Fair Chance Coalition to compile data about Fair Chance Act infringement, uncovering 170 violations during the month of July alone.
Villalobos said these violations occur at all stages of the hiring process. Some companies ask about felony convictions upfront or during the interview process. Others ask after making a conditional offer of employment, which isn’t against the law if there’s another reason the relationship between employer and prospective employee is adverse but, in many cases, she said there isn’t.
Fortunately for Garcia, he had signed up for an employment-readiness course offered by Checkr, a San Francisco-based start-up founded in 2014 by engineers Daniel Yanisse and Jonathan Perichon. The company had developed a background-check tool for employers that also promotes fair access to jobs for formerly incarcerated people. That’s where he met Kate Leidy, the founder of Strively, an organization working to create a prison-to-tech pipeline.
Leidy has a professional background in tech sales. In 2019, feeling unmoored in her career, she began volunteering at Salinas Correctional Facility in Soledad, California. She taught employment skills classes and quickly learned that many of her students already possessed the skills necessary to work in a tech sales role.
“I immediately recognized in this group of gentlemen in my class, just this natural kind of curiosity and charisma,” said Leidy. “And I thought, well, these guys would make great salespeople, someone, someone should start this nonprofit, not thinking ever that it would be me.”
Building a prison-to-tech pipeline
Strively partners with the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) in Oakland to place their clients in tech sales roles. Alameda County Director Lonnie Tuck explains that because sales is an entry-level position in tech, it’s the ideal way for newly released individuals to get their feet in the door, as many are drafting their resumes for the first time.
According to Leidy, there’s also plenty of room for advancement if you start in sales. Sales reps gain exposure to several other departments, like finance and engineering, making promotion much easier.
On the other hand, Tuck noted that reentry clients often struggle on the wrong side of the digital divide. The center addresses this obstacle by providing laptops and basic computer skills training. Tuck also supports a program at San Quentin State Prison called Prison to Employment Connection. It’s a 16-week intensive course to help people prepare to return to the job market, offering everything from resume workshops to speed interviewing. “The one thing about the tech pathway is that it is really clear that folks want to be in there,” Tuck said.
San Quentin is one of the only prisons in California that offers this breadth of resources. Garcia, who was not at San Quentin, couldn’t access employment skills classes until he got home in 2019. He said part of what Leidy and her team helped him regain was his self-confidence.
“What I still love about Kate is, she’s very open, honest, and transparent,” Garcia said. “So she was telling me, ‘We’re going down uncharted territories here, but I don’t want that to deter you. I want you to continue to stay focused, believe in yourself, believe in the process, and then just have that faith and trust in that. And the harder you work, the more opportunities that are going to arise from that.’”
Having never networked online, Garcia relied on Strively’s mentors to get up to speed. Of course, sites like LinkedIn hinge on prior work experience, so they helped him to leverage his lived experiences from nearly two decades of incarceration.
Currently, Strively has more job opportunities available than they have clients looking for work. But it isn’t the only organization in the Bay Area forging a prison-to-tech pipeline. Other mentorship programs in San Francisco, like Code Tenderloin and the Last Mile, are working with start-ups and established tech companies like Google to do the same.
Recidivism is the central problem Leidy hopes to tackle with her mentorship program. Historically, people with criminal records have faced structural barriers that create a vicious cycle. “Recidivism and unemployment are married to each other. And so if we don’t get people the opportunity to support themselves in a meaningful way, we’re punishing people for their entire lives for something that maybe happened 20 years ago,” she said.
It’s this mentality that Garcia said pushed him to not settle for any job, but find one that shares his vision for a more equitable future. Today, he’s working full-time as a Candidate Experience Representative at Checkr. Since starting work there in 2021, Garcia has been promoted twice.
“At the base level, we’re all people,” said Garcia. “And if we were all just treated as the worst thing we ever did in our life, then that’s always going to be that scarlet letter. But we’re more than just one aspect of our life. There are many circumstances that help us shape and become who we really want to be.”
Hopefully, he added, society will one day reach a place “where companies don’t have those stigmas and stereotypes associated with formerly incarcerated individuals, but really open their minds up to the potential and value that Fair Chance candidates bring.”