State Senator Harold Metts (D-Providence) says the stigma of prison is so severe for former inmates that it's virtually impossible for them to find work after serving their time. He calls that a contributor to the disproportionately high rate of unemployment for minorities in poor parts of the capital city.
“The rate of incarceration is a big factor in the unemployment in certain parts of my district, because once you get that jail record, it ends up being a lifetime sentence, because you can’t get a job.”
Metts spoke during a taping of RIPR's Bonus Q+A, which airs Friday at 6:40 and 8:40 am. He also joins us for Political Roundtable, airing Friday at 5:40 and 8:40 a.m.
According to 2010 Census figures quoted by the state Department of Correction, Providence is home to 17 percent of Rhode Island's population, but nearly a third of offenders released each year. DOC says Upper South Providence and the West End account for almost 30 percent of Providence's incarcerated population.
One bill being sponsored by Metts in this session would enable offenders considered rehabilitated to get a recommendation to that effect. Another would prohibit job applications from asking whether applicants have been convicted of a crime (the senator says employers could still ask about the background of applicants during job interviews; more details here).
Metts says the stigma of prison became a concern for him after a former inmate complained to him about 13 years ago:
"They came up and said, 'Harold, I can't get a job. I served my time, I have a wife and kids, and if I tell them I have a record they won't hire me, and if I lie about it and they find out, they fire me. I want to put my past behind me. I want to take care of my family.' "
Metts says this commentary led him to participate in a prison ministry.
"Government is more than punishment," he says. "We need to have some avenues for restoration for those that truly want to turn their life around."