As one of the on-line editors for this site, I love finding information from all sources regarding how formerly incarcerated folks work to stabilize their lives. I am more a curator of this information than editor. There are so many positive stories out there… positive in the sense that they shed light on what folks are facing. We do not take credit for this work or any work that we post, we merely try to do our part in sharing and ensuring that more eyes have access. Until I saw this piece, I had no idea there was Micheal Barlow Center coaching ex-offenders for jobs. That’s the beauty of the internet and social media, information can be shared quickly and widely.~Babz Rawls Ivy
Client Bobby Childs gives a firm handshake to retention counselor Emma Mitchell-Clark upon arriving for a mock interview, and advice at the Michael Barlow Center in Chicago. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Emma Mitchell-Clark sat across the desk from Bobby Childs, looked him in the eye and asked the question most dreaded by anyone trying to get a job after getting out of prison:
“Mr. Childs, have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
Childs, who was released from prison seven months ago, had been so afraid of the question that he didn’t even want to fill out job applications. Now, however, he was ready.
“Yes,” he said. “I have.”
He wasn’t finished.
“While incarcerated, I served my time in a very positive (way),” he said.
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Childs had served as a peer educator, talking to other prisoners about HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases. He had earned an associate’s degree. He had taken a class in custodial maintenance and another in warehouse distribution, where he had learned to drive a forklift.
“But I never — ever — lost my passion for detailing cars,” he said.
Mitchell-Clark smiled. “That’s very good,” she said.
It was a mock interview for a fictional job detailing cars. Mitchell-Clark is a retention counselor at the Michael Barlow Center, which provides education, training and job placement for formerly incarcerated men and women. She leads the Road to Success class, which helps clients identify their skills, develop resumes and search for jobs.
The Michael Barlow Center is a program of St. Leonard’s Ministries, an umbrella organization on the Near West Side that offers residential and support services for people getting out of Illinois prisons. St. Leonard’s Ministries is one of the beneficiaries of Chicago Tribune Holiday Giving, a campaign of Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund.
At the Michael Barlow Center, clients can get job training, take computer classes and participate in a high school completion program. A recent morning there saw ex-offenders chopping vegetables in the culinary classroom, wielding hammers and drills in the green building maintenance class and sitting in front of screens in the computer lab.
Employment is a key to success in life after prison, center director Lynne Cunningham said, and handling job interviews is crucial. And though beginning Jan. 1 employers will no longer be allowed to ask on a job application whether a person has been convicted of a crime, they will still be free to ask it during a job interview.
Those who have been incarcerated must answer truthfully, Cunningham said. If they do not and an employer finds out the truth — and prison time is a matter of public record — a person can lose any chance of getting the job or keeping it if they have already started.
For ex-offenders, the prospect of dealing with questions about their criminal history is daunting.
“I had to be trained,” Childs said. Only after working with Mitchell-Clark, he said, has he become comfortable with facing it.
Having a criminal record does not doom a job applicant, Mitchell-Clark said. The organization has seen people “get jobs who were convicted of murder,” she said. “It’s all in how they presented themselves in that interview.”
For his practice session, Childs, 54, wore dark slacks, a white dress shirt and a dark tie, following the center’s dress code for interviews.
He had 13 years of experience detailing cars, he told Mitchell-Clark, and described his process, from vacuuming and shampooing the interior to the final buffing.
Moreover, “I am very reliable. I am punctual,” he said. “I like to come to work early, to make sure my area is full with all my materials and everything. And I just like doing what I’m doing.”
Mitchell-Clark praised his answers. But she had him repeat four times his response to her question of whether he had ever been fired, to make sure his “No, I have not” sounded firm without being arrogant.
And she talked at length about what to do if his interviewer asked to know what he had done to be sent to prison.
Childs said he didn’t want to tell interviewers his specific crime, which was nonviolent.
He had the right not to do so, Mitchell-Clark told him, but there could be a cost: “Once you refuse to answer a question, your interview is practically over.”
And it is possible to answer honestly and use the question to tell your personal story, she told him — to acknowledge his wrongdoing but to say, for instance, that he was very young and is no longer the same person.
A real job interview might give him the chance to decide how to handle that. Meanwhile, the mock interview was over.
Childs had learned how to conclude things: He shook Mitchell-Clark’s hand and thanked her for allowing him to come in for the interview.
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