by Alessandro De Giorgi*
The materials presented in this blog series draw from an ethnographic study on prisoner reentry I have been conducting between March 2011 and March 2014 in a neighborhood of West Oakland, California, plagued by chronically high levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, drug addiction, and street crime. In 2011, with the agreement of a local community health clinic that provides free basic health care and other basic services to marginalized populations in the area, I have been conducting participant observation among several returning prisoners, mostly African American and Latino men between the ages of 25 and 50. In this series of blog entries, I will be presenting ethnographic snapshots of some of these men (and often their partners) as they struggle for survival after prison in a postindustrial ghetto. For more detailed information on this project, please read here. Other episodes in this series:
#2 – The Working Poor
#3 – Home, Sweet Home
#4 – In the Shadow of the Jailhouse
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The phrase “Get a job, any job” powerfully resonates with the experience of returning prisoners trying to reintegrate into society. The injunction to take any available job to stay out of prison is probably the message they most often hear from parole officers, welfare case managers, service providers, and the vast assortment of public and private actors involved in the burgeoning enterprise of “prisoner reentry” in the aftermath of mass incarceration (see Hallett 2012). Yet, the structural obstacles facing poor minority men and women in particular as they try to find work after prison have been clearly documented by the recent literature on the effects of incarceration on the labor market. Disproportionately marked by the “negative credential” of a prison record (Pager 2003), systematically disqualified from middle-class jobs by their modest educational levels, and constantly targeted by pervasive forms of racial stigmatization, poor residents of the inner city find themselves increasingly confined to the most insecure and precarious niches of the secondary labor market (Western 2006). Here they scramble to make ends meet, moving back and forth between sheer unemployment, hustling, and low-wage, temporary, dead-end jobs in the low-skill service sector that don’t provide sufficient income for a living.
The “welfare reform” of the 1990s, which eliminated any semblance of a social safety net in the United States, has forced poor women of color in particular to “choose” between bare survival in the low-wage labor market and risky forays into the illegal economy of the streets. Not surprisingly, over the past several years minority women have become the fastest-growing component of the US prison population (Richie 2013)—a circumstance that will further erode their future work opportunities.
A 36-year-old African American woman from Arkansas, Melisha had the first of her four children at age 13, when she also dropped out of school. She grew up as a foster child after her mother signed her and her three siblings off to “the system” because she couldn’t raise them—a circumstance replicated with Melisha’s own four children, all of whom are in foster care. Melisha’s only source of income is a $721 SSI disability check, which has increasingly become the only residual form of income support available to the poor after the demise of welfare. Over the three years that I have been following her, Melisha has persistently attempted to find work, despite the fact that, were she to succeed, she would lose her SSI payments. That pursuit defies economic rationality, since her chances of finding (and keeping) a stable job that pays more than her disability checks are very slim.
In the following fieldnotes, I document Melisha’s attempts to apply for two quite different jobs: one at Ghirardelli’s fine chocolate factory, in the heart of upscale San Francisco, and another at a Walmart store in East Oakland, the “ghetto employer” par excellence. Melisha ultimately failed to land either job, just as she had many times before, when she applied to McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Pack N’ Save, and UPS. She has been unemployed since 2000, except for some sporadic braiding, for a few dollars, at friends’ houses. Her previous work experience consists of short periods of employment as a cotton picker and meat packer in Arkansas, and three months of unloading mail at a post office in Oakland.
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A few days ago Melisha told me that she had used the old laptop I had given her in June to submit an online application for a job interview with the Ghirardelli chocolate factory in San Francisco. Last night she called me to share the exciting news that today at 3:00 p.m. she would need to be at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Francisco, where the company was holding a job fair. She asked if I could drive her to the appointment and possibly be at her side during the interview, if they’d let me in. We agreed to meet at 2:00 p.m. at their place. She then forwarded me the computer-generated text message she had received from the company’s online application website confirming her appointment, followed by another one, written by her, that said “thank u for everything im so happy.”
As I pull over in front of their small ground-floor apartment in East Oakland, the one Ray, Melisha’s 49-year-old partner, refers to as “the garage,” I see that they’re both waiting for me on the sidewalk. Ray is dressed as he usually does on hot days like this—oversized white T-shirt over baggy shorts and huge sneakers. Assuming he is going to join us, I wonder why he hasn’t dressed up a little (I had decided to dress more formally, assuming I might be walking with Melisha into the recruiting area). I throw him a questioning glance, which he understands, and he tells me he is not coming since he’s working a shift at KFC that night.
Next to him, Melisha is shining. I’ve never seen her dressed so elegantly. Gone are the dirty sneakers, worn-out jeans, oversized T-shirts, and the messy hair extensions she normally wears. Her impeccable look reveals long preparation and make-up sessions in their apartment’s small, windowless bathroom. Her curly hair is perfectly combed and held in place by a generous amount of styling gel. Although it is 85 degrees outside, she is wearing a dark-blue pinstriped wool suit over a black cotton shirt. I detect the discomfort caused by her cousin’s slightly undersized leather shoes and the tight suit she borrowed from a friend. But Melisha looks thrilled and waves at me, with her shoulder pads bouncing. “Thank you for what you’re doing, bro,” Ray whispers in my ear, squeezing me in his bear hug. Before we go, Melisha kisses him and says, “I’ma make this one! Fo’ ‘sho!”
On our way to San Francisco, Melisha tells me several times that she is nervous about the interview and repeats her request for me to accompany her inside. She says that she really hopes to get the job, so that Ray will stop “bitching about me not havin’ no job.” Asked how much she thinks she will earn and what she plans to do with her first paycheck, she says she expects at least $12 an hour and that she will take her “sis” (my wife, whom she has only seen a couple of times) and me to eat crabs and a 20-pound lobster somewhere in San Francisco.
Melisha also tells me that things have been improving with Ray, although his drinking is still a problem. Plus he is still hanging out with people she doesn’t like—especially his son, Ray Jr., whom she accuses of having stolen the $40 I had lent to his father a few days ago. Upon arriving at the hotel, Melisha goes in while I park.
The recruitment session takes place on the hotel’s second floor. There I see a table with three women and a man, all of them dressed professionally. They welcome me politely, believing that I am the job applicant, while barely noticing Melisha. I explain that I am just accompanying someone, and they point to a conference room lined with tables covered with Ghirardelli’s promotional materials and bowls of its chocolates. Seated at the edge of the last table in the back of the room, Melisha intently fills out the required paperwork. A few minutes later, a managerially dressed white woman in her early forties approaches Melisha — who is still filling out her paperwork — and asks her if she is ready to go. Melisha gets up and follows her down the carpeted hallway into a separate room, where the interview will take place.
I walk back to the front table where the recruiter—a showy, middle-aged white man from San Francisco wearing a pink shirt, white trousers, and shiny moccasins—is chatting and laughing amiably with his female colleagues. I exchange a few words with them, and ask what salary and benefits come with these positions. I learn that this recruitment session is for temporary, “retail hourly employment” positions, with no benefits. The recruiter also informs me that Ghirardelli is an “at-will employer,” which in his words means that workers are free to go whenever they please….And of course the same applies to the employer … so everyone is free to choose when to part ways!
After 25 minutes, Melisha emerges from the interview room. She tells me she thinks it went well, despite appearing exhausted and unenthusiastic. The interview was very hard, she confesses, and the lady asked her difficult questions, such as “why should we take you” and “what would you do if there’s a conflict with a coworker.” Her memory of her answers is a bit fuzzy, and she can’t really tell me how she responded to those questions.
When we leave the hotel we look around Union Square in vain for a Burger King (upon Melisha’s request). We finally opt for a Starbucks, where she gets a chicken-salad sandwich from the refrigerator and orders a chocolate drink. While sitting at the table, I receive a call from Ray (who has kept the cellphone he shares with Melisha so that he could check in). I hand my phone to her. They talk briefly and she reassures him that she’s going to get the job.
During the drive back home, she asks me whether we offer GEDs or high school diplomas at San José State University. I say that we don’t. She tells me that she would like to get at least her GED, as she thinks this will make it easier for her to get a job.
5/26/2013 – Memorial Day
At 1:30 p.m. I get a message from Melisha, who tells me that her job application at the Walmart in East Oakland had been turned down after they performed a background check on her:
Hi bra happy Memorial day. It all bad for me sad … about the Walmart job … that Walmart did a nationwide check everthing came back from fines old address criminal record from Arkansas. Cant nobody say I didn’t try … sad … my life is fuck up. Is there any kind of away you can get that removed for me … don’t u study criminal justice. I need u on this bra I’m stress now I try to tell Ray
Before receiving the final response from Walmart, Melisha had been confident that she would land the job. She had made complex arrangements to get clean urine from a friend to pass the prescreening test (I had politely declined her request), allowing her to reach the interview stage. She had expected only in-state criminal records to appear on her background check. Instead, all her prior records were uncovered, apparently including convictions that she has not served in full. Melisha gave me copies of the records on her that Walmart had sent—all of them for minor property offenses:
2/16/05: theft of $500 or less = 2 months + $250 (fine/costs)
8/5/05: forgery = 36 months probation
5/10/07: theft = 36 months probation
Melisha asks me if it is possible to get these records expunged. Her apparent failure to serve her last term of probation in full is a problem. The fact that she has left the county (and the state of Arkansas) by moving to California will prevent any clearance of her records.
The negative outcome of this job application greatly disappoints Melisha. She had been really confident of getting this job and had often fantasized about what she would be able to do once she started working.
I drive away from the dilapidated hotel on West Grand Avenue. This is their new home after being evicted from their East Oakland apartment. They pay $200 each week for a single room without bathroom, in a rat-infested building mostly occupied by drug dealers and prostitutes. They are not allowed to bring in their dog Stewe, an exuberant Pinscher that has been a faithful companion throughout their ordeals. Whenever they are unable to sneak Stewe inside in a purse, the dog stays in their rundown Camaro parked at the rear of the building.
Hallett, M. 2012. “Reentry to what? Theorizing prisoner Reentry in the jobless future.” Critical Criminology 20: 213–28.
Pager, D. 2003. Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Richie, B. 2012. Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. New York: New York University Press.
Western, B. 2006. Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
* Alessandro De Giorgi is Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator at the Department of Justice Studies, San José State University, and a member of the Social Justice Editorial Board. He thanks his research assistants Carla Schultz, Eric Griffin, Hilary Jackl, Maria Martinez, Samantha Sinwald, Sarah Matthews, and Sarah Rae-Kerr for their invaluable contribution. For a more detailed description of the project, see here.
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Alessandro De Giorgi, “Reentry to Nothing #1 – Get a job, any job.” Social Justice blog, 5/28/2014. © Social Justice 2014.