ATLANTA, Ga. — Some 50,000 blacks in Georgia are barred by law from working in 20 occupations that require a professional license because of their prior criminal convictions. They cannot apply for government approval to cut hair, mow lawns or even unclog drains.
For black men who have been incarcerated, completing their penance and walking into the sunshine of freedom presents countless challenges, especially returning the work force. The label “ex-convict,” for instance, frightens many private-sector employers. But the public sector creates its own obstacles with a truly confounding Catch-22: Many jobs require government licenses, but convicted felons are forbidden to hold these permits. This conundrum gives many former inmates little choice but to work off the books. This, in turn, means they sometimes are lured to breaking the law in order to escape their former lives of lawlessness.
Barry Upshaw, 42, understands this situation all too well. After being imprisoned for drug possession for almost four years, he now regularly stands at the entrance of the Home Depot shopping plaza on Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Avenue. Six days a week, Upshaw waits patiently and hopes that someone will ask him to assemble a new product, mow a lawn or perform some other odd job.
Upshaw calls himself a handyman who can fix anything. And yet he cannot repair the state laws that require him and other Georgians to secure government licenses before they can apply themselves as engineers, dental assistants and funeral directors, among other positions. Some might argue that licenses prevent buildings from collapsing due to faulty work by sub-par engineers. Certified dental assistants very well may be less likely to infect their patients. But it seems harder to justify licensing requirements for barbers, lawn care technicians, massage therapists, plumbers, pipe fitters, auto mechanics, insurance agents and other positions with lower safety and health concerns.
Thanks to these rules, Upshaw and several other former felons stand around much of the day and hope that someone informally hires them at discounted rates to perform labor-intensive duties.
“It’s humiliating, to be honest,” says Upshaw, who laments that he has lived with three different friends in the last year. “But the things I can really do, they won’t let me get a license for it. And no license, no job.”
Upshaw, who is from Augusta and has a 13-year-old daughter, said he can make up to $50 a day — occasionally $100, when everything goes right — by being “hired” to work as a mover or help put together furniture. Those who recruit him need things done, but don’t want to pay the often-steep wages that full-blown companies charge. Many days, Upshaw says, he makes nothing, especially in winter.
“I made a mistake, and I thought I paid for it when I was incarcerated,” he says. “I didn’t know I would be paying for it now, a year later.”
Upshaw’s is an all-too-common story around the United States. Organizations and legislators want to improve this situation in Georgia — the state that has garnered praise for leading the country in prison reform. The Peach State’s black citizens also want an alternative to the status quo. Many of them are painfully familiar with the devastating numbers: blacks constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population but 48 percent of the 2.3 million people in prison. In the state, blacks make up 62 percent of inmates but only 31 percent of citizens.
This issue has united activists and thinkers on the Left and Right.
“It’s a travesty that we can no longer afford to let continue,” says Francys Johnson, president of the liberal Georgia NAACP. “Our focus has to be on helping these individuals who have completed their requirements in the penal system reenter the work force, provide for their families, and be productive citizens. Employment is vital to that, and having restrictions on gaining licenses does not help.”
“One in three jobs in Georgia requires a license, making this a crucial issue,” says Kelly McCutchen, CEO of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Reform Foundation. “It’s a social justice issue. People are actually talking about it, how to make it easier for the former inmate to get into the work force, which will have a positive chain-reaction impact in a lot of ways.”
Proponents of the no-licenses-for-felons policy consider it a necessary “tough on crime” tactic, said Vikarant Reddy, a senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute — a major financial supporter of criminal-justice and prison reform. But he considers that position misguided.
“The recidivism rate is 50 percent and 60 percent in some states,” Reddy argues. “So, the idea that making it harder for people to get jobs does not go with helping people. There are all kinds of barriers that get in the way of people restarting their lives. Some people have this tough-on-crime attitude from the old days. When I talk to those people, I tell them that we’re the gang that’s tough on crime.”
“We’re on the same page that it’s a broken system and we need to fix it,” says the NAACP’s Johnson, who is an attorney. “It’s indefensible from a moral standpoint on what we have done in terms of the gutting of communities during our so-called ‘war on drugs,’ which has really been a war on poor people. . . And I’m not surprised that conservative and Republicans are deeply involved because, when you peel back the layers of the political parties, you find that they might not be that different on some issues.”
Sharon Turner concurs. She has been out of prison for 20 years. Still, her struggle continues because of her inability to procure or sustain meaningful employment.
Turner, 59, has been homeless thrice and has moved back in with her 80-year-old mother. Turner volunteers her time at the Atlanta Public School system’s Parents As Partners Academic Center (PAPAC) in the notorious Vine City district.
Housed in an abandoned school, PAPAC serves the disenfranchised. Turner works there as an advisor and directs the needy to community partners for counseling, job-training, drug treatment, and other services.
“I have lived the lives of those who come to us for help,” Turner says. “Prison is modern-day slavery. When slaves were freed, their lives as slaves stuck with them. That’s how prison is. Once you spend any real amount of time in there, it stays with you…forever. And being unable to get a job sure doesn’t help you wash away your past and build a future.”
Turner says she spent 1993 to 1995 in prison for a drug crime that she did not commit. According to Turner, her sister, who had been selling drugs, struck a deal with prosecutors. She then did not provide the exculpatory testimony that would have set Turner free.
“When you go to prison, it’s a life sentence,” Turner says. “It never goes away. And it shows up for me and many of the people I see who want to work but have roadblocks thrown in the way. It leaves us in a place where we are stuck.”
Turner says she sees dozens of disheartened men at PAPAC each week.
“The professional-license thing is a real problem, especially for black men,” Turner says. “I have had men break down in tears right there in front of me because they want a job — any job — but they can’t get one because the system is punishing them for their past, even though they are off paper [neither on probation nor parole]. For them — and me — it’s like, ‘What do you want me to do?’”
“And that’s why the recidivism rate is so high,” says McCutchen of the Georgia Policy Reform Foundation. “This kind of work requires that people come down from their entrenched positions and look at things with new eyes.”
Though unemployed, Turner has been a staunch advocate for repairing this broken system. She met with Republican Governor Nathan Deal’s Transition, Support, and Re-entry Commission in early May and believes that its executive director, Jay Neal, is committed to change.
“I challenged Mr. Neal and his commission to come to the areas of Atlanta where people are really hurting, so they can put faces to all this,” Turner says. “People want jobs. But the state has to make it possible for them to get jobs.”
“Having a job is a key to dignity, and we cannot make it harder or near impossible for people who want jobs to get them,” says McCutchen, the conservative scholar. “Professional licensing is the most stringent form of exclusion.”
Until many more Georgians, with and without criminal records, can find work without first asking for the government’s permission, Barry Upshaw will remain in front of the Home Depot shopping center and hope for the best.
“I don’t know what they expect us to do if we can’t work,” Upshaw says. “Man, I’m just fed up with it.”