The following is an op-ed piece authored by the Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center's Business Liaison for Kentucky’s Strategic Initiative for Transformational Employment Ashley McCarty
Homelessness and jail time were not in this perfectionist’s plans, but they are part of my story. Actually, incarceration and homelessness are part of many other individual’s stories as well. Directly after graduating college I was employed as a pharmaceutical sales representative and, due to my performance with the business community, rose to a top-five ranking in sales out of 10,000 employees in the nation. But two surgeries and the accompanying prescription of opioids set me on a different path. I didn’t know I was addicted until I tried to stop.
Within a couple of years of abusing opioids my job performance plummeted, and I eventually lost my job and my career. I continued to abuse opioids, disregarding the relationship between abusing pain medication and losing my job. Very soon after becoming unemployed, I began buying drugs off the streets and transitioned into using methamphetamine on a daily basis. My disease quickly progressed, and I couldn’t pay my rent, my car payment or any of my other bills. I packed up everything I could pawn and lived in my car before moving into a metal building with no plumbing. I used a bucket in the corner as my bathroom. I had a sense of acceptance of my life and the way I was living and felt I was just playing the hand I was dealt. My endless thought, every day, was that I wanted to die.
Today, I am grateful that I didn’t die but was incarcerated instead; I call it a divine intervention. The arrest came on two warrants that I had absolutely no idea had been issued against me. I became known in the community not only as someone who used drugs, but also as an inmate with a record. As I sat in jail defeated, broken and anxious, I wondered how I was ever going to find employment. After being institutionalized in both jail and a treatment facility for about two years, I was concerned that I would struggle to successfully reintegrate. I worried if I couldn’t find meaningful employment that I would go back to my old ways that got me in this predicament. I was not alone in having these thoughts. Individuals who have been incarcerated have difficulty finding employment and that, in turn, leaves them with the lack of desire to change. For me, when leaving treatment, I made a decision that I was no longer going to settle for the life I had been living.
Governor Andy Beshear recently signed an executive order that will alter the sentences of 186 individuals currently incarcerated with a felony. They will each be screened for COVID-19 and then required to quarantine for 14 days. They must confirm that they have a place to live after they are released from jail. The governor stated that the prisoners were serving sentences for Class C and D felonies, the two lowest-level felonies, and none had been convicted of violent or sex-related crimes. Certain felons were not eligible for this consideration, he said. The governor also noted that the state had identified 743 inmates within six months of completing their sentences who also will be released.
Being released from incarceration can be very stressful to the individual and all that are involved, with increasing anxiety about how they will be able to care for themselves and their families. There are many reentry challenges, employment being one of them. Locating meaningful employment is a very important objective that those reentering society greatly want to achieve. Meaningful employment provides income and stability, but it does so much more. It allows a person to have a purpose, feel self-sufficient and build self-esteem. It provides a reason for change and a sense of independence. It can have a positive impact on the success of those who are involved with the justice system.
Reentry to the community and having positive connections are so important, and unemployment only increases the disconnection one may feel.
Putting a greater focus on the employment status and the improvement of individuals who are justice involved will have a beneficial outcome for everyone. Those that have been incarcerated are reluctant to apply for positions due to background checks, and many employers hesitate to hire individuals who have a criminal record due to stigma. Eliminating the stigma must become a priority, as does the development of a network of employers who are willing to be open minded and hire within this pipeline of employees. The goal is not only to help former inmates find employment but to help them retain employment.
On July 20, 2020, it will be seven years since I was sitting in a jail cell hopeless and defeated. I sat in that cell reflecting on everything I had lost and how I would never again be a productive member of society. As of that date, I will also have seven years in long-term recovery from substance use disorder. I have worked so hard to rebuild my life one step at a time. I know personally that employment is a key factor in successful recovery. I am so blessed and honored to be employed by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber gave me my second chance to work with the business community again. I am in no way unique; there are others who deserve a second chance as well. There are others who are looking to find their purpose, and meaningful employment is a dynamic component.
One thing that should not be a barrier to reentry from incarceration is a lack of available opportunities in Kentucky. The Kentucky Chamber is here to help. The Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center created the “Who’s Hiring” campaign in partnership with state government, working with employers looking for talent due to surges experienced with COVID-19. Employers in Kentucky can post open positions within their organizations. A report is available online that is updated twice a week where job candidates can search for employment by county and apply for positions.
So, how can you help? We need to know: Who's hiring? Let's keep as many Kentuckians as possible working and on their feet with the available jobs during these challenging times. We encourage employers across the Commonwealth to use this effort that is available as a public service and at no cost to the employers or citizens of Kentucky. If you have an employment opportunity, click here https://www.kychamber.com/news/coronavirus/covid-19-whos-hiring and let us know so we can help recruit candidates to your team!
Not currently hiring? Help us spread the word on this campaign, and let's support Kentuckians so that they can land on their feet upon reentry to our communities. Together, we can do this. Everyone needs a chance to find their purpose in life.