Long Islanders Fight to Find Jobs After Serving Jail Time, Convictions

By Victor Ocasio, NewsDay

Halim Kaygisiz served time and went on to become director of health outreach services at the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk County. He helps low-income Long Islanders find services they need. Photo Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Halim Kaygisiz served time and went on to become director of health outreach services at the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk County. He helps low-income Long Islanders find services they need. Photo Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

In 1994, Halim Kaygisiz was sentenced to what would become a 17-year term in prison for a violent carjacking. Today, almost a decade after his release, Kaygisiz is director of health outreach services for the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk County, where he helps low-income Long Islanders find services they need.

While his is an employment success story, landing a job after incarceration or a conviction often  poses a major challenge for Long Islanders with criminal records. Many say that even in an economic landscape bolstered by record low unemployment and an increased number of jobs, stigma and post-conviction restrictions can make the interview and application process a struggle.

According to estimates from the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based think tank that advocates for prison reform, the unemployment rate for the former inmates reached 27.3 percent in 2008 — the latest year such data are available — compared with 5.8 percent in the general population that same year.

Unemployment for those with convictions or a history of incarceration is not tracked by the state Labor Department.

“People really have difficulty once they’ve come through the criminal system,” said Elizabeth Justesen, an attorney with Breaking Barriers, a volunteer project of the Suffolk Legal Aid Society and Touro Law School that helps ex-offenders qualify for jobs. “Where are they going to go to work? Everybody does background checks now.”

Among the challenges, Justesen said, are driving restrictions for parolees — a major hurdle on Long Island — plus lack of affordable housing and mental health and recovery services, and strict limitations on the type of jobs they can be licensed to do under state law. 

"They’ll do training programs, they’ll get certified, they’ll pass the test and then they go to the licensing agency – there’s over 107 licensed professions in New York State – and they’ll be denied," she said.

Kaygisiz said when he was released on parole in 2010, he thought the combination of his skills, involvement in counseling other inmates and good behavior would supersede his conviction and make him more employable.

Kaygisiz earned his GED and before long was tutoring other inmates. He set his mind to learning trade skills, taking advantage of educational offerings, and volunteering and earning certifications as a counselor.

“When I came out, I was fairly naive,” Kaygisiz said. “I thought ‘Hey I’ve got six years of forklift experience. I worked in industrial manufacturing. I’ve got letters of recommendation, so my skills are going to outweigh my past.’ It wasn’t maybe until my third or fourth interview that I realized that the fact that I was incarcerated was a real barrier.”

And for ex-felons who do find steady work, the positions often offer only minimum wage, making it difficult for them to support themselves.

Advocates of criminal justice reform say removing barriers to employment after incarceration is one major way communities can help reduce recidivism while helping the economy at large. 

“If there’s one thing that people definitely agree will impact the lives of individuals, families and communities, it’s employment,” said Ronald F. Day, vice president of education and employment services at the Fortune Society, a Long Island City, Queens, nonprofit that provides training and employment prep services to former inmates.

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