Outside the box
Ex-felons seeking jobs ask Oklahomans for a chance
Left to right: Dolores Verbonitz, Earl Tyler, Jaylin Gafney, and Shauna Jaggers
Alone storefront bustled with activity in the otherwise abandoned strip mall on Tulsa’s 36th Street North during a recent afternoon, with two young men hanging out front as if inviting curious passersby to take a closer look.
Tulsa Reentry One-Stop, a free program from Community Service Council, gives career training to men and women ages 18 to 24 who are involved with the criminal justice system. It also offers Oklahoma employers a pool of skilled workers eager to earn an honest living.
Workers and clients of the program talked about the barriers to jobs, education, and housing that plague formerly incarcerated citizens. They say requiring job applicants to disclose their criminal history is one of the biggest roadblocks to reentering society. Removing that requirement—or “banning the box,” as the international civil rights campaign puts it—would give them a better chance to at least secure an interview.
While Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order in 2016 that removed the requirement for felons to check the box for most state government jobs, it still remains widely practiced by private employers. Nationally, 33 states and more than 150 cities and counties have banned the box, according to the National Employment Law Project.
At the front of the interior entrance of Tulsa Reentry One-Stop sits staff member Shauna Jaggers—calm, collected, and eager to share her own journey from prison back to society. She recounted having to check the felony box in pursuing a college degree after her release, and the difficulties finding jobs relevant to her education.
“My peers were graduating and getting jobs in specific markets, and those things just weren’t available to me,” Jaggers said.
She ended up working at a chicken plant and eventually reoffended. She was able to enter into a program with Women in Recovery, a local organization providing alternatives for women facing incarceration, which referred her to a job opening at Tulsa Reentry One-Stop.
Offering full-time, decent paying jobs to formerly-incarcerated Oklahomans is the best way to discourage recidivism, program manager Dolores Verbonitz said. She has presided over the program since its founding in 2012.
“It’s hard to do that if you’re only making minimum wage at a part-time job,” Verbonitz said.
Two young, hopeful male clients reiterated the barriers Jaggers experienced, and they expressed a desire to ban the box on private employee applications across the state.
Probation officers referred 21-year-old Earl Tyler and 20-year-old Jaylin Gafney to Tulsa Reentry One-Stop immediately after their release from prison in August. Both say the program has helped them on their path to a career.
Tyler, reserved and focused, served a year in jail and a year in prison after being connected to friends who robbed and beat their marijuana dealer. Tyler said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was simply trying to buy marijuana when his former friends decided to jump the dealer.
“They took the drugs, took the money and was going to take him. But he got away, and we left,” Tyler said. Since participating in the program, Tyler has been able to earn his G.E.D. and land a job at Nonni’s Foods. He helps his grandma take care of his three younger siblings in their one-bedroom home and says his main focus is to provide a better life for his daughter.
Gafney, a lighthearted young man who served 10 months in a prison program for armed robbery, says that the bad choices he made were to provide for his family. But he says missing the birthdays of his daughter, mother, and sister opened his eyes to his self-destructive path.
“I could continue doing that and be back where I was at—or in a worse place—or I could turn it around, try to do something different, and continue to help my people the right way,” Gafney said with a smile.
Tyler and Gafney hope that efforts to ban the box on job applications will allow them and other justice-involved citizens the opportunity to plead their case for employment like any other Oklahoman.
“You’re not giving me the first step to see who I am. You’re just looking at the cover,” Gafney said. He wants employers to consider the talent they are leaving on the table.
“You don’t know what I’m capable of. I could be one of your biggest assets,” Tyler said. His goal is to obtain his G.E.D., a welding degree, and have a home for himself and his daughter by the time he turns 25.
Gafney hopes to land a decent job and have a stable living environment to raise his daughter. He said the barriers to reentering society make it hard to live, and almost encourage crime.
“If it’s hard to get back into the world, but you’re not giving us a chance—it’s almost like, what are our options?” Gafney said. “If we don’t have any options to do it the right way, how are we going to get around the extra stuff we were doing that got us locked up?”