Douglas Bates of Winston-Salem State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) earned his doctorate by bringing his life experience to his studies. Now, as an assistant professor in WSSU’s Social Work Department and CSEM fellow, Bates is using that experience in research that could help released offenders rebuild their lives — and, in the process, help businesses looking for good employees.
Bates grew up in poverty in Sumter, S.C. His father was fatally shot when Bates was a toddler. Bates and his four sisters were raised by their mother. An older cousin was a mentor to him, the strong male figure he needed in his life. Before Bates got to know him, that cousin did 18 months in a South Carolina prison. That was for being convicted when he was 20, along with co-defendants, of possession of an unregistered handgun. The conviction ended his cousin’s dream of joining the Air Force.
By the time Bates became acquainted with his cousin, the man was holding down a good job. Bates said, however, that his cousin still has “recurring barriers and obstacles. I grew up hearing the same story: He made a mistake when he was younger, and that mistake has followed him.”
Bates, who was educated at Benedict College and the University of South Carolina and has been a social worker, has spent much of his career studying why some released offenders make it on the outside and more than 25% do not and return to prison. One key is finding a job. Many employers do not hire felons. “Our country has a whole, we still haven’t gotten over the stigma of having a criminal record,” Bates said.
That results in missed opportunities for released offenders and employers, missed opportunities that are often caused by a lack of understanding. In prison, inmates survive by presenting a tough exterior. That, of course, doesn’t get it in the workplace. “I think people underestimate how difficult that transition can be,” Bates said.
In his application for the CSEM fellowship, Bates wrote that “as of 2018, there are currently over 100,000 individuals within the state of North Carolina that are on probation and parole (Prison Policy, 2017) … But as these individuals are being released from prison, are they receiving the proper treatment and attention to help alleviate any psychological or emotional pain they experienced while in prison?”
Bates and CSEM staff are in the preliminary stages of designing a survey for released offenders that will measure the extent to which they have been impacted by their time in prison. Businesses, he said, might use the surveys in designing training programs for their managers, and for the released offenders they hire. This could set the model for a program to be used in other cities and counties.
“By understanding the psychological and emotional barriers convicted felons face and endure post release, businesses are better able to understand and provide a conducive workplace to provide a better workplace environment,” Bates wrote in his fellowship application.
When released offenders do find a job, Bates said, they often stick with it because they know jobs are so hard for them to find.
This summer, Bates and students will test the surveys on released offenders, working with Project Reentry and other groups. Then Bates will go over the results, with an aim of persuading local businesses to begin using the surveys in evaluating job applicants and training programs.
His work builds on local efforts. The city of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County have endorsed “Ban the Box,” a policy of not requiring job applicants to check a box on initial applications saying they’ve been convicted of a felony, allowing that question to be dealt with later in the application process. Many private employers here do not follow that policy.
Bates’ work also builds on that of CSEM, which has held programs and brought in speakers in support of entrepreneurial programs for released offenders.
He wrote his doctoral dissertation for the University of South Carolina on convicted fathers and their reentry to society, inspired by his experience with his cousin and mentor. One big reason his cousin made it, Bates said, is that he had family and friends who supported him in his transition from prison. He also had supportive employers.
Bates wants more released offenders to successfully make that transition. His research could make that happen. “The biggest thing people need when they get out,” he said, “is a job.”
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