- Associated Press - Saturday, March 15, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Brock McCourt got lucky when it came to finding a job after being locked up on felony drug, weapon and burglary convictions.

The 31-year-old from Wasilla, who became addicted to methamphetamine after his father died in 2008, happened to meet a manager from the Travelodge Hotel on the day he was released from Lemon Creek Correctional Center to a Juneau halfway house. He was hired as a housekeeper, the Juneau Empire (http://bit.ly/On1hze) reported.

“That got me started,” McCourt said of his first job after prison, adding he is now sober, works in construction and is able to provide for himself and his family.

McCourt was one of the guest speakers at LCCC on Saturday for a program, called “Success: Inside and Out,” that helps inmates with their transitions back into society. The sixth annual event aimed to provide resources - as well as inspirational messages from former inmates - to help inmates secure housing, education and employment.

Finding work isn’t easy for those bearing the label of convicted felon. They face innumerable barriers to employment, according to Michael Hutcherson of the Juneau Job Center, who sat down with inmates one-on-one Saturday, offering tips on resumes, job interview skills and general life advice.

Some of those barriers include being barred from certain occupations, lack of job experience, skills or education and employers who are unwilling to risk hiring someone with a criminal record. Hutcherson said helping recently released inmates find work in entry-level jobs, such as in the food industry, is hard, but not impossible; Juneau businesses are probably split 50-50 in terms of those who hire people with criminal records, he said.

The struggle, he said, is to finding them careers that are lasting and offer benefits. The Juneau Job Center recently polled about 150 such businesses in Juneau, and found only 10 identified as being “felon friendly” as far as hiring practices, he said.

“Having been at this job center for 20-plus years, you get to see individuals who succeed and fail, and what has become glaringly obvious is the individuals that have had these challenges in their background have found it incredibly tough to secure employment that’s really going to allow them to work in a career that’s going to provide a living wage, benefits, all that stuff,” he said.

Nicole Jean Clayton, who has been in and out of jail and drug treatment facilities since she was 12 years old and received her first felony conviction at 19, said her biggest employment barriers are her lack of job experience and her sobriety.

“I’m not OK with the way I’m living, I’m not OK with not having a place to live, I’m scared of getting out and not finding a job,” she said. “I don’t know how to do that (hold down a job) because I chose to sell drugs instead.”

She’s worked as a barista before, but it didn’t work out. She is now thinking of getting into carpentry or construction when she’s released in May.

“I’ve been doing this stuff since I was 12,” she said. “I want to be free. I want to see if I can make it on my own.”

Hutcherson said one of the biggest barriers lies not with employers who won’t hire people with a criminal record, but with the inmates themselves who struggle with the stigma of being a felon. He said it’s typical for that label to affect their sense of self-worth, which discourages them from applying for jobs.

“Their self-esteem is so low, they don’t think of pursuing something along the lines of a career. They’re ashamed, feel less-than and less valued,” he said. “Instead of having them feeling sorry for themselves or being rejected to the point where they think, ‘Oh, what the hell, I might as well re-offend or re-use,’ we try to get them to see the possibility of a different way of life and different outcomes as opposed to the thing that led them to be incarcerated in the first place.”

The job center provides a vocational counselor to help “build them up,” to encourage them to consider careers that would be a good fit for them, he said. Hutcherson visits inmates on a monthly basis to get them thinking about careers, and he helped host the job center’s first re-entry workshop specifically tailored to former inmates at the center last month.

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