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What Philly-area CEOs think about hiring ex-inmates

Some firms believe in - and are willing to - give the formerly incarcerated a second chance. At other firms, restrictions mandated by clients or other associations forbid the practice.

Evelyn Parker, a case worker who was formerly incarcerated, and Richard Cohen, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Health Management Corp., fist-bump after talking in their office in Philadelphia.
Evelyn Parker, a case worker who was formerly incarcerated, and Richard Cohen, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Health Management Corp., fist-bump after talking in their office in Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

When Michael Koffler, the man, met lifers at Graterford, his heart opened. Some had committed murder as teenagers, and now decades later, they were near release — fearing and anticipating life on the outside.

"Some were as smart as anyone I've met on the outside," Koffler said.

But when Michael Koffler, the CEO, thought about hiring them for his biotech business, he had a conflict.

Yes, people deserve a second chance, said Koffler, who met the lifers on a field trip organized by an executives' networking group. But, most employees at Genomind Inc. in King of Prussia are scientists or highly educated computer professionals, although, with training, someone coming out of prison with a high school degree could handle data entry.

But, and it's a big but, what if something went wrong?

"Disclosure of patient information is more damaging than even in a large theft," not just in financial penalties but the potential for fatal damage to reputation and credibility, he said.

Koffler was chief financial officer at a former company that ran background checks on anyone who handled money,  "If I had taken a chance on someone and something went wrong, my superiors wouldn't have said, `Thank you for giving that person a second chance.'

"In hindsight," Koffler said, "it would have looked preventable."

Koffler was one of 152 Philly business leaders surveyed this month on hiring people with criminal backgrounds. Fewer than 10 percent responded — low for a group with strong opinions. They are busy, but it might not be their schedules. In July, a request for summer reading recommendations yielded more responses from fewer executives.

"There's still a stigma attached to these people, unfortunately," said H. Patrick Clancy Jr., who leads Philadelphia Works, the quasi-governmental agency connecting job-seekers and employers.

"I'm not sure employers want to jump out and be the champions" for hiring the formerly incarcerated, Clancy said. The key, he said, is to make sure the formerly incarcerated are carefully vetted by a trusted agency.

Some employers, such as Jeffrey Brown, chief executive of Brown's Super Stores Inc., regularly hire the formerly incarcerated. At Brown's 13 ShopRite and Fresh Grocer supermarkets, 500 of 3,000 employees fall into that category.

"We hear a lot of negative news about people who have made mistakes," Brown said at an emotional graduation Oct. 16 for 24 people who had been in prison but had just completed a six-week training program to become supermarket cashiers. "But that's in the past and we believe that."

In the present are turnover statistics: Managers say that six weeks after Brown's hires 20 cashiers off the street, only five will still be working. Six weeks after 21 formerly incarcerated people, earlier training graduates, started cashier jobs, 17 remained on the payroll.

"Overall, we've had positive experiences with this population," said Richard Cohen, chief executive of the Philadelphia-based Public Health Management Corp., which manages many social service, behavioral health and job training programs.

"We have individuals who have completed our programs and have come to work for us," Cohen said, responding to the survey. "The perspective of these individuals in their work with others who have justice-related concerns can be an asset. They offer perspectives, not only to participants, but also to staff. They suggest ways to do our work to encourage and support justice-involved individuals."

Exactly, says Evelyn Parker, a PHMC caseworker who works with people under house arrest. "I've been there," she said she tells her clients. Parker, 63, served three years at Muncy for stealing copper pipe from vacant houses. That was on top of a lot of legal run-ins involving selling and using drugs. In prison, she said, lifers mentored her, telling her to sober up and straighten out.

Upon release, she returned to college, earned a degree and landed an internship, then a job at PHMC.  "My supervisor took a chance on me," she said.

Parker said her clients "have to want to change," and she's gotten good at discerning who those people are. "I've got street smarts and book smarts."

Those are the positives; the negatives are real, too.

The owner of an IT staffing agency in South Jersey lost business when a client learned the agency had sent a software contractor with a criminal record. The client fired the contractor — and the agency.

"We cannot prove in court that they fired him for his record," the owner said. Ostensibly, there were performance problems, even though the contractor had been on the job, complaint-free, for half a year.

The executive doesn't want his company's name used for fear of losing more business. "Clients should be willing to accept such individuals," he said in the survey. The government "should provide more benefits and support" to employers.

"We can't talk about it now," said an executive, apologizing. The company, which regularly employs the formerly incarcerated, is up for a big contract and doesn't want to risk scaring away a potential client.

Others surveyed said their companies can't hire people with a criminal past. "Our business is in IT and we support law enforcement, which has a strict policy against hiring people with known backgrounds because of access" to criminal justice information systems, wrote Gary Green, chief executive of Green Technology Services in Salem County.

Last month, Holtec International opened a factory in Camden, promising to hire 1,000 by 2020, but no former felons.  "Because we operate in the nuclear power industry, our corporate governance manual forbids hiring any felon," chief executive Krishna Singh wrote.

In Philadelphia, nurse Donna Torrisi leads the Family Practice and Counseling Network, a group of clinics serving the poor — 23,000 patients a year. Over the years, she has fired three people for stealing.

None had a criminal record.

And over the years, she has hired a few people with criminal pasts. After they had worked a few weeks, their records came up on a background check.

"We look at each situation separately and assess all the issues/risks and benefits," Torrisi said. "We are committed to hiring people with criminal backgrounds as we believe everyone deserves an opportunity to succeed. We would not hire a person with a child-abuse or sexual-abuse past if they were working with children or women."

One employee stabbed someone who was beating her sister. "Frankly, when I heard the whole story, I thought, `Definitely hire her. She has real strength of character,' " Torrisi said.

"The people we've hired and kept have been terrific," she said. "I think there's a sense of gratitude for the job."

How to hire:

  1. Find a trusted partner in the employment or social services field who can help vet candidates and teach soft-skills.

  2. Encourage them, or a family member, to stay in touch. Sometimes a non-serious parole violation will result in a brief lock-up, causing a missed shift. They may be too ashamed to call.

  3. Expect to communicate with parole and probation officers: Last-minute shift changes may be harder to arrange.

  4. Reach out to Philadelphia Works to learn about government subsidies. There is also a federal bonding program.

  5. Expect loyalty, gratitude.

  6. Learn from others.

Connect and learn (two events):

Driving Impact from the Inside Out, Bottom Up:

Employers will talk about challenges and opportunities when hiring people from the non-traditional workforce (re-entry, immigrants, welfare recipients, veterans).  Breakfast. Free. 8 a.m. to noon, Tues. Oct. 31, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Register here.

Reentry: Hiring from an Untapped Pool

Tight labor market? Curious about hiring people with criminal histories. Have coffee and discuss your concerns with four business executives who regularly employ people with criminal histories. Sponsored by the Philadelphia Media Network, including the Inquirer. 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., Thurs., Nov. 2, Chamber of Commerce, 200 S. Broad St., Suite 700. Free with an RSVP.