A growing number of bakeries, restaurants, and ice cream companies are leading the charge to employ the formerly incarcerated.
“It’s the same work I was used to in prison, but the difference is that, in prison, I was working for 10 cents a day.” Alvin Wilson is a 66-year-old baker. Living in New York’s Westchester County with his sister, he’s spent the last seven years mixing brownie batter ingredients and packing the baked result at Greyston Bakery, the organization whose brownies can be found in your favorite scoop of Ben & Jerry’s, from Chocolate Fudge Brownie to Brownie Batter Core. Greyston was founded in 1982 as an “incubator for open hiring,” says the company’s CEO, Joseph Kenner. Open hiring, second-chance employment, and “Ban the Box” activism are company practices that both eliminate background checks and actively recruit formerly incarcerated individuals, who are often up against stigma and discrimination while searching for jobs.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 75 percent of returning citizens are still unemployed a year after their release, and a 2021 report by the US Chamber of Commerce says that having a criminal record reduces employment callback rates by 50 percent for white men and 65 percent for Black men. “A lot of doors are closed for formerly incarcerated people such as myself,” shares Mickey Wilkerson, who, after spending only three weeks incarcerated on New York’s Rikers Island, had to put months of initiative (and patience) into getting her driver’s license authorized—much less establishing full-time employment. The irony in Wilkerson’s story, and that of many others, is what Alvin Wilson alludes to when mentioning his horrifying paycheck while behind bars: big-time food corporations have been leaning on incarcerated labor for decades as part of their supply chain. Yet once released, these same individuals are labeled as anything from a threat to the work environment to an unreliable employee, based on archaic, racist stereotypes.
The argument for open or second-chance hiring is first and foremost for companies to respond to this pool of potential workers, made up of Wilkerson and her compatriots, which is too often overlooked. Kenner, Greyston’s CEO, argues that, particularly for an industry with razor-thin margins—which is also currently plagued with one of the greatest labor crunches in a generation—business can thrive when you incorporate open hiring. “Our partners are seeing their time to hire go from an average of 30 days to five or seven,” he shares. “Right off the bat, the time, money, and resources that go into excluding people through background checks, résumé requirements, and interviews are reallocated to better wages and keeping people.”