This Dallas program is helping moms who’ve been to prison launch tech careers
People who’ve been to prison often face significant challenges when they’re released, hitting barriers to jobs, housing and educational opportunities. The justice advocate behind a new tech training program wants women with felony records to be able to thrive when they come home.
No one would’ve called Patricia Manning tech savvy when she agreed to join a pilot program to learn entry-level IT skills. But she quit her two fast-food jobs and signed up anyway.
“Listen, I didn’t even know how to cut the computer on,” she said as she started her sixth week of classes. “So it was a little intimidating. Oh, no, let me go back: It was a whole lot intimidating.”
Most of the 10 women in this class weren’t terribly techy, either. And, like many of her classmates, Manning has not had it easy since she came home from prison.
The 52-year-old split up with her husband not long after she came back to Fort Worth in 2019, but she hasn’t been able to find a place of her own because she couldn’t find a landlord willing to rent to someone with a felony drug conviction on her record.
Now, she’s living with one of her adult children, taking care of two kids under 18.
A mother of five and grandmother to 11, Manning has worked hard since she came back to Fort Worth in 2019, first as a home health aide for $8 an hour. When the program started in October, she was working two different fast-food jobs– at Wingstop and Chicken Salad Chick – that offered meager wages and no benefits.
“I worked seven hours in the morning and seven hours in the evening, Monday through Saturday, and I was just so overwhelmed and tired all the time,” she said.
From prison to poverty
A 2019 study by the Prison Policy Institute found that the nation’s 5 million formerly incarcerated people were five times more likely to be unemployed than the general population, even though they searched for jobs at higher rates than the general population.
The group also found formerly incarcerated people were 10 times more likely to be homeless.
Stigma and discriminatory hiring practices often block the way to living-wage jobs, researchers say. And state licensing rules leave people with felony convictions unable to return to previously lucrative careers.
Brittany Barnett saw this struggle first-hand when her mother came home from prison. After leaving prison, her mother was unable to find work as a nurse because her nursing license had been revoked after she was convicted on felony charges stemming from a severe addiction.
“We cannot keep rescuing people from prison, and restoring them to poverty,” Barnett said.
Barnett is a Dallas-based lawyer who has gained a reputation as an innovative criminal justice reformer after quitting corporate law to address the damage caused by federal drug laws that disproportionately punish people of color.
“The collateral consequences of having a felony record are wide and vast,” Barnett said. “Without jobs, without places to live, it trickles down to their children. It trickles down to society as a whole.”
As the number of women behind bars in the U.S. has ballooned in recent decades, Texas became the top incarcerator of women in the nation. About 80% are mothers, and the vast majority of them will leave prison and return home.
Barnett launched a nonprofit called Girls Embracing Mothers in 2013 to help girls in North Texas maintain and strengthen relationships with their imprisoned mothers, drawing on her family’s experience.
The tech training pilot program is a partnership between Girls Embracing Mothers and the IT trade association CompTIA, which offers an array of certifications for in-demand tech skills.
After the 10-week training program, each of the 10 women will earn a CompTIA A+ certification, qualifying them for entry level IT jobs. Barnett is working with local employers to place them in internships after they graduate.
It’s part of Barnett’s vision of “sustainable liberation,” that centers on economic security, equity and creating the conditions that allow formerly incarcerated women to thrive, not just survive, when they return home from prison.
A 2019 report by the labor market research firm Burning Glass Technologies identified the CompTIA A+ certificate as one of the 10 most in-demand certifications on job listings across all industries, and one of the most undersupplied in the labor force. Typical salaries for workers with that certification are about $43,000 per year, according to the report.
A better future
For Patricia Manning, it’s not just the better wages that excite her, but the opportunity to land a job with a 401k, paid time off and health care coverage. She is currently uninsured and has been trying to figure out how to pay for braces for her 15-year-old.
“That’s my priority: my kids, to make a living for them, to make something for them, something that I didn’t have,” Manning said. “I don’t want my kids to have to go through the same thing I had to go through.”
Like every woman in the class, Manning has a perfect attendance record, even though her car broke down a few weeks in. She’s leaned on classmates for rides, and they’ve leaned on her for help during the class. Manning and the other women have organized study groups to make sure no one falls behind.
Diana Lopez Garcia, another participant, said she’s more comfortable in the class knowing everyone there shares the experience of incarceration. She plans to maintain relationships with these women as they move into their new careers.
“It’s a network. We built a network among each other to where it’s like, 'Hey, if this job doesn’t work out for me, well let me call Shante, or let me call Patricia,'” she said.
Lopez Garcia has been out of prison for six years. She spent years working in warehouse jobs, taking on new roles in quality control, learning to drive a forklift and trying to grow and develop. But she felt stuck.
"I enjoyed my jobs. I just wanted to do more, but it just felt like a dead end everywhere I was going," she said.
The program offers a chance to better provide for her wife and two kids in their blended family, she said, and to find a more fulfilling future for herself.
“It’s not just about the money, it’s about learning and being able to make a career out of it, not being held back,” she said. “I feel like I deserve that.”
Lopez Garcia was riddled with anxiety when she first started the class, worried she would waste the opportunity or fail to keep up.
Now, halfway through the course, she giddily describes the joy of taking apart a laptop and being able to understand how the different components work, and can describe the differences between hexadecimal and binary systems. The "lightbulb" moments help mitigate moments of doubt, she said.
“Giving up is not an option. I have to get this, I’ve got to do this,” she said.
This is an example of what Barnett calls the “untapped greatness” America leaves out of the economy by locking up more people than any other nation and then marginalizing people with criminal records when they come home.
Charles Eaton, CompTIA’s executive vice president for social innovation, said his organization has been looking for ways to increase “on-ramps” to tech careers over the past decade, especially for people underrepresented in the industry.
He’s hoping more companies will learn to see past criminal records and recognize the ingenuity it takes to come home from prison, rebuild a life and launch a new career.
“We have always wanted to serve people who have a [criminal] conviction or have been incarcerated, but the challenge when we talked to employers was that they were reluctant to hire,” Eaton said.
Earlier this year, Eaton reached out to Barnett, impressed by her advocacy work and the success of the Girls Embracing Mothers program, to launch CompTIA’s first training program specifically geared toward people who have been locked up or who have criminal convictions.
Last year, amid nationwide protests for criminal justice reform, Eaton said a lot of companies made pledges to re-think hiring practices that discriminated against people with criminal records.
He pointed to high-profile business leaders like JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who last year called for an end to “financial, legal and logistical roadblocks,” that “prevent those who have paid their debt to society from re-entering the work force.”
A tight labor market also tends to make employers more open to hiring people with criminal records.
“I think the rubber will meet the road when we see the women in this class get placed [in jobs],” Eaton said. “We’re very hopeful because we’re seeing more talk about this. I have to see more action.”
KERA’s One Crisis Away project is supported in part by grants from Communities Foundation of Texas and Texas Women’s Foundation.
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Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at email@example.com.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.