Home » Shaun Wanzo Explores The Ex-Offender Stigma That Continues To Plague The Workplace – Forbes

Shaun Wanzo Explores The Ex-Offender Stigma That Continues To Plague The Workplace – Forbes

by Arifa Rana

Shaun Wanzo is a DEI consultant who founded Conduit LLC—a business created to prioritize the needs … [+] of historically marginalized communities.
For many people, finding a job is a challenging feat. For those with a criminal background, the pervasive stigma could be the insurmountable barrier that prevents reentry into society. Ban the Box legislation, which removes conviction and arrest-related questions from the job application, exists in 37 states and 150 cities and counties across the U.S. New research by Sandra Susan Smith and Christopher Herring found that even though legislation is in place to protect job applicants with criminal backgrounds, many ex-offenders still reported experiencing bias. Shaun Wanzo is a DEI consultant who founded Conduit LLC—a business created to prioritize the needs of historically marginalized communities. Wanzo sat down to discuss his experiences, the journey to reentry, and why training is such a vital piece of the equity equation.
Janice Gassam Asare: What is your experience with the criminal justice system?
Shaun Wanzo: I was originally sentenced to six years and eight months to a Wisconsin state prison. I was released after serving five years and 10 months by the parole board. I was supposed to be released a year earlier but a cell phone was found in my room while I was in a work release center. After being released from prison, I was on supervised release for nearly three years until I was caught attempting to sell 2,509 grams of THC…I then was sentenced to two years in prison…and two more years of supervised release for the new felonies. The Wisconsin administrative code [that] probation and parole abide by allows them to request that any time you have been under supervised [while] released be added onto the time you are being sentenced to. In my case I was sentenced to an additional two years in prison by a court of law and the administrative law judge granted probation and parole’s request to revoke me for all of the time I was on supervised release, which resulted in me serving another five years in the Wisconsin state prison system. Once I was released in 2011, I was continuously locked up for rule violations until I was released for the last time in 2017. During this time, I wasn’t able to remain on supervised release for more than a year. A lot of this had to do with the revision of existing laws, and new ones that were being passed in the state of Wisconsin.
While serving time I was not a model inmate, however, most of my trouble came from not allowing the psychologists, social workers, and a lot of other plain clothes staff tell me who I was and what I could be. I definitely went out of my way to circumvent the rules, including being sent to super max custody [prison] for publishing a couple of stories I wrote. There were countless times I was punished for standing firm in my beliefs.
Asare: What resources were provided for you to re-integrate back into society?
Wanzo: I was one of the very fortunate ones because I always had family, friends, and usually some type of female companion who had my back and that would be the extent of the resources I had available to me when I was released. And I usually had enough money saved in my release account to get me started.
When you’re released, it almost feels as if you have been frozen in time and everything is moving so fast around you. I remember being released, for the first time, right before the holidays and going to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee campus to look into registering for classes after being incarcerated from 1999-2004 and meeting a young lady and it was so obvious how behind I was in technology, registration processes, and just life. She had to explain to me about registering for classes online and when we exchanged information, I didn’t even know how to log her name and phone number into a cell phone that my sister purchased for me…she had to show me. You can take that one experience and draw parallels to every aspect of life. The gaps in your life [are] so evident: when you apply for jobs, credit, housing, and simply trying to get to know people.
I voluntarily participated in what was called the re-entry program that for me was pretty basic because I’d rented a few places and had bank accounts and jobs before my incarceration. But I will admit that what was remedial for me was valuable information for many around me. There are very few individuals in state prison systems that have been to college and lived in the dorms prior to their convictions. I am proud of the machine tooling certification I obtained…you spend the first nine months in classroom trigonometry, Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, in workplace and student success and blueprint reading classes, and then you have to complete a certain number of projects on the machines.
Asare: What challenges impact the formerly incarcerated when it comes to gaining employment?
Wanzo: Stigma is the biggest challenge the formerly incarcerated [face] when it comes to employment. People are just so worried about you backsliding and what kind of publicity it will create or how it will reflect upon them and, God forbid, someone getting hurt. What if every person walking this earth had the worst thing they ever did be public knowledge and then be judged upon that when they interview for a job?
The heaviness and pressure working yourself out of this cycle, establishing employment, so you can establish credit, so someone will let you buy a car and rent a place while all of the world is communicating to you that it’s going to take a while, but you and your child are in need daily. This experience is compounded by probation and parole’s interference and perspective on how you should be going about things. ‘Uh, we don’t think attending a university right after incarceration would be in your best interest or the community’s best interest.’ ‘We think this woman means well, but we don’t think you two should be a relationship, we are worried you could be manipulated and that you could manipulate her.’ ‘We feel you are taking on too much.’ ‘We are happy they want to hire you, but we just don’t think you are ready to work in that type of environment.’
“I definitely went out of my way to circumvent the rules, including being sent to super max custody … [+] [prison] for publishing a couple of stories I wrote.”
Asare: What do you think can be done to overcome some of these challenges?
Wanzo: I think a good place to start is for legislation and policy [to] be implemented that ensures that if the conviction is not related to the role or duties of the job, and the applicant is qualified for the position they should be given a chance. There should also be training delivered to organizations and companies on what formerly incarcerated individuals have been through and what they are going through and how they can relate to them and how they can add value. And with more entities utilizing the remote work system, a lot of concerns could be dismissed. There can be additional workplace decorum training for individuals with records and even modified probation term. Most people who have been incarcerated are eager for a chance to reestablish themselves and move on with their lives, so they would gladly agree to additional terms and as long as they are being given a fair chance to succeed and are not being exploited, I would welcome these additional measures.
Asare: Do you provide any training or guidance for organizations around hiring candidates with a criminal background?
Wanzo: I do. I have spoken on numerous platforms about what this should and would look like and what it entails and I curated an entire course on more inclusive recruiting and hiring practices…I believe training that helps [ex-offenders] shake imposter syndrome and provides information on what they will encounter in a workplace, college campus, or tech school would be valuable. There needs to be programs in place that can connect individuals to employment, housing, medical and mental health needs right away so they have that foundation established within the first 30 days.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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