In 1994, Halim Kaygisiz was sentenced to what would become a 17-year term in prison for a violent carjacking. Today, almost a decade after his release, Kaygisiz is director of health outreach services for the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk County, where he helps low-income Long Islanders find services they need.
While his is an employment success story, landing a job after incarceration or a conviction often poses a major challenge for Long Islanders with criminal records. Many say that even in an economic landscape bolstered by record low unemployment and an increased number of jobs, stigma and post-conviction restrictions can make the interview and application process a struggle.
According to estimates from the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based think tank that advocates for prison reform, the unemployment rate for former inmates reached 27.3 percent in 2008 — the latest year such data are available — compared with 5.8 percent in the general population that same year.
Unemployment for those with convictions or a history of incarceration is not tracked by the state Labor Department.
“People really have difficulty once they’ve come through the criminal system,” said Elizabeth Justesen, an attorney with Breaking Barriers, a volunteer project of the Suffolk Legal Aid Society and Touro Law School that helps ex-offenders qualify for jobs. “Where are they going to go to work? Everybody does background checks now.”
Among the challenges, Justesen said, are driving restrictions for parolees — a major hurdle on Long Island — plus lack of affordable housing and mental health and recovery services, and strict limitations on the type of jobs they can be licensed to do under state law.
"They’ll do training programs, they’ll get certified, they’ll pass the test and then they go to the licensing agency – there’s over 107 licensed professions in New York State – and they’ll be denied," she said.
Kaygisiz said when he was released on parole in 2010, he thought the combination of his skills, involvement in counseling other inmates and good behavior would supersede his conviction and make him more employable.
Kaygisiz earned his GED and before long was tutoring other inmates. He set his mind to learning trade skills, taking advantage of educational offerings, and volunteering and earning certifications as a counselor.
“When I came out, I was fairly naive,” Kaygisiz said. “I thought ‘Hey I’ve got six years of forklift experience. I worked in industrial manufacturing. I’ve got letters of recommendation, so my skills are going to outweigh my past.’ It wasn’t maybe until my third or fourth interview that I realized that the fact that I was incarcerated was a real barrier.”
And for ex-felons who do find steady work, the positions often offer only minimum wage, making it difficult for them to support themselves.
Advocates of criminal justice reform say removing barriers to employment after incarceration is one major way communities can help reduce recidivism while helping the economy at large.
“If there’s one thing that people definitely agree will impact the lives of individuals, families and communities, it’s employment,” said Ronald F. Day, vice president of education and employment services at the Fortune Society, a Long Island City, Queens, nonprofit that provides training and employment prep services to former inmates.
"If you give a person a job, you contribute to the tax base, you contribute to that individual's family, it just makes sense," said Day, who served 15 years in prison for attempted murder.
Day said recent legislative efforts to "ban the box" — the check box on job applications asking about past criminal convictions — are intended to remove artificial obstacles that make it harder for people with criminal records to be given a fair chance.
"Employers hire people all the time and things don’t work out," he said. "What we’re saying is don’t base the fact that something might not work out on the fact that a person has a criminal record.”
Last month, Suffolk County legislators tabled a vote on a proposed ban the box law that would prevent employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until after a conditional job offer is made.
Craig Olivo, a labor and employment attorney with Bond, Schoeneck & King in Garden City, said Suffolk’s proposed law is an example of legislation that has been springing up in states and cities across the country. New York City's 2015 Fair Chance Act is one example, he said.
While federal discrimination protections do not extend to job seekers with convictions, New York State law goes further, he said.
Employers here may take past convictions into account, but only after reviewing the candidate fairly and completing a multistep evaluation to determine if his or her past offenses would present a conflict in the future, Olivo said. How much time has passed since a conviction, whether there is proof of the former inmate's rehabilitative efforts, and whether the type of conviction presents a natural conflict with the job being offered are all a part of that analysis.
In this way, employers are justified in not choosing a candidate who might be a poor fit given the crime in question.
“If you had a conviction 20 years ago when you were a teenager and it was for shoplifting and now 20 years later you’re applying for a maintenance job in a building, is there really a correlation between the type of job you’re applying for and what you did as a kid?” Olivo said.
Still, hiring employees with convictions can come with the risk of recidivism on the job, concerns over making current employees feel uneasy, and fears of negative publicity, he said.
“There’s a balancing of the relative costs, and it depends on an employer’s tolerance for risk,” he said.
For West Babylon-based waste management company Winters Bros., ruling out jobseekers with a criminal background isn’t an option, said Will Flower, vice president for corporate and public affairs.
“I believe we are a great place to work and have great benefits, but we’re not in the most glamorous business,” Flower said. "We have a lot of jobs that we’re constantly looking to fill. Nothing is off limits when it comes to our search for good, qualified candidates.”
Like several other Long Island firms, Winters Bros., which has about 400 employees, participated in the Fresh Start Career Expo, a hiring event in March for applicants facing obstacles because of prior convictions.
“If a person has made some mistakes in the past, we're willing to look past that,” Flower said. “The benefit to us is you get a hardworking employee, a person who wants to work and would be grateful for a job. On top of that, we sort of break the chain.”
For Joseph Camarda, president at CAM Search & Consulting, a Port Jefferson Station staffing firm, the issue has become impossible to ignore as prison populations have grown. "Of the thousands of applicants we speak to each week, especially in the industrial sector, more than 25 percent have difficulty finding work because of a criminal background.”
Camarda said his company’s primary concern is evaluating an applicant’s skills and applicable work history.
“The strength of the resume will always supersede the criminal background as long as the criminal background is not one that is repetitive or violent,” he said. “There are way too many people that are being put in the criminal justice system. Those one-time offenses are bogging down their lives.”
Robert Biancavilla, founder of Duck Island Bread Company in Huntington, said he wouldn’t know if any of the six employees at his small shop have criminal records because he doesn’t ask during the interview process.
“I’m not interested,” said Biancavilla, a former police officer who worked as a top homicide prosecutor in both Nassau and Suffolk counties. “What I’m interested in are people that are reliable. People who are passionate about baking like I am.”
More than 30 years in law enforcement "has taught me that…probably 95 percent of people that commit crimes are generally good people who do stupid things," he said. "You can’t hold it against them for the rest of their lives.”
Debra Pure, a waitress at the Moriches Bay Diner & Restaurant, said she’s grateful for the job, but she’s still looking for the “dream” position that would best make use of her life experiences and education.
Pure, 55, is in recovery for a substance abuse problem that began at 23 when she started using crack. Having spent most of her adulthood in and out of jail for drug possession and related larceny convictions, Pure began her journey to recovery six years ago.
Her last arrest, which led to a stint at the Riverhead Correctional Facility in 2013, was the one that changed everything, she said. Pure became involved with New Hour for Women and Children, a nonprofit that helps women and their children adapt to life after incarceration.
After leaving jail, she completed a degree in human services at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue and saved for a car. Recently, she took a part-time position as a recovery house manager for New Hope Rising in Mastic, where she helps support others battling addiction in return for a stipend and free housing.
“I make enough money to survive,” Pure said. “But ... I went back to school and I got a degree. I would love to work with the jail population, but I cannot get one of those jobs because of my criminal history.”
Pure said one of the issues that complicates the hiring landscape for ex-felons is fear of losing vital benefits and assistance.
“The county will give them food stamps, give them medical coverage and help pay their shelter fee,” she said. But when “you decide that it’s time to get into the workforce and you get one of those low-wage jobs, the county cuts you off of those benefits.
“It deters people from really trying to better themselves,” Pure said.
A 2016 drug conviction is what changed Cassandra Sterling's life.
Before spending six months in jail, Sterling had been steadily employed, working as a salon manager, providing graphic design services and even running her own clothing boutique.
“It was my first time ever being in any type of trouble,” she said; she's has been searching for work for the past six months.
Sterling, who signed up with multiple temp agencies, said she’s been able to get two short-lived positions since her release. A medical condition rules out physically demanding jobs — the kind, she said, that tend to be offered to applicants with convictions.
“You would think that my whole life was a horror story and this is why I can’t get employment, but it’s not,” she said.
Kaygisiz, too, saw how bad choices changed the trajectory of his life.
Before pleading guilty to attempted murder and robbery charges at 18, he was on track to graduate high school, had a part-time job and “a scholarship to St. John’s University to play baseball. “It’s almost as if I had two different identities. It was a series of bad decisions that I made."
Once sentenced to 8 years and 4 months to 25 years in prison, Kaygisiz said, he began preparing for the day he’d be able to go home.
“Inside, I had two choices. I had a choice to get my act together, or I could choose the path that led me down to prison,” he said. Since his release, Kaygisiz has earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Walden University and hopes to earn a master's in health administration.
Still, he said, more has to be done to ensure those with convictions have fair access to opportunities that allow them to improve their situations.
“Everybody is not going to be as fortunate as I was.”