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The Prison Credential Dilemma: How Race, Criminal Records, and Contradictory Signals Shape Post-Prison Employment and Job Search Strategies

NCJ Number
Sade L. Lindsay
Date Published

This dissertation examines how race, human capital, and criminal records combine to shape men’s employment and job search strategies, and it proposes the use of prison credentials as a counterbalance for the negative effects of having a criminal record in the labor market.


The author of this dissertation discusses challenges faced by formerly incarcerated people seeking to reintegrate into their communities, and specifically, the challenges of post-prison employment. The goal of this dissertation is to enhance understanding of how human capital, criminal records, and race intersect to influence employment outcomes and job search strategies, with special attention to the challenges of formerly incarcerated men. The author focuses on the prison credential (educational program completion certificates) dilemma, and argues that prison credentials convey conflicting signals about applicants to employers, with positive signals about applicants’ abilities and characteristics but potential negative signals relating to criminal histories. The author draws on an audit study of 1,502 employers in Ohio, Georgia, Texas, California, and New York, and demonstrates that employers were more likely to call back formerly incarcerated men with prison credentials than those without prison credentials, however men without criminal records were the most likely to get called back. The author demonstrates that while the efficacy of prison credentials did not differ by race, Black applicants were still less likely to receive callbacks than White applicants; provides details about how race and criminal records affect whether applicants receive callbacks for jobs that best match their qualifications; and examines how the prison credential dilemma shapes job search strategies and career pathways, using qualitative semi-structured, in-depth interviews with 50 formerly incarcerated men. The author finally argues that while prison credentials do alleviate disparities, there must be a focus on employers’ institutional practices as well as federal, state, and local policies to discourage discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.