Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated as a Business Model

Fair chance hiring gives businesses dedicated workers and the formerly incarcerated a chance to get beyond stereotypes.

Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated as a Business Model

For nearly two decades, filmmaker Katie Galloway has documented and exposed the flaws in our country’s criminal justice system, with investigative documentaries ranging from a trio of award-winning films for PBS FrontlineSnitch, Requiem for Frank Lee Smith and The Case for Innocence — to the impact of the prison building boom on rural America in Prison Town, USA. Her latest documentary, The Return, examined the effects of California’s Proposition 36, when thousands of people serving life terms under California’s three-strikes law were released after the legislation was amended in 2012. Both aired on PBS’s POV documentary film series.

Galloway recently collaborated with The Marshall Project on Hot Chicken, Fair Chance, which focuses on a Columbus, Ohio restaurant that practices “fair chance” hiring of formerly incarcerated men and women. Filmmaker Jessica Wang recently interviewed Galloway about her latest project for BillMoyers.com.



Jessica Wang: You’ve built up a deep body of work related to criminal justice issues. How does this short film fit in with your past work?

Katie Galloway: Hot Chicken is actually one of a bunch of shorts that I’ve done that are a part of The Return Project, which is the campaign around the film.

All the top dogs in the criminal justice reform world came back saying that increasing pathways to employment for the formerly incarcerated is the thing that’s most important, both materially and psychologically.

— Katie Galloway

When The Return was first coming out, we worked with the Ford Foundation to figure out how best to use the film to make an impact in a positive way. And all the top dogs in criminal justice reform world came back saying that increasing pathways to employment for the formerly incarcerated is the thing that’s most important, both materially and psychologically. And so that’s where we put all our eggs in the campaign.

The centerpiece of the campaign was taking The Return around to businesses and showing the film and then having panel discussions afterward to try to get business owners to move up the rung of the ladder — going from not interested in fair hiring to interested, or from interested to really doing something about it. And I’ve partnered with all these wonderful people who are on the forefront of doing this — Virgin and Dave’s Killer Bread and #cut50 — and everyone was realizing at the same time that what was missing from the conversation was other employers.

This is a way in which I can hit above my weight with my partners, because I make media that can be disseminated or used in different ways. So I thought, what could be the most useful? It’d be profiling businesses that are doing fair chance hiring, and allowing other business owners to hear from them. We’ve done a whole series of interviews now, close to 15 with fair chance employers from big to small, and we’re developing an archive that different people can use in different ways.

JW: How did you find Joe DeLoss and Hot Chicken Takeover?

KG: Genevieve Martin, who runs the Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation — she’s one of the handful of people I can count on one hand who I respect so much doing this work about reentry and employment. She turned me onto Joe DeLoss.

And Joe DeLoss is a true proselytizer and has nothing to hide. He’s out there spreading the good word to the Columbus business community about fair chance hiring. And he believes that this is really a gift that he’s giving, because he’s done it, and it works, and here’s the reasons why. And people are super interested in hearing from him.

JW: How long did you spend filming at Hot Chicken Takeover? Did anything that you saw surprise you?

KG: I was there for a full two days shooting, and really drank the Kool-Aid because it was so authentic. There was a camaraderie and mutual support. One character speaks to it — Shannon. She says to know that all these people who have been through something like I have, a bond is there. And it goes deeper than a lot of people’s employment.

The restaurant’s in middle America and not in New York or San Francisco, where you might expect a lot more business that do fair chance hiring. And it’s great to see all the people who were coming in to Hot Chicken from the military and from all different walks of life in Ohio, and breaking bread together at this place. And knowing or not knowing about the restaurant’s 60-70 percent formerly incarcerated workforce. It felt right and was such a pleasure to see.

JW: How common are employers like Joe?

KG: One thing that we know is they are much more common than you would think. A lot of people are in the closet, as it were. So they hire but they don’t talk about it. And it is definitely increasing. But it’s certainly not anywhere near enough.

1 in 3 Americans has a criminal history or felony conviction, and that’s huge. And there’s so many people who have criminal backgrounds who you’d never expect. But the biggest problem is stereotypes rule because there’s a dearth of information, and the only thing you usually hear about is what goes wrong.

— Katie Galloway

There’s a very important distinction to be made between Ban the Box and fair chance hiring. Ban the Box is the idea that we don’t know about someone’s criminal record, but fair chance hiring is the idea that you actually bring it out into the open. At least for Joe this is true. For a lot of companies, they want to have an open conversation.

You know the law is just a blunt instrument, the way we define the serious or violent felony. It depends on what state you’re in, who wrote the law. It’s 1 in 3 now — 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal history or felony conviction, and that’s huge. And there’s so many people who have criminal backgrounds who you’d never expect. But the biggest problem is stereotypes rule because there’s a dearth of information, and the only thing you usually hear about is what goes wrong. That’s why it’s so important to tell Joe’s story and the story of his employees because when people do well, they tend to want to distance themselves from their past.

JW: What caused Joe to make such an effort to hire the formerly incarcerated?

KG: He was working in a soup kitchen with his grandfather, so he grew up with volunteerism. But he felt at some point in his late teens that I could hand out soup until the day I die, and it won’t do anything to end this soup kitchen line. And it was around that time he was finishing college that he found out about social entrepreneurship, and it put a name and business philosophy to what his personal philosophy and burgeoning consciousness was. So that’s when he decided to focus his whole business education around this model of doing business.

And through word of mouth and connections, more and more people who are formerly incarcerated come to him. And he doesn’t hire them all for sure. He really looks for a particular type of person, and he’s very clear about this. He doesn’t see his staff as people with felony backgrounds, and those who don’t have one. They’re all part of the crew, and in all of them, he’s looking for a real fire in the belly, a real imagining their own futures, and a hustle.

He also talks about how he has this hustle. He had it when he was a kid, and he was lucky enough to be born and raised in a middle-class white family. He took sodas and treats from his own kitchen and sold them to construction workers on his way to school. He said, if I had been born in a different social context, I would be dealing drugs, no question. If you have hustle and an entrepreneurial spirit, you can easily wind up on the wrong side of the law.

JW: Much of the federal momentum toward bipartisan criminal justice reform has stalled with the election of Trump. What’s your take on the current appetite for meaningful reform?

KG: That’s another reason why focusing on businesses is so important. Not counting on the government, but making change through cultural, social and business norms is exactly where we should be, because there’s so much potential for positive change. And there’s a whole young generation for whom criminal justice issues are among their top couple issues of importance.

Also, there’s just not this public appetite anymore for “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key.” So I think that’s a really good thing. You see what some of the administration is up to, and it’s frightening. They’re true believers. Jeff Sessions was the bad guy in a film I made 20 years ago about the drug war in Alabama. But it’s a different climate now than it was for decades, and thank god.

JW: What else gives you hope?

KG:I think we’re seeing really smart approaches from reformers. One of my favorites is Californians for Safety and Justice — they are really good about bringing crime victims into the discussion on reform side. There’s a lot of positive strategic symbiotic work going on in the reform world. And obviously huge bipartisan efforts. It’s pretty much the one issue that Republicans and Democrats could agree on. Though maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, because it was one of the few issues they could agree on in the other direction in the ’80s and ’90s, when Democrats were falling all over themselves to lock people up and throw away the key.

JW: What upcoming projects are you working on?

KG: I’m just finishing The Pushouts now, and it will be coming out next year. It’s about the other end of the prison pipeline — the kids who we call dropouts, but who are actually pushed out of the education system for various reasons and wind up being fodder for the criminal justice system.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Jessica Wang

Jessica Wang started her journalistic career in the fast-moving world of sports reporting, though quickly branched out into the general news and education beats for newspapers in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Stockton, California. After stints at CBS Radio and the ABC News Investigative Unit, she found her home at PBS — spending time at Wide Angle, NOW, and Frontline before joining the Bill Moyers team for a series of documentaries and programs. Her work there won an Emmy award and several nominations. She then helped launch a new program with Ali Velshi at Al Jazeera America. She is currently working on her first feature-length documentary. Follow her on Twitter: @j_k_wang.