Photo by Jeremy Sternberg, Flick CC

The mark of a criminal conviction often has a devastating effect on future career opportunities. Black formerly incarcerated individuals have an even harder time finding employment due to employer discrimination. But jobs aren’t only important for economic security. Susila Gurusami’s recent study explores how state agents like probation officers, parole officers, and attorneys determine Black women’s commitment to rehabilitation by assessing if and how their employment is reliable, recognizable, and redemptive. Failure to meet these criteria could mean returning to jail or prison. In doing so, probation and parole officers reinforce “rehabilitation labor,” where formerly incarcerated women must prove that they have successfully transformed from ‘criminals’ to ‘workers.’

Gurusami spent 18 months volunteering as a social work intern with a local organization in a Los Angeles county that assisted formerly incarcerated women find employment, housing, and other rehabilitative needs. During her time there, she worked with 35 women — driving them to doctor’s appointments, guiding them through job applications, and accompanying them to court proceedings. She developed a close relationship with several women by conversing with them in their homes, meeting them at restaurants, accompanying them on daily walks, and speaking with them via phone and text messaging regularly.

The women in Gurusami’s study quickly learned that their probation and parole officers would not simply accept any form of employment. Rather, probation and parole officers emphasized that formerly incarcerated women must find work that state agents deem reliable, recognizable, and redemptive. Reliable employment meant long-term, full-time work. State agents criticized women who found seasonal positions or temp jobs. Some women were even discouraged from seeking education despite its long-term potential to generate greater income.  Those who attempted to earn GEDs, college degrees, or attend trade school were often discouraged by parole and probation officers who did not recognize education as a legitimate means to finding employment. 

Furthermore, parole and probation officers did not recognize traditionally female-dominated forms of work, like braiding hair or assisting with care of relatives, that did not take place in conventional workplace settings as valid employment. Lastly, state agents also tended to push women towards redemptive work — work that they viewed as beneficial to the community, such as counseling and social work. Women who failed to find employment that met these criteria were threatened with prison. While employment is vital to a successful future after incarceration, limiting opportunities for both work and education and forcing Black women to partake in rehabilitation labor reinforces notions that Black women’s actions are in need of constant control and discipline by the state.