Permit rules keep ex-cons jobless

Curtis Bunn | 6/28/2015, 11 a.m. | Updated on 6/28/2015, 8:58 a.m.
For black men who have been incarcerated, completing their penance and walking into the sunshine of freedom presents countless challenges, ...
Curtis Bunn (Courtesy Photo)

— Some 50,000 blacks in Georgia are barred by law from working in 20 occupations that require a professional license because of their prior criminal convictions. They cannot apply for government approval to cut hair, mow lawns or even unclog drains.

For black men who have been incarcerated, completing their penance and walking into the sunshine of freedom presents countless challenges, especially returning the work force. The label “ex-convict,” for instance, frightens many private-sector employers. But the public sector creates its own obstacles with a truly confounding Catch-22: Many jobs require government licenses, but convicted felons are forbidden to hold these permits. This conundrum gives many former inmates little choice but to work off the books. This, in turn, means they sometimes are lured to breaking the law in order to escape their former lives of lawlessness.

Barry Upshaw, 42, understands this situation all too well. After being imprisoned for drug possession for almost four years, he now regularly stands at the entrance of the Home Depot shopping plaza on Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Avenue. Six days a week, Upshaw waits patiently and hopes that someone will ask him to assemble a new product, mow a lawn or perform some other odd job.

Upshaw calls himself a handyman who can fix anything. And yet he cannot repair the state laws that require him and other Georgians to secure government licenses before they can apply themselves as engineers, dental assistants and funeral directors, among other positions. Some might argue that licenses prevent buildings from collapsing due to faulty work by sub-par engineers. Certified dental assistants very well may be less likely to infect their patients. But it seems harder to justify licensing requirements for barbers, lawn care technicians, massage therapists, plumbers, pipe fitters, auto mechanics, insurance agents and other positions with lower safety and health concerns.

Thanks to these rules, Upshaw and several other former felons stand around much of the day and hope that someone informally hires them at discounted rates to perform labor-intensive duties.

“It’s humiliating, to be honest,” says Upshaw, who laments that he has lived with three different friends in the last year. “But the things I can really do, they won’t let me get a license for it. And no license, no job.”

Upshaw, who is from Augusta and has a 13-year-old daughter, said he can make up to $50 a day — occasionally $100, when everything goes right — by being “hired” to work as a mover or help put together furniture. Those who recruit him need things done, but don’t want to pay the often-steep wages that full-blown companies charge. Many days, Upshaw says, he makes nothing, especially in winter.

“I made a mistake, and I thought I paid for it when I was incarcerated,” he says. “I didn’t know I would be paying for it now, a year later.”

Upshaw’s is an all-too-common story around the United States. Organizations and legislators want to improve this situation in Georgia — the state that has garnered praise for leading the country in prison reform. The Peach State’s black citizens also want an alternative to the status quo. Many of them are painfully familiar with the devastating numbers: blacks constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population but 48 percent of the 2.3 million people in prison. In the state, blacks make up 62 percent of inmates but only 31 percent of citizens.