As part of their orientation process, incarcerated individuals at the all-male Queensboro Correctional Facility in Queens, New York are now required to take a “Know Your Employment Rights” course operated by Cornell’s ILR school.
The course covers employment rights and strategies for reintegrating these inmates into the workforce after their release. It is taught by Esta R. Bigler ’70, director of the ILR Labor and Employment Law Program, and Tim McNutt, a former prosecutor who now works as managing director of the Cornell Project for Records Assistance.
The education program at the facility is especially applicable to students at Queensboro as the institution is a transitional facility, holding inmates for only 30 to 120 days before release, according to McNutt.
“[These individuals] are very smart, they are interested in improving themselves, they take good notes, [and] they ask incredibly good questions and [have] a great sense of humor,” Bigler told The Sun.
Criminal records often contain errors and the course is particularly important to help individuals understand their records and how to correct any errors they might find, McNutt said.
“After someone is sentenced, if I ask them 15 minutes later of their conviction or what they just pleaded guilty of, many people don’t understand,” McNutt said of his time as a prosecutor. “This causes problems when they go apply for a job.”
McNutt said that teaching the course and working with incarcerated individuals has been an “eye-opening” experience.
“I only had the experience on the other side of the table in the courtroom — all I had was their picture and their criminal record. Now, they are people, with their life stories,” McNutt said.
The class began in January 2018 on a volunteer basis, and gained popularity to the point that the facility decided to incorporate it as a mandatory course during facility orientation, McNutt told The Sun.
According to Bigler, the course is based in ILR labor education and tailored to members of the correctional facility who will be entering the workplace soon.
The three-hour course covers basic employment rights, legal rights for applicants with a criminal record, criminal record error correction and sealing law, Bigler said.
It also teaches inmates about New York Correction Law Article 23-A, which requires employers to follow an 8-step analysis to evaluate an applicant with a prior conviction in order to reduce recidivism by providing employment opportunity.
Bigler thinks the program is helping to reduce mass incarceration and views the course as a “workforce development program.” Recent low unemployment rates mean employers are having a hard time finding workers, so they are going to have to start looking at applicants with a criminal record, Bigler and McNutt explained
“More than 70 million people in America have a criminal record,” McNutt said. “That’s one in three adults. That means employers are going to have to deal with applicants [with] a criminal record in the talent pool.”
Employee turnover is costly to employers, and Bigler said that “people who’ve been involved in the justice system tend to be the most loyal employees” because they’re so happy to have a job.
In the future, Bigler hopes to expand the program to educate incarcerated women at other facilities of their employment rights as well.
“I would also like to see a full grown program and that we can work with other states and other universities to do the work that we are doing,” Bigler said. “Every person comes home to a family … this [course] impacts the entire family and ultimately, a community, in a ripple effect.”