New report calculates the first unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people: 27 percent, highest since Great Depression

Formerly incarcerated people overwhelmingly want to work, but they face huge obstacles in the job market

by Prison Policy Initiative

For the 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the U.S., landing a job means more than just personal success: It means finding a place in their communities and being able to care for their loved ones again.

It’s well known that the obstacles to finding a job are severe for people who have been to prison. The scale of this problem, however, has been difficult to measure – until now.

In “Out of Prison & Out of Work,” the Prison Policy Initiative calculates that 27 percent of formerly incarcerated people are looking for a job but can’t find one.

The unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated people in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, was 27.3 percent, compared to 5.8 percent in the general public, exceeding even the highest level of unemployment ever recorded in the U.S., 24.9 percent, during the Great Depression.

This rate, which surpasses anything Americans have experienced since the height of the Great Depression, is especially striking given the report’s other findings:

  • Formerly incarcerated people are more likely than the average American to want to work;
  • People of color and women face the worst “penalties” in the job market after going to prison, making historical inequalities in the labor force even worse;
  • Unemployment is highest for people released in the last two years, when they are most vulnerable to re-incarceration.
PPI calculated that the working-age Black, white, male and female formerly incarcerated unemployment rates are higher than the rates of unemployment for any of their peers in the general population. This “prison penalty” puts formerly incarcerated Black people and women at the greatest disadvantage when it comes to finding work.

“These high unemployment rates reflect public will, policy and practice – not differences in aspirations,” said author Lucius Couloute. In the report, he lays out policy solutions for closing this vast employment gap, including:

  • A temporary basic income for formerly incarcerated people after their release;
  • Automatic mechanisms for criminal record expungement;
  • Occupational licensing reform at the state and industry levels.

“Out of Prison & Out of Work” is the first of three reports to be released by the Prison Policy Initiative focusing on the struggles of formerly incarcerated people to access jobs, housing and education. Utilizing data from a little known and little used government survey, Couloute can describe these problems with unprecedented clarity.

In this report and the two more to follow, he recommends reforms to ensure that formerly incarcerated people – already punished by a harsh justice system – are no longer punished for life by an unforgiving economy.

Contact Prison Policy Initiative at or P.O. Box 127, Northampton MA 01061.