When Damon Phillips welcomed attendees to a Tamer Center for Social Enterprise-hosted convening of healthcare employers and reentry-training organizations in June, he began by situating himself—and his work—in a changed world.

Phillips, now a Wharton School professor and Columbia Business School adjunct senior research scholar, explained that he’d helped launch the Tamer Center’s ReEntry Acceleration Program (REAP) in 2016 — while he was co-director of the center and a professor at CBS — out of a desire to bring CBS’s resources to bear on efforts to connect formerly incarcerated individuals with employment opportunities. REAP has since developed into a program that educates CBS students about the impact of the US criminal legal system on employment and entrepreneurship, and encourages future leaders to consider how they can help to improve employment prospects for formerly incarcerated people over the course of their careers.

In 2018, REAP’s organizers partnered with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to host a closed-door Hospitals Breakfast Meeting Series, where prospective healthcare employers could meet to candidly discuss their efforts around employing people impacted by the criminal legal system.

At the time, these hospitals’ involvement was conditional on the meetings remaining off the record; some feared that a public acknowledgment that healthcare institutions were hiring people with criminal records could become fodder for controversy.

In a society reshaped by the Covid pandemic and by George Floyd’s murder, however, this has changed. In fact, Phillips delivered his opening remarks to attendees of the first open-to-the-public REAP convening of its kind.

“We’re seeing a new comfort with talking about hiring from populations that were previously stigmatized and marginalized,” Phillips said. “Employment needs in healthcare have changed, and the country is dealing with a tightening of the labor market. Hiring justice-system-impacted individuals is more openly discussed now than it ever has been.”

The Tamer Center-hosted event, then, came at an auspicious time in the collective effort to build new training-and-hiring pipelines for people with criminal records. The event was organized with a straightforward goal in mind: to gather organizations focused on reentry job-training together with healthcare employers, and to facilitate discussions about how they can better work together toward their common goal.

"Hiring justice-system-impacted individuals is more openly discussed now than it ever has been.”

The event’s panels invited representatives from both sides of these partnerships to share their experiences. The first showcased two people in hiring positions within healthcare institutions, while the second offered the stage to two representatives from reentry training organizations. All of the panelists sought to offer advice on how these types of relationships can be leveraged to serve more system-impacted individuals.

Their suggestions, concerns, and ideas broke down into three key takeaways: 

1. More than ever, partnerships between healthcare organizations and reentry-focused organizations can have symbiotic benefits, which means now is the time to break down the remaining barriers to hiring people with criminal records.

Tonya Richards, the inaugural chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, spoke in the first panel about the widespread difficulties CUIMC is currently facing in attracting and retaining employees because of the ongoing pandemic and the constricted labor market—and about its eagerness to experiment with new strategies. She added that though the Medical Center doesn’t yet have a formal program to recruit formerly incarcerated individuals, the people hired from this population through CUIMC’s Fair Chance process have proven especially dependable.

“We were able to retain those particular employees, so we would like to ensure that we have a formal program to do that,” she said.

There are barriers to doing so, however; one Richards points to is the protracted background check and on-onboarding process required for those with criminal backgrounds.

Her co-panelist echoed this as a problem that needs to be addressed. Curtis Dann-Messier, director of the NYC Health + Hospitals Peer Academy (which trains individuals with lived experience in mental health or substance use challenges to work as peer counselors in NYC’s public health hospital system) said background checks can become “onerous barriers” for people in this population to overcome. 

“It’s sometimes sad to see people who’ve worked so hard, and who’d be terrific peer counselors, not be given an opportunity to work because of things they’ve done in their past,” Dann-Messier said. 

The second panel’s experts offered tips for those running reentry organizations, like themselves, who are seeking to help lift this burden however they can. They suggested that job-training programs can bring in experts to explain to system-impacted individuals how to read and decipher their own rap sheets—and to catch any inaccuracies.

Panelist Gyasi Headen, director of workforce development at the Osborne Association in New York City, said that his organization has brought in legal professionals from the Legal Action Center, Community Service Society, Brooklyn Defenders, Human Rights Commission, and elsewhere, to do just this.

“Even as a system-involved person, when I first looked at my rap sheet, I didn’t know what some of the things meant—and there were errors on it,” Headen said. “It’s really important to get experts into the room to talk to your individuals.”

Headen’s co-panelist Tara Gilbert, director of business development at STRIVE (which has sites in New York City, Atlanta, and, soon, in Birmingham) seconded the suggestion and said her organization does the same thing.

Another barrier can come in the form of mindset blocks, added Headen and Gilbert; many people with criminal records are simply under the impression that they are not eligible for career-track jobs in healthcare organizations. To challenge this belief, both of them suggested that representatives from healthcare organizations could visit job-training programs for system-impacted individuals, to speak with them directly about the array of opportunities available to them.

2. Job-training organizations looking to help place formerly incarcerated individuals into career-track employment roles can look to other successful models for guidance.

Tonya Richards, of CUIMC, described the type of partnership she’d most like to develop with job-training reentry organizations as the medical center develops a larger pipeline for hiring formerly incarcerated individuals. She said that, ideally, such a partnership would resemble the model of an organization like the Consortium for Customized Employment (CCE), which helps find employment for New Yorkers with developmental disabilities. CUMIC has partnered with CCE to hire about five people in the last year, and Richards explained that each time, representatives from CCE visited the Medical Center, conversed with CUIMC staff, and then identified a person within their organization for a specific role—sometimes, a role created just for them. She described the process as customized, collaborative, and communicative.

“This is a great model we can replicate once we identify a partner for justice-impacted individuals,” she said. She contrasted the successful CCE partnership with experiences she’d had in which a partner organization sent CUIMC a prospective employee, but wasn’t available for any collaboration or support until they were ready to send someone else.  

“This is a great model we can replicate once we identify a partner for justice-impacted individuals.”

Dann-Messier, of the Health + Hospitals Peer Academy, added that reentry training organizations could strengthen their students’ job prospects even more if they placed a greater focus on computer training—and if they helped to lobby for computer-training programs in prisons.

3. For their part, healthcare organizations can also refer to successful models when rethinking their traditional interviewing and hiring processes—and when striving to be inclusive of many kinds of experiences in new hires.

“There are a lot of things we, as the healthcare employers in the room, can do to help the justice-impacted population—and any population without a strong work history—to have better selection processes and recognize different types of talent,” said Dann-Messier of the NYC Health + Hospitals Peer Academy.

He offered tips and learnings from the Peer Academy’s interview process for peer counselors—a process that, he explained, includes “a lot of self-selection out until the very end, when we make our final decisions.”

The first step for candidates is an application with a short essay; everyone who fills this out in full is invited to interview. He says his organization saves substantial time by scheduling group interviews. When only half or three-fourths of those invited attend, no one has lost time because of no-shows. 

“Please understand that you need to see this individual based on their merits, based on their credentials, based on certifications, based on the person they are in front of you, as opposed to what’s behind them.”

The Peer Academy group interviews seek to replicate the tasks that peer counselors would complete on the job: sharing about their lived experiences, group art activities, and role playing. At that point, Dann-Messier and his team are ready to make their selections.

He added that he strongly believes more healthcare organizations should embrace and hire for “peer” roles like community health workers, peer counselors, and others.

“Adding these roles—which, by nature, will include reentry folks, justice-impacted folks, and others who have been overlooked or don’t have all the same credentials—has been, for us, really important,” he said. “It has helped us provide better care to the individuals we serve, because sometimes a person just isn’t able to connect with some of the traditional practitioners in our system.”

Richards, of CUIMC, adds that it’s imperative for healthcare institutions who are beginning to develop these hiring pipelines to remember, as well, the importance of training the employees already within the organization—so that new hires with criminal records aren’t othered or ostracized by the workplace culture they enter. 

These points were underscored by both Gilbert and Headen—and taken further as they entreated hiring managers within healthcare organizations to find ways to let go of a disproportionate focus on a person’s criminal record, and to try to focus more directly on what that person has to offer.

“With or without a rap sheet, you’re taking a chance on everyone you interview that day,” said Gilbert (of STRIVE). “Please understand that you need to see this individual based on their merits, based on their credentials, based on certifications, based on the person they are in front of you, as opposed to what’s behind them.”