Joseph Ballentine, 22, is relying on the woodworking program at the Greater West Town Development Project to help him find a job with good pay, in spite of his criminal conviction. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

He hadn’t been the best son or brother, but Manuel E. Vásquez knew his family would help him. He had left them as a gang member and convicted murderer, and returned 20 years later as a man stamped with the scarlet letter of being an ex-offender. But his mother took him in, and his sisters, brothers and in-laws wanted to help him get back on his feet. Because of his family, Vásquez wasn’t worried about finding a job.

“Sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know,” said Vásquez, 41, who was 5 months old when his family moved from Puerto Rico to Chicago. “I knew so many people, and my family had so many friends, I knew I was going to end up somewhere.”

Three weeks out of prison, “somewhere” turned out to be a rotisserie. Vásquez’s brother-in-law talked to a friend who owned the restaurant, and soon Vásquez was delivering chicken, using the owner’s credit cards and taking money to the bank for the business. He worked there for about five weeks, earning $140 a week, until his brother talked to the barber across the street from their mother’s apartment. The barber knew someone who owned a flooring company, and, after an interview, Vásquez was hired.

For more than four months, he earned $10 an hour waxing the floors of Victoria’s Secret, Banana Republic and Gap stores at malls across the Midwest.

Still, the hours were hectic, so Vásquez’s sister found him a job delivering headstones and monuments at the cemetery where she worked. The owners told him he did a good job, but it didn’t last long. When they found out he was an ex-offender, they fired him. “They didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell,” Vásquez said. “That’s what we were taught to do in work release.”

Depressed, Vásquez filled out applications for five weeks at restaurants and home improvement stores. He got no offers.

A reprieve didn’t come until his brother-in-law talked to a family member who worked for a large car dealership and put him in touch with the boss there. Vásquez started at the bottom, making $8 an hour washing and delivering cars. He had been on the job five months when he was promoted to supervisor in January.

Even in the current sluggish economy, when people who have served time are often the last hired and first fired, nearly half of Latino parolees in Illinois—many with stories like Vásquez’s—reported having jobs in January, according to data obtained by The Chicago Reporter from the Illinois Department of Corrections. But, while the numbers for white parolees were slightly higher, less than one-third of black parolees said they were working.

The gaps were even wider last month for parolees in Cook County: 75 percent of whites reported that they were employed, compared with 58 percent of Latinos and 35 percent of blacks.

Those numbers reflect unemployment rates for the general population in Cook County, which show that the unemployment rate for African Americans is nearly twice the rate for Latinos and almost four times the rate for whites.

There were no clear explanations given for the employment gaps among parolees. When presented with the data, ex-offenders and people who work closely with them offered myriad theories—some of them conflicting with one another—detailing the ways blacks and Latinos leaving prison find work and get help from others.

Latino ex-offenders said they were able to concentrate on finding work because their families took care of their immediate needs, but many speculated that poor black families can only do this for so long.

Latinos also discussed having contacts who work day labor and other jobs that don’t require workers to report criminal histories. Blacks often don’t have those options, so they take more traditional paths to employment, filling out applications with companies. This puts them at the mercy of employers, many of whom frown on hiring ex-offenders.

Some believe Latinos tend to be open to any low-wage job they can get, while African Americans might hold out for jobs with better pay. Others said some employers might prefer to hire Latinos, believing they’re hard workers or a better fit with their existing, predominantly Hispanic workforce. Some Latinos acknowledged that they can pass for white, which in some cases may be to their benefit.

Statistics suggest that Latinos might also have more of a foothold in labor-intensive occupations where ex-offenders often find work.

Still, everyone involved points out that life can be difficult for all ex-offenders, regardless of their backgrounds.

“People go where they find work. They go into survival mode,” explained Alderman Billy Ocasio, whose 26th Ward is mostly Puerto Rican. “African Americans and Latinos are in the same picture: If you lie on your application and you’re found out, you’ll get fired. If you don’t lie, you’re not going to get the job.”

The employment numbers may be unreliable because they were partially self-reported by parolees through an automated telephone system, said Dede Short, spokeswoman for the department of corrections. But they are the only available employment figures for parolees broken down by race.

Employment has become the focus of many advocating for ex-offenders. In the past few years, state lawmakers passed laws to shield prison records from employers, and foundations have granted hundreds of thousands of dollars to Chicago organizations that help ex-offenders find employment. Experts and people who work closely with ex-offenders believe jobs keep people from going back to jail.

In 2004, Cook County Latinos had a lower rate of recidivism than both blacks and whites. About 45 percent of Latinos released from prison in fiscal year 2001 returned within three years, compared with 49 percent of whites and 60 percent of blacks, according to the corrections department.

Until now, employment data by race had not been published, and the issue had not been addressed or debated. Some aren’t comfortable talking about it.

The employment rates may cause Latino and black ex-offenders to compare themselves with each other, said David Rosa, who served 25 years in prison for murder and is now administrator of St. Andrew’s Court, a West Side home for male ex-offenders. “They’ll ask questions like: ‘Why do they get this and we don’t?'” said Rosa, who fears that dividing formerly incarcerated individuals along racial lines will mean less political power for all ex-offenders.

“It’s like in prison—‘keep them divided,'” said Rosa, recalling the way guards tried to turn groups against each other in order to keep control. “They’d give one gang more of something than another.”

Kevin Ronquillo (left) and David Rosa talk in the basement of St. Andrew’s Court, a home for male ex-offenders on the West Side. They said employers respond differently to black ex-offenders than they do to Latino ex-offenders. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Before he was released from prison, Xavier McElrath-Bey requested to be paroled to a halfway house, but instead he ended up at a homeless shelter on the North Side. Though he’d been through difficult times before—growing up in the impoverished Back of the Yards neighborhood, running with the Latin Kings street gang and spending 13 years in prison on a murder conviction—the experience shook him.

When he asked where he could get cleaned up, McElrath-Bey was directed to a boiler room in the shelter’s basement where a rubber hose stuck out of a wall at waist level. It was just long enough to reach above his head. The boiler room door didn’t lock, so he showered in his boxer shorts.

He was also warned to protect his belongings from theft. Everyone had to be out of the shelter early in the morning, and, during the day, he had to cut short his job search and visits with family to return early enough in the evening to jockey for some floor space to sleep on.

He lasted three days. He then arranged to be paroled to his sister’s home.

These first experiences can break you, he said. “When you come out, you come out with nothing. There’s two weeks of preparation and you’re out,” said McElrath-Bey, 29, now working in Logan Square for Ceasefire, which works with local groups to reduce violence.

“It’s like being thrown on an island,” he said. “You’re given seeds, and one day they’ll grow, but, if you don’t have enough time for them to grow, you get discouraged and you don’t even try. People lose focus.”

In the crucial days just after people are released from prison, they need constant, unconditional support, and many Latino families provide it, said McElrath-Bey, who has “Love Mom” tattooed on his right forearm in a tribute to his Mexican mother.

Without support, people just out of prison can lose confidence and reoffend, he added. But, when others believe in them, ex-offenders don’t want to let them down.

“They feel community ownership,” said McElrath-Bey, whose work includes helping Latino youth and ex-offenders find homes, clothes, work and money. “They’re part of the community because it’s willing to care about them.”

When Ivan Oquendo left prison early last year, McElrath-Bey took care of him. Oquendo considers McElrath-Bey a brother and still calls him “Speedy”—the nickname McElrath-Bey has retained since they were childhood friends. “I would be back [in prison] if he hadn’t been there to say, ‘Cut your hair! This is what you should do in an interview. This is what you should wear. This is where you should go,'” said Oquendo.

Still, some ex-offenders don’t get the family support they need—or find it isn’t enough.

Although “close-knit, clan-esque characteristics” are prevalent in Latino culture, an increasing number of Latinos don’t have extended families to ask for help, said Sol Flores, executive director of La Casa Norte, a Humboldt Park organization that provides aid to the poor and homeless, some of whom are ex-offenders. More and more Hispanic ex-offenders have problems obtaining consistent work and affordable housing, and many who find work don’t make a living wage, she said.

Problems continue for some because gangs and drugs are entrenched in some Latino communities, she said, while others are too ashamed or scared to ask for help. “Grandmothers will say to us, ‘He’s away’ or ‘He’s in Puerto Rico,'” Flores said. “But we know where he really is.”

Esperanza, U.S.A., a faith-based, nonprofit, Latino-focused community development corporation, recently granted $100,000 each to Flores’ organization and Instituto Del Progesso Latino in Pilsen, she said. Renewable for up to three years, the grants will be used for creating educational and employment programs in Logan Square, West Town and Humboldt Park.

Family support may explain why many Latinos find work when they’re paroled, but it doesn’t explain why African Americans have a more difficult time; black ex-offenders often count on supportive families, friends and communities, too.

Like many young men, Joseph C. Ballentine, 22, is eager to declare his independence. “I don’t depend on anybody. I depend on God,” he said. But he admitted that, without his big, close family, recovering from six months in Cook County Jail would have been much more difficult.

At 17, Ballentine took his father’s gun, planning to show it off to friends. But police pulled him over at a traffic light, searched the car and found the gun.

While in jail, Ballentine’s family visited him, sent him mail and gave him money. When he got out, they stuck by him. “They knew I was a good person,” he said. “They welcomed me back.”

Nancy LaVigne, lead author of “Chicago Prisoners’ Experiences Returning Home,” a December 2004 report based on surveys of 400 African American men on parole. Most of the black men she interviewed strongly believed that family would offer them emotional support, provide them with housing and help them find work, she said.

Until now, experts believed that those expectations were typically not met, leading to a downward spiral that ends with ex-offenders back in prison. But LaVigne said she and her colleagues were “stunned” to find the opposite.

Like Ballentine, most of the black men she interviewed had families that cared about them, with support most often coming from grandmothers, mothers and sisters. “Family support exceeded our expectations. We found that many had consistent and reliable support,” said LaVigne, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

Typically, the support was steady for the first eight months, she said. But, in some cases, it grew harder to accommodate the parolees’ needs as time went on. Disadvantaged families couldn’t afford to feed, clothe and house another person who, while looking for work, wasn’t bringing money home, LaVigne said.

While Ballentine looked for work just out of prison, he lived with his mother, cut his long dreadlocks and filled out dozens of job applications. Even after getting some second interviews, he said no one offered him work—even places like Wal-Mart where he knew he was more than qualified to work. “It’s Wal-Mart,” Ballentine said. “What couldn’t I know?”

Finally, Target hired him. But Ballentine had moved in with his girlfriend, and, even with her public aid, the job didn’t pay enough to cover rent and expenses for the two of them and their three children, he said. “I’m a hard worker, and I wasn’t getting the pay I deserve,” Ballentine said. “I’m better than $7.50 an hour.”

Some of Ballentine’s friends, who had also been to prison and faced the same money troubles, felt the same about working low-paying jobs, he said. “Some never tried to get jobs.”

A few went to school, and others lived off their parents, grandparents or girlfriends, but many grew frustrated watching others drive by in expensive cars bought with drug money. Ballentine said they saw that method as a ready solution to their money troubles. “While we’re looking for a job, the kids need diapers,” he said. “Times get so hard you feel like you have no choice.”

But U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis said people leaving prison must understand that low-paying jobs are simply starting points, and often temporary until something better comes along. “There’s a good chance that the guy in the fancy car driving by is in a temporary situation, too,” he added.

Each year on the West and South sides of Chicago, Davis sponsors summits where ex-offenders can meet with attorneys, service providers and recruiters, and get information about how to shield their criminal records from potential employers.

Ballentine quit his job at Target after six months and, in a plan to make more money, enrolled in a program at the Greater West Town Community Development Project. There, he’s being trained in woodworking and is guaranteed a job when he finishes the program.

Like Ballentine and all of the men in LaVigne’s study, many black ex-offenders place their hopes in employment programs. More than a third of LaVigne’s participants were able to get into a program; the rest tried, but the wait lists were too long, she said.

The majority of people who seek help from the Safer Foundation are African American, said Donna Gerber, director of employment services for the organization, Chicago’s largest connecting ex-offenders with jobs.

Safer has been matching ex-offenders to employers since 1972, and is often the first place parole officers recommend to parolees. “We’ve been doing it longer—long before it was fashionable,” said Gerber.

Still, Latinos accounted for just 8 percent of the 8,300 people Safer assisted last year. Hispanics may not come to Safer in large numbers because they need to communicate in Spanish or they are more comfortable with resources in their communities, Gerber said.

And employment programs aren’t a sure way to success, said Walter L. Boyd, who gave up teaching a job-readiness course last year. He said many employers are not looking to make a long-term commitment to the formerly incarcerated. “It just got to me. We never got anybody a job,” he said. “The biggest headaches were the lack of opportunities; with every client, we were bumping into these low glass ceilings.”

On the rare occasions Latinos were in his classes, they “seemed to find employment sooner—to connect with the workforce quicker,” said Boyd, who is now director of the Repatriate Opportunity Program at Protestants for the Common Good, a statewide social justice organization with an office downtown.

When some Latinos leave prison, they enter layers and layers of networks composed of immediate and extended family members and friends, said José Oliva, director of the Chicago Interfaith Workers’ Rights Center. Each person knows yet another network of people, and all of them will be tapped to help with finding a job, he said.

During the past two years, his organization has negotiated more than 950 agreements between companies and their workers. During that time, Oliva advised hundreds of Latino workers, many of whom had been recently released from prison, he said.

Through their families, Latino ex-offenders get work in an “underground economy,” Oliva said. They can get false IDs to avoid revealing their prison records, or get a job where they’re not using their own name—like day labor at a construction site, where people are paid in cash.

Others think discrimination and stereotyping may be creating the racial gaps in employment. “There are some employers who prefer to hire certain ethnic groups,” said Safer’s Gerber. “We’ve seen that.”

So has Jessica Aranda, who runs the Albany Park workers’ center, which organizes day laborers. Typically, day laborers stand in groups on certain streets waiting for people to come by looking for workers. “We’ve had some cases where African Americans come and stand on the street corner—but they don’t get jobs,” she said. “It’s racism. Employers are willing to hire Latinos and not blacks.”

From 2000 to 2002, Tom Wetzel worked with manufacturers—some with hundreds of employees—in Back of the Yards, a mostly Latino neighborhood on the South Side within a mile of predominantly black communities like New City and Englewood.

Wetzel said the managers and owners he knew—who were most often white—were more likely to hire Latinos. He said the employers believe immigrant Latinos have fought to get into the country and therefore possess a strong work ethic.

Then, when hiring new workers, companies go to their good employees and ask them for recommendations, Wetzel said. That’s how uncles, brothers and cousins are hired—and the workforce of an entire company slowly becomes all Latino.

These “informal networks” help Latinos in neighborhoods like Pilsen and Humboldt Park get jobs, said Wetzel, now the director of business relations at the North Lawndale Employment Network.

“If one family member gets a job in a corporation and he hears about another spot, right away, he’ll try to get it for them,” agreed Alderman Ocasio.

With many ex-offenders leaving prison without any education beyond high school, they are often limited to low-skilled jobs as laborers or construction workers—where nearly one of every three working Latinos is employed.

Of all black workers in Cook County, 12 percent worked as laborers, production workers or construction workers, compared with 32 percent of all Latino workers, according to 2000 data reported by the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Latinos made up 38 percent of all Cook County workers in those categories, while blacks made up 18 percent.

“I could count the companies on one hand that had any black employees,” Wetzel said, adding that Spanish is the only language spoken on the floor in many of the Back of the Yards factories. “There’s no reason to hire someone who doesn’t speak Spanish.”

Rosa, the St. Andrew’s Court administrator, is a tall, stocky Puerto Rican with dark brown hair. He also has a light complexion, and believes it might grant him an advantage. “As a Latino, looking the way I look, they have in certain interviews taken me for white,” said Rosa, who grew up in a predominantly black section of Humboldt Park.

Rosa sat across the table from maintenance supervisor Kevin Ronquillo, a thin black man with short braided hair, in the lunchroom at St. Andrew’s Court. Both have served time.

“A person could look at me with a suit and tie on, and they’ll be like, ‘He’s white—I can talk to him,’ even though I might be Puerto Rican and just out of jail,” said Rosa. But “I open my mouth, and they think, ‘He sounds black’—I can see it on their faces.”

“Mmm hmm,” Ronquillo quickly murmured in agreement. “Being black is rough,” he said. “With a felony conviction, it’s even worse.”