Even if Obama gets you out of prison early, there's one big catch when you get out

Stephanie GeorgeACLUStephanie George embraces her son after she gets out of prison.

President Barack Obama did something out of character in December 2013: He shortened the lengthy prison sentences of eight nonviolent drug offenders through a process known as commutation.

Before December 2013, Obama had only commuted one person’s sentence. His life-altering decision had a particularly big impact on a grandmother in her 40s named Stephanie George, who was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Still, despite obtaining the freedom that almost evaded her forever, she can’t find a full-time job.

“I’ve filled out so many applications and been turned down,” said the now-45-year-old George, who worked as a hairdresser before prison but has since become more interested in office work and business.

George, who spoke to Business Insider recently about life after prison, received the life sentence at the age of 26 for letting her former boyfriend keep drugs in her Florida home. When she got caught, George struggled to take care of her three kids and didn’t even have a checking account, according to her lawyers.

She entered prison angry, her pro-bono lawyers acknowledged in paperwork filed to secure her release. But she underwent a dramatic transformation in prison, going to counseling and attending weekly bible-study classes.

She also got an education. George earned a certificate in business administration and management and took classes toward a business degree taught by professors who came in from Tallahassee Community College, she said. She also worked at a prison “call center,” answering customer calls for a telecommunications company called kgb and overseeing other inmates.

“I pretty much ran the call center,” George told me.

Stephanie GeorgeACLUStephanie and her sister, Wendy, hug on the day of her release.

But that work experience apparently doesn’t mean as much on the outside. After leaving the federal prison in Tallahassee for her home in Pensacola, George said, she filled out 300 job applications. When she applies for a job, she always has to reveal the details of her criminal background. She never lies about that, she told me.

Even though the president of the US himself signed off on her release, George told me, “They still scrutinize you because of where you have been.”

Though George’s case is exceptional because she received a commutation, her difficulty finding a full-time job is the norm for many ex-convicts in America. Many employers ask about criminal histories on job applications and effectively prevent ex-cons from even getting a foot in the door, as The New York Times reported last year.

Marilyn Scales, a New York resident in her 50s, told the Times last year that she’s still unable to find work even though she got out of prison 17 years ago.

“When I answer that question honestly, I never get a call back,” she told The Times. “I feel like I’m still paying for my crimes 20 years later.”

To help integrate former inmates back into society, over 100 cities and counties have adopted “ban the box” laws to stop employers from asking about criminal histories on job applications, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). To be sure, employers can ask about criminal backgrounds later in the hiring process. But “ban the box” laws theoretically make it easier for ex-convicts to at least get interviews.

Pensacola, where George lives, does not have a “ban the box” law, according to a July 2015 report from NELP. For now, George is working part-time at a Piccadilly restaurant until she can find full-time work.

“To be honest,” George said, “my supervisor there, he was the only one who gave me a chance.”

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