Spend 20 minutes with 36-year-old Ashish Prashar and you’ll find it hard to believe that he was ever incarcerated. The Upper West Side executive’s resume includes not only his current job as global head of communications at Publicis Sapient, a 20,000-employee technology firm, but also stints as press secretary to UK prime minister Boris Johnson during his 2008 and 2012 mayoral campaigns. In 2017, “Business Insider” named Prashar one of the top public relations people in tech.
But talk to Prashar and he’ll readily admit that he was part of a gang that stole £20,000 ($24,296) of goods from UK department store Harvey Nichols back in 2000, when he was just 17. The crime landed him a custodial sentence for a year, of which he served four months, and his life could have taken a very different course if his relatives hadn’t stepped up to help him turn things around, making sure he studied for exams and, after his release, headed to university.
After college, David Cameron’s former spokesman Andy Coulson and veteran press officer Henry Macrory took a chance on Prashar and gave him his first professional job.
“Someone believed that one mistake shouldn’t define the rest of my life,” Prashar says. “If that’s true for me, it is also true for many others.”
That’s a sentiment shared by a growing number of employers and organizations who have publicly stated that individuals who have committed a crime and served their time deserve a second chance. They range from large companies like Butterball, Koch Industries and Starbucks to local New York businesses like Dos Toros, Greyston Bakeries, Littleneck Outpost and Ovenly bakery.
A criminal background can happen to people from all walks of life. Former Brick, NJ, attorney John Koufos was a high-profile prosecutor with all of the trappings of success until he severely injured a young man in a car accident.
“I was driving drunk and texting,” says Koufos, who also ran from the scene and, initially, let a friend take the blame. He was later arrested and sentenced to six years in jail — three for the hit-and-run and three for the cover-up. He was released early on parole.
“While I was in prison, no one asked me for money. They asked me for jobs,” he says. “That never left me.”
Neither did his observation that prison seemed like a revolving door where people got out, were placed at a halfway house and came right back in because of “stupid things like unpaid tickets.” Koufos himself received a summons while in jail, for not cutting the weeds on the lawn of his soon-to-be-foreclosed home.
“Mine was a high-profile case. Everyone [in town] knew where I was. So, if this could happen to me … ”
When Koufos was released, he initially got a job reviewing contracts. He went on to set up a program that helps ex-cons successfully re-enter society, including cleaning up legal records and finding work that pays a livable wage.
Eventually Koufos became executive director of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC) and now heads up the Safe Streets & Second Chances program, which takes a research-based approach to setting citizens with criminal records up for successful re-entry and reduced recidivism.
“No one should be forced to serve a life sentence after they’ve paid their debt to society,” says Koufos, adding that businesses from around the country are asking how they can tap into the talent pipeline flowing from prisons.
The 300,000-member Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) agrees, and in January launched a program called “Getting Talent Back to Work,” through which more than 15,000 employers pledged to “commit to give opportunities to qualified people with a criminal background, deserving of a second chance.”
“Our members report that there’s an acute talent shortage,” says Tony Lee, vice president of editorial for SHRM, noting that 7.8 million jobs will need to be filled by 2020. And with 650,000 individuals being released from prison each year, “that’s a great opportunity for those who need to hire and those who want to be hired.”
The Fair Chance Act prohibits federal employers and contractors from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until after a job offer has been made, and many states and cities have passed similar hiring laws, but “that’s not always enough,” says Dwayne Watterman, facilities director at NJRC’s Kearny, NJ location.
Assessments for mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and addiction are often needed as well, and “unless they are treated, it’s hard to stay employed,” he says.
Beyond that, NJRC helps with resume writing and interview readiness, as well as bus fare to get to interviews and to work until members collect their first paychecks. According to Watterman, 55 percent of clients NJRC worked with last year are now employed.
There are other local organizations that help combat recidivism by getting people with criminal backgrounds into the workplace. These include Getting Out Staying Out (GOSO) in Harlem and Exodus Transitional Community (East Harlem, Poughkeepsie, NY and Newburgh, NY.)
GOSO caters to young men while they are still incarcerated at Rikers Island, on probation or awaiting adjudication. It teaches them to set achievable goals and lays the groundwork for financial self-sufficiency and emotional stability after release.
“We emphasize the Three Es — Education, Employment and Emotional well-being,” says GOSO associate executive director Geoffrey Golia. Participants of the GOSOWorks program are ideally matched with jobs according to their interests and abilities, and are offered GOSO-funded internships of up to 240 hours, after which about 70 percent of participants get hired.
GOSO connected 26-year-old Tim Randall of Crown Heights with Littleneck Outpost in Brooklyn 21 months ago. Owner Aaron Lefkove couldn’t be more thrilled. “Hiring is tough. One out of 50 will be hard, dedicated workers. Tim is one of them.”
Randall is just as happy with the situation. Although he doesn’t want to disclose how he got to Rikers Island, he says landing at GOSO and then getting a job where he is appreciated is one of the best things that has ever happened to him.
“I have stability now,” he says, explaining that he lived in as many as five different foster homes since the age of 17. “Before, as soon as I got used to things, they would go away.”
A job, an apartment of his own and a connection to GOSO’s Therapy Wednesdays “gives me a different perspective. I feel proud,” he says.
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