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Action or Identity? Ex-prisoners in the Danish Labor Market

“When I ask them, they normally go red and try to explain it away. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or it was his mother or his father - then I ask him what he’s done.” Hans Johansen, owner of the cleaning firm Penta Service, does not hire applicants who have a criminal record. In justifying this policy, instituted only months after the firm’s birth in 1990, Johansen sounds like the businessman that he is. “It’s everything for the customer,” he asserts. “The customer is the one who sets the rules...we are in the business of selling a service. [Boasting of employees with clean records] is one button you can push.” But fear, however subtle, cannot be divorced from Johansen’s largely rational considerations. “Anything,” he warns, “can happen if you have somebody you cannot trust.”

And this fear, for reasons that are complex and often hidden, is growing. According to figures released by the Danish State Police, the police wrote out more than 125,250 straffeattester (records) in 1999, compared with 119,083 in 1998 and only 87,970 in 1997. The result is a workplace not only where on-the-job criminality is scrupulously guarded against, but according to ex-prisoners and workers within the prison system, an environment in which an employee’s past colors his performance, his self-perception, and his interaction with colleagues. Of course, the hardest part for an erstwhile offender is getting a job at all; while the Danish economy has soared and boosted overall employment to 94 percent, in a 1997 Ministry of Justice (MOJ) survey only 18.9 percent of those on probation or parole listed a job as their main source of income. Brian Jansen, an inmate at Jyderup State Prison, states the problem simply: “It is important to get people to work so they can lead a real life.” In a society where work forms a large part of personal identity, the realities of the labor market may have relegated ex-prisoners to second-class citizenship.

Agents of Change?

Employers are quick to call for stringent punishments and increased emphasis on individual agency. Johansen approves of scare tactics that head off errant youths at the pass. Ivan Nadelmann, owner of Avis Denmark, posits half-jokingly that “one year on a desert island would lead to dependence on each other...teach [inmates] that they are part of a society, of a team.”

Ironically, the individuals behind the upswing in record checking disagree over what constitutes this “team.” For Nadelmann, whose firm does not ask job applicants for their records, each employer has an obligation to hire ex-prisoners to ensure lower rates of recidivism. His motives, he claims, are “selfish...it’s good for me to have as few criminals as possible in society.” At the same time, Nadelmann concedes that his firm has taken no specific actions to bring ex-prisoners aboard. For Johansen, the public and private spheres are separate. “We [employers] don’t have a social role...I don’t think you can find a company that does,” he says. But his views seem founded not on indifference, but on a growing frustration with the welfare state’s capacity to care: “Why should [corporations have an obligation]? We pay tons of money for a social security net that should take care of these things.”

The state, however, acts equally reluctant to bear the burden of this responsibility. Ninety percent of all Danish prisoners reside in “open” prisons like Jyderup, wall-less structures that permit limited work leave and contact with the outside. Contact, however, does not mean integration or acceptance. Annette Kronkvist, a social advisor for one of four Copenhagen departments of the Kriminalforsorgen (Prison and Probation Service, or PPS), concedes that “no apparatus to reintegrate prisoners in the job market exists.” Her response to this void mixes good intentions and helplessness. “We would like to help, but it is difficult to guarantee employers that [ex-prisoners] won’t commit crime anymore,” she says. This organizational approach may come from the top - William Rentzmann, director of the PPS, feels that record-checking is “more and more of a problem.” But his hands are tied; “nobody has asked us whether we like that or not - we have not been involved in this process,” he says. And the PPS remains unwilling to take the initiative. “This is a political question,” Rentzmann continues. “We are neither responsible nor able to change it.”

One reason behind the Danish government’s immobility may be the hydraic nature of the beast. When Kronkvist’s efforts to place ex-prisoners in jobs fail, “I usually send them to the social office.” This office assists with job placement, but because it does not distinguish between ex-prisoners and other citizens, it offers the former group no special assistance. Rentzmann, meanwhile, emphasizes that the PPS is but one part of an interdependent web. “We’re not allowed to provide jobs ourselves,” he says. “We have to relate to other departments.” Some are more optimistic that they can make a difference. Hans Engbo, governor of Jyderup State Prison, first points outside of the institutional walls; “Social service could do a lot more to make [the transition to the labor market] easy for ex-prisoners.” But he also notes that his prison has tried to foster contact between prisoners and employers on the outside. He adds, however, that “of course there are some limits that the law imposes on how soon a prisoner can leave...so that’s a political question.”

To some extent, the treatment of ex-convicts is a question not of politics, but of individual and organizational choice. Even while the PPS ostensibly seeks to help ex-prisoners navigate in the job market, it refuses to hire those same ex-prisoners - to any position within its offices. Both Rentzmann and Kronkvist agree that, with few exceptions, any applicant to PPS sporting a criminal record is eliminated from consideration. Rentzmann does not seek to justify this policy; “It’s a policy of the whole Prison Service,” he says. Kronkvist defends this seeming hypocrisy by noting the unique nature of the organization. “You have so much private information about people,” she says. “You have to be certain this sensitive information won’t get released.” Ironically, the PPS is itself driven by such sensitive information. Although records of most crimes become sealed five years after release from prison, the PPS checks applicants’ criminal records dating back to birth.

Causes

Nevertheless, for better or for worse much of an ex-prisoner’s experience in the labor market remains a political question. The political parties and the mass media, taken together, frame a large portion of public debate and social policy-making. But the rhetorical makeup of this framework also creates a damaging permeability between perception and reality. According to Nete Jorgensen, a social advisor for the PPS, “That’s the problem - it’s difficult to prove [ex-prisoners] can’t find a job. But it’s said in the papers and everywhere that without a record, it’s impossible.” Ex-prisoners respond by ruling themselves out before an employer has done it for them. Their feelings of disengagement from the job market produce fear, but also anger; Claus Bonnez, chairman of a union of ex-convicts called Krim, notes that, “A lot of ex-convicts turn bitter when they are asked for a criminal record.”

Yet these same feelings of disillusionment drive criminal behavior in the first place. Consequently, when ex-prisoners give up their job searches, or even commit crime again, society at large assumes that ex-prisoners are reaffirming their nature where it could be examining the causal role of problematic policies. As a result, the public is more ready to punish prisoners than respond to them. “People are more afraid of crime [these days],” Rentzmann laments. “Crime has become a more important part of the political parties programs. The parties recruit sympathy by saying they’re tough on crime.” And the effects are tangible - the increasing tendency to check records results from perceptions, like Johansen’s, that “criminality is not getting less, it’s getting bigger.”

Criminality, however, is not growing. According to the National Commissioner of Police, after drastic increases during the 60s, 70s, and part of the 80s, the number of reported crimes has leveled off after 1987, decreasing every year between 1993 and 1998. According to Bonnez, recidivism - the looming fear of employers who dare to hire ex-prisoners - has dropped as well. However, employers, government officials, and ex-prisoners assert in unison that the media’s increasing focus on pedophilia in the mid 1990s - even though sexual offenders comprise three percent of the prison population - has undercut the progress that other ex-prisoners have made. As Engbo hypothesizes, “The mass media has used lots of space on a few [recent] cases of pedophilia, raising the question of record-checking. Maybe there has been some spread effect.” But the cleaning firm ISS has managed to divorce fact from fiction; according to Hiring Consultant Christian Thussen, who views criminal records as “highly personal,” the firm requests records only when employing workers in its kindergartens.

If fact and fiction have formed a vicious circle, corporations themselves are not spared. The increasing incidence of record checking, a poignant reality for ex-prisoners obscures the fact that many employers see an applicant’s record as one part of a larger picture. According to research conducted by the Organization of Social Advisors, private employers usually ask to see a criminal record only as part of an overall judgment of the applicant. And corporations cannot always provide a solution; the high number of unemployed ex-prisoners results in no small part from the social conditions that many have experienced before incarceration. A 1999 MOJ study found that 49.6 percent of prisoners entered with no vocational training and only 24.6 percent were completely trained for skilled or academic work. Worse still, a harrowing number of prison inmates are drug addicts. Jansen describes drugs as a large part of life at Jyderup, and Kronkvist asserts that clients “are all smoking hash. [There’s] massive abuse...[addicts] cannot concentrate to do anything.”

Drugs aside, many ex-prisoners, even those burning for a job, simply lack the socialization needed to succeed. Annette Snedker, administrative leader for the Svendborg department of the PPS, admits, “A lot of my clients recidivate because they are not able to take care of a job.” She continues, “It is primarily an attitude problem; they are just not used to behaving according to society’s norms after so much time spent in prison.”

Nevertheless, the relationships between employment status, criminality, and overall lifestyle are too tangled for any one cause to emerge. Many of those interviewed feel that new laws to restrict record checking or permit earlier work-leave for prisoners will help crystallize the picture. As Nadelmann sees it, however, legislation itself will solve nothing. “It’s not a law issue because employers can always sneak [around the regulations],” he says. “It’s an attitude issue. [Change will come] not through a lot of legislation, but debates.” But perhaps both viewpoints can be linked through a renewed emphasis on individual choice - politicians can act to improve life for ex-criminals and combat recidivism, but only if the public makes anti-crime rhetoric comparatively less profitable at the polls.

A Question of Relevance

Claus Bonnez is the current chairman of Krim, the Union of Former Convicts. Krim was originally founded in 1967 in order to humanize the prison system. In 1995, it started offering legal help to people in prison, and its role has since expanded to facilitate job seeking. Krim’s Chair embodies the disjunction between past and present that the union seeks to highlight: Bonnez, who also has a law degree, is an ex-prisoner. Bonnez denounces the spiraling incidence of record checking as having “no rationale.” In his eyes, employers conflate a “criminal record” with “criminality” by ignoring a crime’s relevance to the job sought.

Johansen’s policy does just that. In response to what he sees as consumer pressure, Penta views any past infraction as raising the likelihood of theft. “If one of our employees steals from a customer and they find out that he was a former convict, they will ask me, ‘Why the hell do you have somebody in your firm without a clean record?’ Then we would lose that customer,” he says. For Jørgen Hoppe, the chairman of HK Handel, the union of office workers and clothing and food retailers, this problem is compounded by the importance of guarding children from pedophiles; “We can’t entirely eliminate the demand for records - for instance when you work with children - but the employer should only ask for a criminal record if it is relevant.”

In Bonnez’s eyes, the employer is no longer qualified to make this distinction. Instead, he advocates creating an independent board that would decide what record requests are appropriate. “If an employer wants to check out an applicant’s criminal record, he should formulate a request to this board. [The board] would decide whether the request was relevant or not, and...only give information relating to this specific job, and not access to the whole record.” Bonnez also believes a disincentive is needed to curb the knee-jerk tendency to review an applicant’s past. “It should cost the employer about 500 crowns [65 dollars] to ask for the record. In that way you could limit the demand,” he says.

Bonnez is not the only one advocating new ideas. Kronkvist, who agrees with Bonnez’s plan, notes that, “A lobby group of social advisers are currently working on a suggestion to change the law [on record-checking].” One of this group’s goals is to eliminate the distinction between public and private firms, which gives the latter virtual carte blanche to discriminate on the basis of a criminal past, relevance notwithstanding. “Each employer should [have to] write why they want a record, and they should explain why they have not given a job,” Kronkvist continues. “The record should only be one part of an overall evaluation of a person.” Meanwhile, the Christian Labour Union has proposed a system in which only institutions dealing with children may ask for records, and the records would only show sentences for sexual abuse. For Mogens Stig Nielsen, political spokesman for the Union, it is a matter of common sense. “People with a flaw on their criminal record should not be made into legal lepers or outcasts of the labour market” because those flaws vary widely.

In response to these new ideas, Rentzman sounds interested—but he cautions against creating “too much...bureaucratic work.” Nevertheless, he shares his peers’ qualms about the extension of the record apparatus beyond its original function. “I understand the tendency [to check records] when it relates to child abuse,” he maintains, “but it is an abuse of it to make it into a general exclusion of people.”

The Psychological Toll

In what ex-prisoners see as a bleak landscape, Bo* stands out as a success story. After having served eight years in prison, Bo was paroled. Lucky enough to have a father with connections to a large firm, Bo now has a full-time job. But he sees himself as an exception. “In prison we talk a lot about future job possibilities, but everybody tends to be very pessimistic,” he says. “The problem is that if you don’t have connections, you won’t find employment - nobody wants to hire somebody with a criminal past.” Bo describes himself as “very grateful” that the employer his father knew was willing to give Bo another chance. At the same time, he also feels that the prison system’s conditions for release - “you have to find a job or an education” - are unfair in light of their generally uneducated population. Ironically, these requirements are combined with the fact that, as Jansen maintains, “you are not offered any kind of further education or vocational training inside prison. You are only offered the possibility of taking a 10th-grade education,” the highest level of primary school.

These conflicting demands create a stress level that undercuts the prison system’s primary principle of “normalization.” According to the PPS’ Programme of Principles, “[In an open prison,] by establishing conditions which differ as little as possible from those obtaining in daily life outside of prison, the grounds for aggression and apathy are reduced and the negative effects of a prison sojourn are limited.” But apathy, according to Engbo, is common. “The effect [of an unreceptive job market] is that [prisoners] choose to care about the day-to-day life in prison rather than their future.” Severely limited contact with the outside augments this apprehension. “Only once every year, you have a chance to speak for a very short time with a representative from the PPS concerning your plans for the future,” Jansen complains. And rather than responding to these conditions with initiative, “many inmates sit doing nothing.”

The fearful perceptions of the job market born in prison are often hardened upon release. As Bo recounts, “One of my friends has applied for several jobs, and the interview goes smoothly until they ask about his record.” He continues, “even though the employer is very polite and doesn’t say so directly, my friend immediately feels that the interview is over and that he has been dumped once again - exclusively due to his criminal past.” This friend, “disillusioned” after so many failures, is now seeking a government pension.

Employed ex-prisoners like Bo are more fortunate, but their tenures in prison still haunt them. Former convicts feel a desire to hide their criminal past on one hand, but, on the other, want to be honest about who they are. Annette Snedker, an administrative leader for the Svendborg department of the PPS, states, “I usually advise my clients not to mention their criminal past when they are at a job interview. Of course they shouldn’t lie, but [they should] at least try to avoid bringing it up and instead mention it after a few months on the job once they have proved their worth.” Nadelmann also feels that ex-prisoners bear a unique burden. In speaking of one ex-prisoner whom he has hired, Nadelmann says, “He has a greater obligation to be careful not to misbehave than others do, because I have personally put my trust in him.”

University of Århus ethnographer Torsten Kolind treats this special pressure in a 1997 report describing his fieldwork among 16 male ex-prisoners living near Oslo, Norway. He introduces a concept called “conditional acceptance,” in which society is willing to accept an ex-prisoner as “normal” only under certain conditions; the acceptance is, so to speak, “part of a deal.” This deal demands that an ex-prisoner affirm his normality by not speaking about his criminal past. At the same time, he cannot behave like other “normal” employees who criticize their boss, or occasionally take a cup of coffee and not pay for it, or receive small amounts of money under the table without consequence. In the workplace, an ex-prisoner is held to a higher standard; he must strive for acceptance, but can never push this acceptance too far.

This implicit code of silence, Kolind argues, robs the ex-prisoners of an identity. He instead possesses an ex-identity, in which he can embrace neither his normality nor his deviance. Embedded in a Western ethos of individual uniqueness, the ex-identity rapidly becomes problematic. Kolind finds that the modern understanding of individuals is characterized by a demand for coherence - the presentation of life as a school in which one becomes smarter and more mature through the accumulation of experience. This paradigm is most explicitly put forth in the job interview, in which applicants are asked about their past and about what experiences they bring to the table. Even if the prospective employer hires ex-prisoners, the applicant is at a disadvantage - his stay in prison is looked upon not as a valid experience, but as Engbo puts it, “a waste of time.”

The Quest for Identity

Brian Jansen’s tenure in Jyderup has not gone to waste. The system has its problems, but as a “strong person” equipped and eager to learn, “the time spent in prison has taught me a lot about human beings. I feel more mature,” he continues, “and I actually feel that I can use many of my experiences from in here out in the real world.” In any scenario, the outside world insists that prison become a central aspect of a convict’s persona. “Having been in prison will become part of [your identity],” Engbo adds, “because others will know you have been there.”

Not all prisoners undercommunicate their background—in response to society’s growing demand to know.  Some have turned the traditional conception of prison time on its head. A biker from Hell’s Angels sentenced for murder has toured the country and made speeches at secondary schools; a member of a group which killed a policeman is being invited to speak at various universities; Kurt Thorsen’s popularity has not decreased despite, or perhaps because of, his six-year prison sentence for major financial fraud.

These outstanding cases, however, remain exceptions to a culture that rejects its past. To hear Bo explain it, “there are not many 100-percent criminals in Danish prisons...a lot of people are just in the wrong place in the wrong situations.” Even from now-respectable citizens like Bo, the effort to divorce past action from current identity sounds eerily similar to an effort to evade personal responsibility - a fact that complicates any effort to forget and forgive. Nevertheless, Engbo’s words have a similar ring. “Criminological projects find that almost everyone is criminal - have committed one or more offenses during their lives,” he says. “Some criminals have been in prison, some [have] not because the offense has not been detected. How does it make a difference?”

The difference between job applicants with a clean record and those with a past is indeed hard to pin down, in part because the definition of a “safe” employee is negative and eliminates important personal variables. Johansen, despite his efforts to get “good people,” concedes that there is “no system in which I can be sure I don’t have a criminal in front of me.” The tendency to check records, far from providing a guarantee against on-the-job criminality, thrusts all job applicants into a binary of “sentenced” versus “not sentenced.” This approach ensures that ex-prisoners are viewed in one-dimensional terms just like their counterparts. “Danish society in general,” Nadelmann notes, “has the viewpoint that criminals should be stored away, punished.” But even Johansen agrees that convicts are “good people who know right from wrong.” Rentzmann’s own opinion, “I’ve met lots of good and honest criminals in my life,” is most poignant because of its apparent irony.

The Future

From a photograph in a glossy brochure released by the PPS, three convicted offenders stand on a small island in Greenland’s Julianehåb Bay after a fishing expedition, arms raised, smiling proudly. The blood of a new catch stains the icy ground in front of them. The image intends to emphasize the PPS’s focus on rehabilitation and empowerment, but raises questions that belie its neat visual composition. Are the smiles genuine? When these men leave, will they find anyone willing to give them a second chance? If they have killed before, will they kill again?

According to much of the evidence pertaining to ex-prisoners, these queries are hard to separate. 1989 figures from the MOJ show that ex-prisoners outside of the labor force return to crime at a 60 percent rate; those within the labor force recidivate at slightly more than half that frequency. William Rentzmann agrees that, “If [ex-prisoners] have nothing to do, the likelihood of future crimes is higher.” Nadelmann sees the issue with a businessman’s pragmatism. “I don’t like the idea of a society with 10 percent that can never get back [in],” he explains. “Then you would create a caste [system] and my house would have to be fenced...If a 17- or 19-year-old black man can’t get a job, he will steal.” But the issue of an ex-prisoner’s past has thus far defied such cause-and-effect analysis. The same television essays and newspaper headlines that draw attention to criminal records also obscure the lack of any apparatus to examine the problem. Interviews with officials at numerous levels of the prison system unearthed no government body that treats the ex-prisoner’s relationship to the job market in either a legal or analytical capacity. Statistics on record checking, employment and criminality float around in the public forum with little effort to find meaningful correlations between them. Officials in various offices dedicated to crime-fighting wait to act until, as Rentzmann says, the issue becomes “a matter of mutual interest.”

One well-established law may help save ex-prisoners from this quandary. “What you’re up against is very simple,” Johansen asserts. “The [ex-prisoner] can wait until the crime is stricken from the record.” After a five-year period, records of most crimes do become inaccessible to most parties. But during this wait, ex-prisoners must suffer what Engbo calls “an extra punishment,” or what Bo refers to as “punishing us twice.” And the damage done may not be reversible - as Kolind writes, it creates a “vacuum...leav[ing] the ex-prisoner badly equipped to live up to modern...demands such as authenticity, coherence, prestige, and responsibility.”

Despite the complexity of the problem, the simple solution may lie in the job market’s own emphasis on individual agency. In today’s Denmark, treatment of ex-prisoners is governed by automatic reaction rather than conscious outrage. Those ex-prisoners willing and able to work may still have a chance, but only if this broad social trend can be re-conceived as a matter of personal repercussion and choice. But as Engbo sees it, the picture remains bleak. “It’s not a decision made by society or government...it’s a mechanism spreading itself,” he explains. “I don’t think people are aware of that tendency; it just happens.”

 

References

Articles found in Politiken’s database Polinfo using the key word “straffeattest” (1999-2000) 

Direktoratet for Kriminalforsorgen (2000). Placering af Indsatte. Vol. 2

Klettheyggj, Elkin (1999). “Straffeattester vurderes meget forskellipt”. In Nordisk Tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab 1999 vol. 5

Kolind, Torben (1 999). “Den betingede accept” in: Nordisk Tidsshrift for Kriminalvidenskab 1999 vol.1

Kyvsgaard, Britta (1989). Og faengslet ta’r de sidste. Jurist- og Økonomiforbundets forlag.

Kyvsgaard, Britta (1998). Kriminalforsorg i frihed, Tranberg, Pernille (2000). Articles in Politiken (2000)

Web sites:

www.danmark.dk 

www.politi.dk

Interviews:

Bo (pseudonym of an ex-prisoner on probation)

Bonnez, Claus, Lawyer and chairman of KRIM 

Engbo, Hans Jørgen, Prison governor of Jyderup Statsfaengsel 

Jansen, Brian, Prisoner at Jyderup Statsfaengsel

Johansen, Hans R., Personnel manager of Penta Service 

Jørgensen, Nete, Social adviser from Kriminalforsorgen on Vesterbro 

Kronkvist, Annette Graver, Social adviser from Kriminalforsorgen on Vesterbro 

Nadelmann, Ivan, Owner of Avis Denmark. 

Rentzmann, William, Director of Kriminalforsorgen. 

Snedker, Annette, Social adviser from Kriminalforsorgen in Svendborg 

Thussen, Christian, Hiring Consultant for ISS.

 

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