One morning in mid March, six days after our trip to Rikers Island, Elaine pushed open the door to an employment agency. The banner hanging over the receptionist’s window announced: “The South 40 Corporation: An Avenue From Prison to Society.” Elaine wrote her name on a sign-in sheet, then picked a seat next to the magazine rack holding Vanity Fair and Corrections Today.
A fellow ex-con she met at WBAI had told Elaine about South Forty, and so here she was in its waiting room on the 12th floor of a building near Penn Station. She recognized the agency’s name because it used to have counselors working inside Bedford Hills, advising prisoners on how to find a job. That was before 1991, when the state prison system cut funding for South Forty’s “transitional services.”
Seven weeks of job hunting had failed to yield any offers. Elaine needed help. A few hours later, Elaine sat next to the desk of George Lino, then one of South Forty’s vocational specialists. Elaine liked that George wore a suit and tie, that he strode purposefully between the office’s cubicles, and that he understood her plight. “I’m an ex-offender,” said George, who was 29. “I did seven years, from age 17 to 23.”
Before she went to prison, Elaine’s résumé was blank. She had collected welfare and worked off-the-books at a beauty salon on 125th Street, braiding hair and doing manicures. When she left Bedford Hills, Elaine carried copies of a three-page résumé, which she had typed on a prison computer. It listed her diploma from Mercy College, which had sent teachers into the prison, and described several prison jobs, including program aide at the Children’s Center next to the visiting room. It also mentioned the many certificate courses Elaine had completed, from “Basic Legal Research” to “Microsoft Word 6.0” to “Alternatives to Violence.”
“You’ve got a lot of skills,” said George, as he flipped through the résumé. “You could do a lot of things. But I need to know: Where do you want to go? What do you want to do?”
“Counseling,” Elaine said. “I could do that. I enjoy speaking. I speak out about the Rockefeller drug laws. Also, I’m fascinated by computers. I need something I can grow in. I don’t want something I’m stuck in. I’m tired of being stuck.”
“Let’s say we get you into counseling, because it’s not easy to get into the computer field without any serious computer background.”
South Forty finds jobs for more than 1000 ex-cons a year. Many become janitors, dishwashers, or cooks. Others work on the phone as dispatchers or survey takers. Elaine’s associate’s degree gave her an advantage over most ex-cons, and George figured he could get her an $18,000- to $20,000-a-year counseling job. If she had a bachelor’s degree, he could probably get her between $25,000 and $30,000. He could tell she had a lot of ambition, that prison had not crushed her initiative. Jobless ex-prisoners sometimes came to South Forty and stopped outside the front door, waiting for someone to buzz them in, even though the door was unlocked. Prison had left them so institutionalized that they would have a tough time thriving in a job.
Elaine was pleased that George did not view her as a future janitor or McDonald’s order taker, because she certainly did not see herself in such minimum-wage work. After she appeared on WBAI a few weeks earlier, the radio host told her about a friend who needed somebody to clean her house. “Baby, I am not a maid,” Elaine replied. “I didn’t get out of prison after 16 years to clean toilets.”
George informed Elaine that a recruiter from a large social service agency was coming to South Forty that day to conduct a group interview. “Do you have time to go home and change?” he asked.
Elaine glanced down at her clothes. Blue flare-bottom pants, black boots with a chunky heel. Tara had picked out the outfit from her own wardrobe, laying it out that morning for her mother.
“I gotta change?” Elaine asked. “What do I wear?”
“Do you have any suits or skirts?”
An hour or so later, Elaine walked into the offices of Dress for Success, a nonprofit that gives away used business clothes to women entering the workforce. She carried a referral from George, and soon a female volunteer was riffling through the racks in search of a size-16 outfit. Then Elaine peeled off her club kid clothes and slipped into the uniform of a corporate executive: panty hose, fake-pearl earrings, a bright red skirt, and a matching suit jacket with gold buttons up the front.
The skirt suit was slightly baggy, and the used pumps were size 12, two sizes too large. But Elaine did not complain. Marching stiffly up Eighth Avenue, back toward South Forty, she said, “It feels good to have people fussing over me after all these years.”
As it turned out, the recruiter who came to South Forty needed custodians, not counselors. Elaine wasn’t too worried. With George’s help, she thought, she could do better. “You brought a reporter?” one ex-con whispered to her after the group interview. “They’re definitely going to get you a job.” Elaine laughed.
Over the next few weeks, Elaine stopped in to see George several times. He sent her to a résumé-writing workshop and a seminar on what to say during a job interview. He expanded her wardrobe by sending her to the Bottomless Closet, another nonprofit that gives free business clothes to poor women. By the time she left, Elaine needed an enormous shopping bag to hold all her loot.
When the volunteers offered her a jacket, Elaine asked for two. She grabbed a handful of free beauty products—lipstick, pressed powder, cologne, eye shadow, concealer, eye pencils, and hair spray—even though she only wears lipstick and eyeliner. When the volunteers told her she was allowed one piece of jewelry, she persuaded them to let her take three items: a pair of fake-pearl earrings, a necklace, and a gold pin decorated with a red rose that in script said “Mom.”