Picture the scenario, you’ve been in prison for the past couple of years for a regrettable drunken offence. Yes, you regret the incident, and yes you wish you’d sobered sooner, but it happened and that’s that. You’ve done your time, now what….?
Michaela Booth is leaving the past where it belongs and looking to the future, but to do this she must reflect and understand exactly what she needs to take from this experience that started in 2011.
Michaela is 26, and was convicted in 2011 of a drunken violent offence After serving two years in prison she was released four and a half years ago.
Michaela started a blog after she was offered a job and then abruptly had it retracted, due to an offence she committed at 19 years old – 7 years ago. With no explanation from the company offering her the job as to why they retracted their job offer. After emailing and calling, Michaela was asked to keep quiet or the recruitment agency would not assist her any further in her job hunt. Michaela is now making it her mission to make a stand, to stop the employment discrimination of ex-offenders.
In September Michaela, will start a Criminology degree and pursue various voluntary roles; working with ex-offenders (specifically women – who are struggling to find employment due to the stigma of having criminal conviction).
Q&A with Michaela Booth
Tell us, what landed you in prison at such a young age?
I was involved in a drunken fight in a nightclub when I was 19. I was sentenced under joint enterprise. I was 21 when convicted after being on bail for over 2 years. I was sentenced to 4 years for GBH (Section 18).
I was to serve two years in prison and two years on probation.
Did you ever anticipate that action would shape your future going forward?
No, it was a reaction, a moment of madness without considering the consequences of my actions – which lasted less than a minute. No doubt, my actions caused another person serious harm and for that I am and always will be sorry.
I am now released but my conviction is not ‘spent’ until 2022, which means by law I need to disclose my previous offences to prospective employers. Something that took me less than a minute to do, will haunt me for at least the next 13 years – that’s very scary. From being a teenager, to when I’m eventually 32 and when my conviction is finally ‘spent’ a lot will have changed, in fact my whole life has already changed, from the teenager in that club one Friday night to now.
“I am now released but my conviction is not ‘spent’ until 2022”
What did it feel like the first night you stayed in prison?
I was put in a cell with an older woman, who was a repeat offender addicted to drugs and alcohol. I was 21 and this was my first experience of prison. I don’t remember her name or anything – she made me a cigarette and I cried myself to sleep, woke up the next day and burst into tears again. I don’t think I recall any feelings or even events for the first few weeks, I remember going on to the main wing and thinking ‘Oh my god I am actually in bad girls’. That wing was horrible. I was heartbroken, I just wanted to go home. All I could think about was my family who were so worried about me.
How long was your sentence?
Four years in total. Two years to serve in prison and two years on probation, reporting every week.
What was it like when you were given day release?
It was great. I was so happy to be going out for the day, especially to work. I worried before it happened that I wouldn’t like it, I may get nervous or self-conscious because I had lived in such a strict daily routine for a year and half doing exactly the same thing day in day out. As soon as I stepped out, I shed a tear with my sister who had come to collect me, then we went out and it was like I was ‘normal’ again. Back to reality, a life that I was used to living. Prison life, for sure, was not something I could never get used to. I’m pretty sure I’ll never live there again! The fight for me to get day release was an ongoing battle, so when I achieved it, I was pleased. Another fight, won.
When you were released, how quickly did you get a job?
I had been working for a company on day release for the last 6 months of my sentence and they took me on in a full time permanent role as soon as I was released. I was released on a Friday and at work at 8.30am on the Saturday morning.
Can you tell us about the bad experience you had when trying to find a job? And, how you felt at the time?
Earlier this year I applied for an office based job, closer to home, via a recruitment agency. I filled in the relevant forms and ticked the box to say I had an unspent criminal conviction. I went to my interview; my first job interview in over 4 years.
The interview went well and I was offered the job the very next day. Four days later the recruitment agency called me to ask me if the ‘tick box’ had been done in error. I explained it hadn’t and that I have an unspent conviction. After the recruitment agency informed the company of my conviction, within two hours, I had my job offer retracted with no explanation from the company as to why.
I emailed the woman who interviewed me, the HR department and the managing director of the company – they all ignored me. The recruitment agency then called me in for a meeting to say stating that they were no longer willing to work with me as they feared I couldn’t take rejection. I reminded them, I hadn’t been rejected, I had been offered the job and would like an explanation as to why the job offer no longer stood due to a conviction for an offence that happened 7 years ago with no relevance to the job role. The company or the recruitment agency never told me why this happened. I still am disappointed, disheartened, and appalled by their actions. However, it has highlighted to me, a clear blanket policy to the recruitment of people with convictions that I aim to raise awareness of and hopefully help to change.
What do you think needs to change when ex-convicts try and find jobs?
The attitude that people have about people with convictions. I was told by a recruitment agency when I disclosed my conviction, ‘Don’t tell them yet because even though they can’t discriminate, they will’. It’s a box on a form that determines whether you get an interview or not and for the majority, if you tick that box, you won’t even get an interview. I did tick the box, they missed it and offered me the job, despite having a conviction I am more than capable of working. As soon as they knew I had a conviction it took them two hours to retract the job offer. I think employers need to listen to our stories, at least consider us for an interview. Not all crimes are committed in malice, for greed or personal gain. Even the ones that are, prison makes people want to change, but not being able to find a job will ultimately give an ex offender two options, to live off the state or go back to crime.
Neither have a good outcome. For the person or for society.
How much of a stigma would you say exists when recruiting ex-convicts?
A lot, too much. I wrote a blog called ‘Ban The Box’. In my experience, applying for jobs daily, attending interviews and having job offers taken away, the stigma is very much alive. I don’t know why, as companies and employers are unwilling to talk to me about it.
Do you think the severity of their crime has much to do with the level of stigma surrounding them?
No. I think it’s just a blanket policy. If you tick the box to say you have a conviction, that’s it. End of process. Aside from companies that have banned the box.
How can this all change?
For people with convictions to be vocal when they feel they have been discriminated against. Stand up for yourself, stay active, progressive, motivate yourself to keep going, keep on, apply for jobs, attend interviews, talk about your life, your experiences, promote yourself and don’t give up. For employers, talk to people, listen to people, give them a fair chance, an open mind. We all make mistakes, we all live and learn, and after our prison sentence is over, we should be able to live, work and be a part of a society.
What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?
For me personally, to find a job that challenges me daily and that enables me to help people at a disadvantage find employment. I am going to university in September to study criminology, to ultimately gain a job in a related sector of the criminal justice system. Supporting women who have been through the prison system and need support after release. Also, to raise awareness of the struggles, challenges and discrimination all ex-offenders face, when their punishment should be over.