updated 3/2/2005 3:43:13 PM ET 2005-03-02T20:43:13

Few felons have the kind of life that Martha Stewart has awaiting her when she's released from prison.

Stewart has famously teamed with über-reality TV producer Mark Burnett for her own version of "The Apprentice" to air on General Electric's NBC network, and will also have a cooking and crafts show. And she will be welcomed with open arms by her devoted minions at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. There, Stewart will assume the title of "founder," working alongside Chief Executive Susan Lyne, who recently arrived at the company from The Walt Disney Co.'s ABC network.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

It's a homecoming that stands in stark contrast to the post-pokey tribulations of most ex-cons. Indeed, finding gainful employment after a stretch on the inside is perhaps the biggest challenge for former prisoners.

Chrisa Gonzalez couldn't even land a job at convenience stores in the worst neighborhoods when she got out. Gonzalez, who was released in April 2003 after serving three-and-a-half years of a five-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana, eventually got a gig as a telemarketer and then worked at a warehouse — successes that she attributes to having prepared to answer tough questions about her felony conviction. "It was very embarrassing," she says.

Gonzalez was also resourceful in composing her résumé, including her experience teaching a high school equivalency program and the librarian credentials she earned while serving time. She now heads National Prison & Sentencing Consultants, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based firm, along with John Webster, who served 13 months for obstruction of justice.

Her tip for anyone just out: Target big companies such as United Parcel Service that are most likely to take advantage of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a federal tax credit for employers who hire certain low-income people, including former welfare and food stamp recipients, veterans — and ex-felons.

Thorny issue
Employment is an equally thorny issue for white-collar offenders, according to David Novak, an ex-con who served ten months for insurance fraud and now makes his living coaching white-collar convicts through their ordeal.

"Most white-collar people are prosecuted as a result of something that they did professionally," he says, "so they've been disbarred, had their medical license revoked or been banned from the securities industry." That means they have to find a new line of work or settle for consulting in their chosen field.

Another hurdle: finding an employer willing to work with the correctional system. Convicts are usually under a supervised-release program, which means that their probation officer can drop by their home or office any time. "You can be in the middle of a client meeting and have a parole officer show up," says Novak, a possibility that few employers are willing to tolerate.

"I urge clients to use their experience as a selling point," he says, adding that most post-prison job hunters have to settle for positions with far less responsibility and pay than they had prior to their conviction. "They can say, 'If you give me a break, you'll get my expertise on the cheap.'"

Lifestyle adjustments
Reduced professional prospects mean major lifestyle adjustments for formerly affluent convicts. "There is often tremendous downsizing," says Novak. "People move from mansions to apartments." And diminished square footage is hardly the worst of it, he adds. "Depending upon the state, apartment houses can bar ex-convicts."

What's worse than trying to make a living and finding a place to live are what Novak describes as the intangibles that he'll always have to deal with as an ex-con. "I have to be upfront about my history in business and socially," he explains, "because if people don't hear it from me, they'll assume the worst."

There are no secrets anymore now that 'I Googled you' is a part of our lexicon. Says Novak, "In every aspect of my life, personal and professional, I must constantly pay homage to my stupid choices."

© 2012


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