Sammy Perez spent a third of his life behind bars. From an early age, he was in and out of juvenile detention centers and prisons. He never imagined himself earning a master’s degree, teaching at a university, or making a difference in thousands of people’s lives — yet that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Perez works with Prison Fellowship — an organization that seeks to
restore those affected by crime and incarceration — as director of their grassroots program.
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To be in a position where I can lead grassroots criminal justice reform efforts around the nation and teach college students about the impact of crime and incarceration on families is evidence that I’m in the right place. I really consider my work on a daily basis more of a calling than I do an actual job, said Perez.
A 2021 report from the United States Department of Justice shows that 33% of formerly incarcerated individuals still haven’t found jobs four years after being released from prison. Unemployment after incarceration leads to financial hardship for families who are already struggling with stressful situations.
Perez was able to take those obstacles and turn them into triumphs. We take a deeper look into how his humble beginnings, his hunger for education, his strong work ethic, and his ability to overcome obstacles provide career advice that can help those with a criminal record forge their own paths to success.
Perez’s start in life was not ideal. His mother abandoned him, and he became a ward of the state of Virginia. He started living in juvenile group homes.
Youth in group homes are almost three times as likely to end up in trouble with the justice system than children placed in foster care. Without parental guidance, Perez said he started making unwise decisions that led to an arrest.
When I first went to prison, I was 15 years old … my life seemed very bleak at that time. I was a ward of the state, and I didn’t have a family to go home to, Perez explained.
He was then in and out of the justice system. After being released at age 18, Perez was intent on making better choices for his life. But six months later, he was arrested again and served almost seven years of his sentence.
Perez’s arrest is an example of a common trend. Two out of three prisoners are arrested within three years of being released, and over half of them are incarcerated again.
While in prison, however, Perez says his mindset started shifting. He found faith in God, obtained his GED, and decided to follow a more successful path in life. After release, he obtained his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2015 and his master’s degree in professional counseling in 2020.
But most importantly, he found a fulfilling job.
Perez’s Top Career Tips
Between earning his bachelor’s degree and finding a job he loves, Perez wanted to use what he had learned to help others in a similar situation. Perez persevered through stumbling blocks and difficulties and now shares his nuggets of career wisdom with us.
Nugget One — Get an Education
Having a high school diploma was a baseline for Perez. But he knew he’d need more education to navigate the workforce.
I knew that if I was going to be able to obtain more than a minimum wage paying job or a dead-end job, then I was going to have to develop some type of skills, Perez states.
I knew that gaining a higher education was really going to be a key to that success.
He went on to obtain his bachelor’s degree. But he soon realized that access to some jobs was still lacking.
After I graduated with my school degree, I realized that my job opportunities, while they were there, they were a bit limited, Perez explains.
I then decided to go on and pursue a master’s degree, which would allow me to obtain more credentials within the field of counseling.
Data from the RAND Corporation indicates that recidivism rates are 43% lower for incarcerated individuals who took college courses while incarcerated.
Education is life-changing. It has the power to change the trajectory of people’s lives. While pursuing both of my degrees, I was challenged to think more critically, Perez notes.
Now that I’ve graduated with my master’s degree, I really feel empowered.
Nugget Two — Change Your Mindset
Perez got into trouble while incarcerated, which even added more time to his sentence at one point.
I viewed myself as a gangster, as a thief, [and] as a thug, he noted. But he slowly managed to find his way from confusion to confidence.
I found faith in prison, which is important. That’s really what changed the trajectory of my life, Perez says. His newfound focus helped him see his life — and himself — in a way he hadn’t before.
Now I view myself as a child of God who is forgiven, a father, a mentor, [and] a productive member of society. And this mindset shift is paramount for long-term success after prison, he said.
A person’s identity will impact the way that they behave, he added.
The Big Picture
Thinking positive, despite rejection and barriers, is necessary to succeed.
Nugget Three — Don’t Be Afraid to Start Small
Formerly incarcerated individuals can often find transition jobs. While they are often lower-wage jobs, they provide an income and have other important benefits.
Perez says he remained at his minimum wage job with an outlook toward his future.
I stayed there for an entire year [because] I wanted to establish a work history, Perez notes.
Experts say being out of work while incarcerated shows a negative employment gap. You can gain work experience while pursuing an education.
Looking for low-cost certification programs, opportunities to get on-the-job experience even though volunteering, or interning while you’re working on your undergraduate, those are things that can set you apart, siad Christine Garland, Vice President of Workforce Development for the Center for Workforce Inclusion.
For Perez, this decision proved invaluable.
Establishing a work history not only helps offset [gaps in employment], but it also displays commitment and loyalty, which I think are characteristics that employers are really looking for in people, he states.
Nugget Four — Be Aware of Barriers
A criminal record itself can be a barrier to employment. The stigma associated with spending time in prison can limit some of your opportunities. A lack of marketable skills can also make finding a job more difficult.
Understanding that these barriers exist can be an important part of preparing to overcome them. The key with acknowledging barriers, however, is to not use them as an excuse.
[Barriers] prepare you to face the challenges that lie ahead. But on the other hand, [they] run the potential of stopping you from stepping into an opportunity because you think there will be a barrier, Perez notes.
Patience, persistence, and being upfront about your time in prison can go a long way in overcoming barriers. Be honest and prepare to tell your story in a way that focuses on your growth during that time.
Keep it simple and practice. Just like other job seekers do when they practice for an interview. They need to spend some time practicing their story, Garland advised.
Nugget Five — Look for Resources
There are many organizations available to help formerly incarcerated individuals get back on their feet and find a job. Prison Fellowship offers reentry resources for those with a criminal conviction. The organization also works with justice reform.
The Center for Workforce Inclusion offers a training and placement program for formerly incarcerated job seekers. Plus, local Goodwill stores can serve as training grounds to develop basic technological skills, as well as customer service skills.
Lean into family and friends for support and encouragement. And don’t give up.
Perez’s story is inspirational. His nuggets of wisdom offer insight to anyone striving to improve themselves. By believing in himself, working hard, changing his mindset, and empowering himself through education, he was able to change his life for years — and generations — to come.
The truth is that you’re more than your past. People with a past have a bright future. And I would encourage folks to walk into that, Perez concludes.