Using prison experience to sell yourself in employment interviews

John Leonardson, executive director of MentorCare Ministries

John Leonardson

John Leonardson, executive director of MentorCare Ministries in Bedford, Texas, has been working in various prison-related ministries for more than three decades. He gives the kind of straightforward advice that can compel ex-offenders to take a second look at who they are and what they can accomplish as job seekers.

Leonardson has done work that included everything from preaching and plays to marriage seminars in prisons throughout Texas and in places as far afield as Cuba, Brazil, Jamaica and Latvia. He’s also written several books, including “Preparing for Success on the Outside,” because he says, “inmates weren’t making plans to get out – they just counted the days.”

When he deals with inmates, Leonardson will ask them, “What advantage do you have in the job market over someone who has never been to prison?” Of course their response is that they have no advantage whatsoever.

But then he’ll ask the same question again, and again draws blank responses. And so he explains to them, “Most of the people out there don’t know how to really work. They just want a paycheck without doing anything for it. You on the other hand really want that job and are willing to work hard for it.”

“Plus, if you have survived prison and are now about to get out, you have overcome more stress, more challenges, more impossible odds than just about anybody… You have worked for impossible bosses and handled crisis situations and proven that you can handle it. You have probably done extremely hard work for little or no pay, and developed abilities that most people can never even get close to. The very fact that you have been to prison equips you to be a great employee!”

And not just a great employee but also a potential leader. “You’re up against some Momma’s boys who have been coddled all their lives. You know how to live in a tough place with all kinds of negative pressure. So you are strong in ways that can eventually make you a leader. If you can overcome your anger and get socialized, you’ll have major advantages over weaker people.”

Once what he’s saying sinks in, they begin to look confident. “Yes, some people won’t hire you because you’re an ex-con, but some people wouldn’t hire you anyway,” Leonardson adds. “We don’t worry about the no’s because you will be hired, and there your light can shine.”

In his 33 years of experience, Leonardson tells them, he’s found that no ex-con who really tried couldn’t find a job. “Some employers actually ask for more ex-cons because they are more motivated and work harder,” he says.

They now get it. Being an ex-offender can actually be a way they can sell themselves in an interview. The inmates he talks to suddenly have a new approach – one that just might work.

One way to help make that work is a technique recommended by Larry Robbin, a nationally known expert in the area of workforce development. He advises ex-offenders to prepare what he calls a “turnaround talk,” which means to be honest and tell the hiring manager in your interview that you’ve been in jail or prison but also explain what you have done to turn your life around. This talk is designed to make sure that the interviewer will understand where you’re coming from, be empathetic to your situation and, hopefully, ultimately offer you a job.

In addition, you should put together a “turnaround packet” that includes such things as training or school certificates, letters of reference, examples of any volunteer work you may have done and pictures of accomplishments. You can show this packet, which should be neatly organized in a three-ring binder, to the hiring manger to reinforce the idea that you are turning your life around.

This, along with what Leonardson recommends, should help improve your chances of gaining employment.

To learn more about Leonardson’s work and the books he’s written, visit


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