“Work is not a handout, but a hand up.”

“I felt like I wanted to kiss the ground.” That is how 44 year-old grandmother Tanesha Bannister describes the first moments of her freedom.

In 2004, Bannister was sentenced to life in federal prison for conspiring to sell crack and cocaine. At the time she was a single, 29-year-old mother of two children, Able (age 8) and Ava (age 10), who was trying to support her family, but in the worst way possible. 

Bannister appealed her life sentence, and in 2008, it was reduced to 23 years. 

A decade later, following the passage of the historic bipartisan First Step Act in 2018, Bannister was released early, along with over 4,500 other Americans. 

By that time, she had served over 16 years in prison. Meanwhile, life moved on. Her kids were grown, she now had two grandchildren, and she lost loved ones.

As she noted, “You have to start over and life is not the same when you get out.”

Bannister used her time in prison wisely. She earned her GED, attended Tallahassee Community College for Business Management, took drug education classes and completed over 100 classes on everything from education to psychology. 

Bannister also earned a cosmetology license in Florida. That’s an asset as she starts her new life. Helping others is her passion. 

“I felt joy in helping build the self-esteem of others,” Bannister said of her time doing hair for inmates while behind bars. 

After being released she was able to secure employment as a personal care assistant thanks to a referral. She enjoys this career in part because it gives her the flexibility to also care for her son Abel, who was shot and paralyzed from the chest down.

She is also currently studying to become a certified personal trainer. 

With a job, employable skills, and education, Bannister is on track to not return to prison.

Unfortunately, that’s not so for many others who are released each year. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 44 percent of all released prisoners were arrested during the first year following release. Women’s recidivism rates are lower than men’s, but unless they have means to support themselves, they may find themselves imprisoned once again.

Occupational Licensing

Bannister is now seeking reciprocity to get her Florida cosmetology license recognized by her home state of South Carolina and faces paperwork challenges that keep her from being able to do hair.

Occupational licenses are state-granted permissions for specific occupations. People who want to work in various industries, from personal care assistants to florists, have to secure licenses, depending on the state in which they live. Requirements may include classes, hours of practice, exams, and fees, which can be cost-prohibitive, especially if you have little income or time.

Americans like Bannister also face the added hurdle of a criminal record that could inhibit them from obtaining a license at all. As the Institute for Justice explains, some states have blanket bans against individuals with criminal backgrounds from securing a license even if the offense is unrelated to the occupation in which they seek to work or poses no public-safety risk. Other states have so-called “good-character” provisions that give state licensing boards the discretion to deny applicants with criminal records a license at their will.  

Tanesha knows first hand what this can mean for people who want to become a taxpayer and productive citizen.

She described a friend unable to get a job with a hotel chain because of her record, lamenting that employers “look at the past, not the person.”

A record becomes a stigma for former inmates and unnecessary occupational licenses add to the challenges of securing work.   

“Work is not a handout, but a hand up. We’re willing to work,” Bannister noted. 

Lawmakers should reform occupational licensing regulations to remove these obstacles for the thousands of Tanesha Bannisters who just want a second chance to become productive citizens.

Do you have a story about how occupational licenses are holding you back? Share your story here.