I first got to know James Walker a couple of months ago, when he responded to a post I’d written on shame. His response was so heartfelt, that I immediately clicked on the link to his blog. There I found some very thoughtful commentary on reentry from a man who ought to know. In 1977, Walker went to prison for what he describes as the worst crime imaginable. In the midst of a robbery attempt, he killed a man. Steeped in regret, Walker would spend the next 30 years of his life behind bars. Though he knew he could never atone for what he’d done, when he was released three years ago at the age of 51, Walker felt he had little in common with the young man who’d made such an irreversible mistake. He’d worked to better himself and was ready to start fresh. And yet, his reentry has been far from easy. As he confessed in a post earlier this year:
“Throughout my incarceration, I never could quite comprehend why so many guys returned to prison. Today, I know all too well why most of those who return to prison do so: the lack of real career opportunities. All the doors to financial stability and success–traditional or otherwise–seem not only closed but also locked. Dead bolted. Barricaded. Welded shut.”
In this month’s Straight Talk, Walker agreed to share his journey and how his expectations have differed from the reality of getting out:
Expectations vs. Reality
By James E. Walker Jr.
Two months shy of my 21st birthday and six months out of work, I got the foolish notion to become a stick-up man. A neophyte to criminal behavior, woefully naïve and reckless, I botched the wrong-headed attempt at armed robbery, and a man died.
During the 30 years I spent in prison, I lived for the time when I would leave prison. I believe that all prisoners spend their time in prison looking forward to the resumption of their life outside. Some of us, though, for whatever reasons, seem to take our time more seriously. I did. I resolved early in my sentence that I would not allow my time to do me.
Time does the prisoner—instead of the prisoner doing time—when the prisoner takes no responsibility for the way he spends his days. It happens when he serves his sentence as if doing time doesn’t bother him at all, as if it amounts to a mere inconvenience. For sure, this occurs most often with folks serving relatively brief prison terms, but it also occurs with some of those doing longer sentences.
Many people around me wondered why I spent my time in school, in the library, or off by myself reading a book. Why was I planning for a future that seemed to recede further and further and further from me? The reason I never took my focus off my future was simple. I didn’t want to be consumed by my past behavior, and the netherworld of prison that resulted from that misbehavior. Distraction from the goal of freedom, that grand ideal, would amount to a living death for which I had no desire.
And so I completed my bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, with a concentration in English. Knowing that my criminal background would restrict my career options, I began to think about innovative and creative ways I might succeed in navigating the expected obstacles to success. I knew it would be difficult, but I expected that completing an undergraduate degree would impress prospective employers to take a chance on hiring me. All the hard work I’d done to distinguish myself from the average prisoner, I thought, would likewise distinguish me from the average ex-con, once I left prison. Why shouldn’t it? Doesn’t our society continuously trumpet the value of higher education as the vehicle out of powerlessness, poverty, and disadvantage?
What I found upon getting released from prison, however, was something entirely different. Indeed, my educational attainment and personal development, almost incredibly, intensified the rejection I experienced. I quickly learned that our society has simply blocked many paths to career success for persons convicted of criminal offenses. Even when no law prohibits career access, social norms often do. In countless interviews, the repeated message seemed to be: your education, skill set, and eminently positive representation mean nothing. You’ve got a felonious past—a violent one, at that. Ain’t nothing happenin’!
In the past three years, I’ve been rejected and passed-over for everything from a part-time, minimum-wage pizza delivery job to a potentially six-figure insurance sales position. The folks at the pizzeria wouldn’t even talk to me. The recruiter at the insurance agency did engage the conversation, but I didn’t get the job. An auto dealer refused to consider me because, he said, his insurance carrier just wouldn’t allow him to hire me. A woman at another insurance operation told me I couldn’t get a license to sell insurance because of my criminal conviction. When I demonstrated that, legally speaking, I could, she just ended the conversation. The folks at a well-known parcel delivery service appeared quite impressed with my work history—until, that is, I explained that all of that job experience occurred in prison. When a local reentry agency hired me as a case manager, I had to leave the job I had sought for two years after only two weeks, because the folks at a nearby prison won’t allow me entrance as a case manager—though they continue to allow me entrance as a volunteer.
The list goes on and on…
Yes, it’s been discouraging. I’ve spent time working with other ex-offenders, and often been able to help them in ways I haven’t been able to help myself. I’ve watched as even my family has lost patience. The implication is that I, in some way, must not be doing the right things in order to find an employer willing to hire me. Today, I no longer do walk-ins and cold calls. I’ve stopped traveling significant distances to do applications. I’ve stopped blasting my resume. I’ve stopped applying for every possible opening.
I still selectively submit applications online. I also continue to make disclosure of my background up front, usually via cover letter. I couch that disclosure in the most constructive language possible. I acknowledge responsibility for my misbehavior. I do so clearly and genuinely. I don’t wallow or grovel. I acknowledge the past, then speak to my personal maturity and development, and look forward to the future with both confidence and humility.
Recently, I obtained a part-time position as a digital media marketing executive at a small information technology and services firm. The position doesn’t pay very much, but I have an opportunity to demonstrate my value to the organization. My co-workers have embraced me for the affability, intelligence, positive mindedness, and commitment to excellence they see in me. They know I have a criminal past but have no real interest in the details of that past. They genuinely like me, the person. I don’t think I could have found a more supportive workplace environment. My gratitude extends beyond all measure.
At the same time, I feel the need to keep bringing attention to the challenges faced by others like me. Just as I rejected the correctional mindset during my imprisonment, I reject the predominant social mindset out here in the “free” society. Something has to change. The chasm between our national pride as a land of opportunity, and our national perverseness in systemically rejecting and excluding persons who have made serious mistakes in the past—even after they’ve paid the legal price for those mistakes—spans deep and wide.
So does my determination to bridge it.