Straight Talk: Blogger James E. Walker Jr. on the challenges of starting over

James E. Walker Jr.

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.

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20 Comments

Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, discrimination, education ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, Guest blogger, job search ex-offenders, personal responsibility, reentry, second chances, starting over, Uncategorized

20 responses to “Straight Talk: Blogger James E. Walker Jr. on the challenges of starting over

  1. Hi James:

    Thank you for sharing your story and congratulations on getting your degree and learning how to navigate the world after prison.

    You mentioned that your degree is in English. Have you ever tried your hand at freelance writing? It’s not an easy way to make a living, but editors judge a writer on their ideas and writing and not solely on their resume.

    Sending good thoughts your way…

    • Jodi,

      Thanks for your comments, Jodi. You make a great point about freelancing, particularly given what a fine writer James is. Have you thought of this, James?

  2. James,

    Awesome story. My heart goes out to you, man.

    I worked for nearly eight years as a high school teacher and administrator for youth in crisis. For most of the kids I served, getting caught was the only distinction between them and every other teenager. Once the labels were applied, reapplied, amplified, and internalized—well, the outcome was an outcast, regardless of any personal reform or evolution. We told them every single day that the path out was through education and the pursuit of personal excellence, and I still believe that. But the path is not an easy one.

    Why can’t our predominantly Christian, moral, meritocratic society make room in their hearts for those who redeem themselves? It blows my mind.

  3. I’ll admit it: until I read this post, I (like most Americans, I’m guessing), didn’t think much about the problems faced by ex-offenders. But you highlight, in a very real, very humble, way, the obstacles to re-integration — and showed me why I should care.

  4. I know. James’ experiences really bring home the contradictions in our supposed land of second chances. And, as you note, Ron, he’s far from alone. In a society where 1 in 4 people have been arrested, we really do need to learn to look beyond the label “ex-offender.” So many of these folks have learned from their mistakes and have tremendous contributions to make, if only they’re given the opportunity.

  5. truly an amazing story. thanks for sharing this, james. this is the sort of thing that ought to be on the front page of the ny times.

  6. James E. Walker Jr.

    Thanks for all the great feedback. Yes, Jodi and Kathy, I hope to do some freelancing. Thanks, Ron, for your thoughts. Jennifer, your reaction really feeds my desire to remain active in communicating my take to the larger society. Yours is the spirit I speak to, in all that I say and write. Ditto, Ed.

    Thank you, Kathy, for providing me this opportunity to reach a wider audience than I do with my nascent blog.

    All of you guys affirm me in all of my efforts, from the beginning of my incarceration to this day. You folks are our nation’s best hope to rise toward the true promise of America. Thank you so much.

  7. James,

    You chose an excellent major when you earned an English degree, because it has shaped your ability to communicate. I’m from a background that is skeptical about giving an ex-con a break — but because you don’t present yourself as the stereotype, I found myself drawn in to your story. When I finished your post, you seemed like someone trustworthy of a friendship.

    And those are the building blocks to land a job in any industry, in any economy. Keep plugging away, reaching out and expressing yourself so eloquently. A stranger probably won’t hire you. An acquaintance could give you an obligatory interview. A colleague will help you land a job. Best of luck!

  8. Karen

    This is a very powerful story that I constantly forewarn my boys about. It’s a reality that so many people have to deal with. Mr. Walker I wish you the best!!

    • James E. Walker Jr.

      Thanks, Karen. You’ve hit upon something that has motivated me from the very beginning of my experience with the criminal justice system. During my growing up years, and through high school, parents of my friends held me up as a model because I got the good grades, participated in my church, etc. Upon graduation from high school, thinking that I knew better than most, I began to experiment with drugs–primarily marijuana–and give myself to dubious influences. Before long, my grades at college suffered, and my negative spiral began building momentum.

      The point? I’ve long felt that if I could veer so far off the mark in my life, lots of other young people who didn’t have the positives in my upbringing remain at great risk for all sorts of catastrophic and tragic experiences. The right word from the right person at the right time could make all the difference between life and death.

      So, kudos to you, and to all the parents and others out there working hard to guide our young people aright. I will continue to do what I see as my part, though I don’t have children, in communicating the lessons of my experience.

  9. Stella Shepard

    I am very moved by the sincere comments on the blog. It is even more impressive that the level of empathy is as high as it appears to be.

    James, you are moving the earth one stone, one boulder, and one mountain at a time.

    Continued success dear friend.

    • James E. Walker Jr.

      Thanks, Stella. You’re so right to speak to the level of empathy seen in these comments. We so often see and hear the negative and cynical perspective regarding former offenders. The positive responses to this post should hearten and encourage all of us working to open opportunities and contribute to a more positive dialog.

  10. I’ve often felt that our prison system makes no sense. We lock people up and then let them out and expect them to have changed. James, it sounds like you certainly did, but do you agree that there is little actual rehabilitation going on inside prison walls? I know you were able to get a degree (which is so commendable), but aren’t there people in there who need more than that 0- counseling, behavior therapy, etc?

    • James E. Walker Jr.

      You’re right, of course. Very little rehabilitation takes place inside prisons. The truest rehabilitation originates with the self. Most prisons have libraries. Most of those libraries have interlibrary loan programs. Those who need remedial help can (most often) find it.

      Still, while each individual bears the ultimate responsibility for his or her rehabilitation, our prison systems do need to take care to encourage inmates to do the personal work necessary for rehabilitation.

      Concerned citizens, particularly family members and friends of persons in prison, should make their concerns known to policy makers and prison officials. We need a lively movement in this country that directly addresses the prison experience, and the experience of persons upon leaving prison. I’m not advocating “hug a thug” ideas. I do advocate greater support for persons leaving prison who demonstrate their commitment to successful reentry.

  11. TIMOTHY WILLIAMS

    I WOULD LIKE TO SAY THANK-YOU FOR PRESSING ON DESPITE THE CHALLENGES FACED IN FRONT OF YOU BECAUSE ITS INSPIRING AND GIVES A BROTHER LIKE ME MORE MOTIVATION TO NOT JUST FEEL LIKE GOING ON BUT, TO ROLL ON TO MY DREAM NO MATTER WHAT THE OBSTACLES AND MY HOPE IS THAT SOCIETY GROWS UP AND MATURES PAST THE MISTAKES ONE MAKES AND CONCENTRATE ON THE POSITIVE THEY DO IN LIFE

    • James E. Walker Jr.

      Amen! Keep believing in yourself, Timothy. Don’t let any of the wrong mindedness steer you against your best interest. As Dr. King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I believe that. I must! And so must you.

  12. Pingback: The humility challenge « Out and Employed

  13. Thank you, James Walker, for your gracious honesty. You truly do have a gift for writing, and I imagine your message is even more inspiring to others who have walked a path similar to your own. Sometimes life hands us a ministry that has nothing to do with training or degrees or jobs or churches — and simply asks us to be exactly who we are, no more, no less. It doesn’t matter what we do, really; everyone we come into contact with is touched by the truth of our being. You carry that kind of quiet wisdom and power and it is a joy to behold. Thank you, too, Kathleen for featuring Mr. Walker. I found my way here through Ed Pilolla’s site.

    • jwlk412

      Thanks, Rachel. You have well described that part of my experience that involves speaking to others–those with criminal backgrounds, and those without. I do feel compelled to communicate the reality of the reentry experience.

      Those less receptive have labeled me “angry,” and even “hostile.” Of course, I reject that sort of characterization. I believe that my passion gets mistranslated by those who have not adequately processed the idea that once an offender has paid the legal price for his or her offense(s), that offender DOES have a moral claim to a fair opportunity to know work or career success.

      That claim to a sort of moral high ground definitely offends many. I understand the ostensible conflict. How can one claim the moral high ground when one has offended morality through criminal behavior? Well, the obvious and almost always overlooked piece is the legal penalty for the behavior.

      When our kids screw up we discipline them. Afterward, while we continue to monitor them for signs of further problems, we don’t unnecessarily restrict their opportunity to grow and develop into responsible people.

      I’m grateful that you, and so many others, have shown your support for the moral power of the position I will continue to express.

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