Category Archives: taking responsibility

Job interviews and ex-offenders: maybe it’s not the crime that cost you the job

In my last two class sessions, we’ve been talking about answering job interview questions.  Yes, that includes the $64,000 biggie:  Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

And yet, for all the emphasis put on being able to look an employer in the eye and honestly discuss your record or those huge gaps in your work history —  it’s often the simple and seemingly benign questions that can trip up an ex-offender. 

This came to light last week after a lively class  discussion about what to say when an employer opens an interview by saying:  “Tell me about yourself.” 

Most of my students felt this was an easy question. 

It’s not. In fact, if you don’t handle this one carefully you can end up stumbling right out of the starting gate.   Despite seeming open-ended, an employer isn’t asking for your life history here. Nor does he want  a long-winded dissertation on why this job  is your dream come true.  As one inmate wisely noted, the employer doesn’t just want to know what you’ve done in the past, but who you are and what you can do for them.   In Michelle Rafter’s  blog for SecondAct.com, Georgia Tech University professor Nathan Bennett  offers good advice when he says,  focus not on what you enjoy, but on what you bring to an organization that is uinque and hard for others to copy.

So how do you  do this?   The key is tailoring your skills and abilities to the needs of the employer, but in a way that doesn’t come off sounding like a canned sales pitch.  Sally Chopping, a Pittsburgh-based interview and public speaking coach, suggests breaking the question down into 3 parts

  1. Identify the 3 most important qualities for the job.
  2. Mention the most relevant last job you had and highlight one of your achievements.
  3. Say why you’d like to work for the particular company. 

If you put these together as she does, you end up with a response that encapsulates your unique strengths and abilities in a way that shows how they will benefit the company. 

This video, courtesy of CollegeGrad.com, (which is equally applicable to jobs that don’t require college degrees, by the way) also spells out a good approach to the “Tell me about yourself”  query:

How about you?   What have you said when an employer opens with this question?  What’s worked and what hasn’t?

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Filed under background checks, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, discrimination, employers hiring ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, job search ex-offenders, jobs ex-offenders, reentry, second chances, taking responsibility

Who hires violent offenders? You’d be surprised.

Their crimes aren’t easy to stomach.

VASAVOR job developer Mouly Aloumouati

Murder. Rape. Armed Robbery. Aggravated Assault.  But when they come to Mouly Aloumouati, they’ve done their time and have one thing in common.

They want a job and they want to start over.

Aloumouati does his best to accommodate.  A business developer at SkillSource Center, (a One Stop Career Center operator in Virginia), he also manages  the VASAVOR (Virginia’s Serious and Violent Offender Reentry) program in conjunction with re-entry organization OAR.  Over the past seven years, he estimates he’s dealt with some 400 violent offenders and found jobs for more than 75 percent of them.

“I’ve got a recidivism rate of 5 percent,”  he says, which isn’t bad, when you consider that nationally nearly two thirds of offenders return to prison or jail within two years.

Affable and approachable, Aloumouati’s secret is a mixture of practicality, doggedness and a willingness to do what it takes to help get his people placed.  When he started, he  had no experience with offenders, but over time he’s developed an acute understanding of the challenges they face and the way to overcome these.

I was fortunate to catch up with Aloumouati two weeks ago when I stopped by the local Career One Stop Center in Falls Church, VA.  Here’s some of what he had to say about how he works and what he’s learned:

On the biggest challenge the violent offender faces:

Some would call it the “fear” factor.   “I would say the hardest thing is getting over the stigma.  But I try to show the people I work with that the stigma is not the end of the world.  You can get past it, if you’re willing to work hard and be persistent.”  The important thing, he adds, is how you come across and whether you are employable.  This means do you have your IDs, do you know how to conduct yourself in a workplace, have you taken responsibility for your actions or are you in denial…otherwise I’m wasting my time because you’re not ready.”  The first step he takes with people who come to him is to do an employment assessment to see where they are.

On what kind of jobs serious offenders can get:

Aloumouati has placed offenders in the labor and construction industries, administrative and clerical jobs, the trades, transportation and food service, among other areas.  Many of these positions are entry-level, but he’s also helped individuals find more advanced positions in the medical and other professional fields.

On how the ex-offender should present himself:

“I tell people I work with you spend 10 seconds explaining your record in an interview, then you spend 10 minutes telling the employer what you can do for him.

On his job hunt secrets:

Aloumouati keeps a file on every employer who’s ever hired one of his clients.  Any reentry organization can develop a similar list by going to case files for the past three to four years and looking at where the offenders they worked with got jobs, he says.  Everywhere he goes, he brings business cards and makes sure he gets them from any employer he meets.  He scans the want-ads and Craig’s List regularly and follows up immediately.  “Youve got to get to the job before the non-criminals do to make your case,” he says.  In fact, he’s been known to drive offenders to an interview to take advantage of a hot lead right away.   Even if the job doesn’t work out — he keeps track of the employer so he can check back periodically and find out about new openings before they’re advertised.

On getting professional jobs:

Aloumouati has worked with former doctors, lawyers, police, judges, military, engineers and plenty of others with impressive credentials.  Sometimes these individuals will no longer be able to work in their field because of their crimes or licensing requirements. Nonetheless he has still been able to help many find very good jobs.  “I have five clients right now, who are making more than $85,000,” he says.

On his advice to an offender who can no longer work in his/her field:

You need to be very creative and change direction. “I tell the people I work with they have to dig deep in their souls and brains to bring me other industries where they can work.”  A medical doctor may never be a doctor again with a felony, but he can work with or for a doctor.  People may lose security clearances, but not the knowledge and experience they had previously.   I have a number of engineers and people in IT that I’ve been able to place in good jobs in the industry.  They may not be doing exactly what they were doing before, but they’re still using their skills.

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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, education ex-offenders, employers hiring ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, ex-offender psychology, job search ex-offenders, jobs ex-offenders, personal responsibility, reentry, reentry resources, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility

How law-abiding are you? Take 2

Back at the beginning of the month, I invited readers to take a brief poll that asked two questions:

  1. Have you ever committed a crime?
  2. If so, were you arrested or did you get away with it?

The purpose of the exercise was to show that, in many cases, the poor judgment and casual morality we attribute to offenders may be shared by plenty of others who have never served time.  In fact,  a full 90 percent of the poll respondents admitted to breaking the law.  Of those, only 21 percent were actually arrested, and 58 percent said they got away with what they did completely.

Not surprisingly, these unscientific results dovetail with actual research.   Generally only a small percentage, even of violent crimes, result in arrests.

In fact, in a 1995 report on interpreting crime statistics,  Delbert S. Elliott, the director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of  Violence noted:

The probability of arrest for these very serious violent  offenses is very low, even when self-reported offenses were restricted to those involving a weapon or injury. For males, less than 10 arrests per 100 self-reported robberies and less than five arrests per 100 aggravated assaults.

Now ultimately, if a person commits enough crimes, the probability of arrest goes up.  But the point I’m trying to make here is that the mere absence of a record doesn’t mean someone is a “safer” choice for an employer to hire.   As I’ve written in the past, using arrest and convictions records to screen out candidates for jobs and to make decisions about individuals isn’t foolproof.

As these statistics show:  you’re not necessarily getting people with better judgment.  In some cases, you’re merely getting people with better luck.

Yesterday in answering questions for ex-offenders, Jail to Job’s Eric Mayo recommended an offender “look at a criminal record as a handicap he has to overcome.”   I think that’s pretty good advice for society, as well.  When employers consider a job candidate, the smartest ones look at any disability or shortcomings  in terms of how this impacts the measure of the whole person.  Can he or she still meet the requirements of the job?   How does she present herself?  Based on what I’ve seen of this person  do I feel that I can trust him?  Does this individual seem to have taken responsibility and learned from his/her mistakes and shortcomings?

In many ways, the answers to these questions will tell you much more about a person than his or her record.

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Guest Post: Jackie Dishner talks about how to inspire a strong recovery in your life

Today I’m thrilled to welcome Guest Poster Jackie Dishner to Out and Employed.   As I noted yesterday, Jackie is a writer, author, bike enthusiast and motivational speaker, who has lots of good advice from personal experience on turning your life around.  Jackie believes each of us can transform obstacles and setbacks into opportunity by finding our Best Self, developing Inner strength, learning to trust our Killer Instinct and using our Expressive Voice.  She believes it so much, in fact, that she’s in the process of writing a book on her BIKE principles.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy what she has to say….

HOW TO INSPIRE A STRONG RECOVERY

By Jackie Dishner of BIKE WITH JACKIE

Although I have never specifically worked with ex-offenders, some of the women I’ve worked with in my volunteer service to Homeward Bound have been ex-offenders. I’ve heard the challenges and hardships that follow time served. I’ve heard the concerns of not being able to find better employment, about being judged, about feeling dead-ended.

That’s a tough place to be mentally. I get that. I’ve felt dead-ended before. I’ve felt hopelessly lost and unsure.

I didn’t like it.

That’s a good place to start if you want to move forward. Don’t like it. Don’t. Use that distaste to propel you to a better place—even if that better place, for right now, is only in your mind. That’s how you begin to inspire a stronger and long-lasting recovery.

I learned this in my own Recovery. I’m a Recovering Codependent. I discovered my affliction while going through a divorce from a man who claimed to be a sex addict. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. He denies it now. But what he said made sense to me. It explained a lot about his behavior. And it sure was a frightening way to feel forced into a divorce. I didn’t like that. So I got on a bicycle to figure things out. On the seat of my bike, I learned a lot about myself. I reconnected with the me I wanted to be. And I learned how to take back charge of my own life. He could be whatever he was. But I wanted the same for me. And that meant a life without him in it—I wanted the life I deserved.

So now that you realize something similar for yourself,, are you wondering what’s next? From the seat of my bike, I learned a lot of personal growth lessons that helped inspire my own recovery. If you want a stronger recovery for yourself, you’ll have to take action. Here are eight steps you can take now:

1) EMPOWER YOURSELF BY LETTING GO

Because recovery is a lifelong process, it means you continually get the chance to make a fresh start. We’ll never stop making mistakes, missing the mark on something, doing something we wish we wouldn’t. We’re human. We won’t be perfect. Ever. So start by letting go of that expectation. When you let go, you’ve gained an immediate sense of liberty. You’re making room for fresh starts and do-overs. If you need to let go of something else—and only you know what that is—do it. Give yourself the opportunity to start over.

2) ACCEPT THAT YOU HAVE A CHOICE

Every day that you wake up, you are faced with a choice of how you will approach your day. Well, then, why not make it simple? Decide to be your best. And I mean, literally, say out loud so you can hear the words, “Today, I live my best life.” And then go about the day becoming aware of your behavior. Periodically ask yourself: Am I responding in the best way I know how? Could I do better?

3) OWN RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR ACTIONS

It’s time to set aside blame, guilt or anger and begin to realize only you are in charge of you. If you’re supposed to meet your probation officer, then you go. No questions. No complaints. If you owe people money, you figure out a way to pay—even if it means partial payments over time. If you have a job, you show up—on time. You don’t run away. Not when you’re in Recovery. You stand up and take charge. Embrace any uncomfortable feelings you might have and realize you’re practicing living the authentic life; you’ll improve in time.

4) DEVELOP YOUR COPING SKILLS

Coping skills are the tools we have within and without that help hold us up when we feel weak. Like a tall building has an iron frame and the body has a skeleton of bones, the mind also needs something to shore it up, something to help it adapt to change. That’s where coping skills come in. They calm our nerves when we feel anxious, protect us from harm, and help hold us accountable. They include such things as journaling to get out our crazy-making thoughts, exercising to relieve stress, or setting a personal boundary when we need to say no. Coping skills have a lot to do with our individual personalities. Do you know what yours are? Do you need to use them more often?

5) DECIDE WHAT YOUR BEST LIFE LOOKS LIKE

If you haven’t drawn out a picture of what your best life looks like, try doing it now. What do you look like? Draw a picture. Where do you live? Illustrate that on paper as well. What is your job? Can you picture yourself in that position? Who are your friends and what do they do? Once you have an illustration (If you don’t draw well, use stick figures or pictures from a magazine), then you have the beginnings of a plan that will help you do two things: 1) decide what you want out of life; 2) decide the steps you need to get there. This is not a static plan; revisit it often and make changes where necessary.

6) FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE CHANGES YOU’VE MADE

When you have a plan ready to go, each time you do something that moves you closer to your goal, that’s a success. No matter how tiny. If you made a phone call, or sent an e-mail to a potential employer, that’s a positive. Take time first thing every morning to acknowledge how far you’ve come. If you focus on what you’ve accomplished, you’ll feel good about yourself. You won’t spend wasteful moments beating yourself up for what you haven’t yet done. Consider any resistance you might be feeling. That resistance might be trying to tell you something. Pay attention.

7) MOVE PAST THE SETBACKS

If there’s one thing you can count on in Recovery, it’s a setback. You may experience several. Accept them for what they are—temporary—and then decide what you need to do to move them aside. Do you need to journal? Will that help you figure it out? Do you need to apologize to someone? Do you need to correct a mistake? Think of your setback as a life challenge to face and then set aside when done with it. It’s not your friend. It’s not your enemy. It’s just another challenge. Like a jigsaw puzzle. once you figure it out, you’ll be able to figure it out sooner if you do it again.

8) USE REMINDERS TO MOVE YOU FORWARD

Other people’s success stories, your own, famous quotes that inspire you. Find people, places and things that remind you where you going and why. Use what you learn to teach others. Find ways to remind yourself that your Recovery is worth the work. You are worth the work that it will take to find your personal and professional success. No one else can define this for you. No one else can fully understand your internal struggle. But you can. Look for the things that speak to you and write them down on Post-it Notes or start a file of clippings and kudos that you can refer to for inspiration.

Now it’s your turn. Can you think of other inspirational tips you’ve learned so far? Recovery is a lot easier if we’re in it together, so please feel free to share.

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Filed under addiction and recovery, education ex-offenders, ex-offender psychology, Guest blogger, hope for ex-offenders, inspiration, Jackie Dishner, personal responsibility, reentry, second chances, skills, starting over, taking responsibility, talents

Coming tomorrow: Inspiration and strategies to help you change your life

Tomorrow you’ll be hearing from the very talented and inspirational Jackie Dishner as part of the WordCount Blogathon’s Guest Blogger Day.  Jackie is a Phoenix-based speaker,  freelance writer, author of Back Roads and Byways of Arizona, and founder of the BIKE WITH JACKIE blog, where her aim is to help readers turn obstacles into opportunity with her special brand of motivation.  In addition to being something she likes to ride, BIKE is an acronym for finding your:

BEST SELF
INNER STRENGTH
KILLER INSTINCT
EXPRESSIVE VOICE

It’s a message Jackie has taken to numerous audiences, including homeless women who are in transition.   That’s one reason I thought she’d be a perfect fit here at Out and Employed.   To introduce herself, Jackie agreed to answer a few questions before  she shares her thoughts tomorrow:

Can you tell my readers a bit about your background and how you came up with the principals of BIKE that you now speak and write about so eloquently?  I understand initially there was a real bike involved.

Yes, it was a turning point in my life.  At the end of 2002, my husband came home to tell me he’d been living a secret life. It involved other women. He literally told me he thought he was a sex addict. Scared the living daylights out of me. I didn’t know what that meant. It wasn’t talked about back then. He told me a little bit about what he’d done, but before we had opportunity to work this out, he moved out. I think of it as running scared, because I think he left so he didn’t have to deal with the consequences of his actions. So I had to. I sought therapy, eventually got a lawyer. But most importantly, the thing that helped me deal with the anxiety and fear of the unknown was my bike.

It had been sitting in my garage for eight years, collecting dust. But at the precise moment when I needed it most, it was there. It’s like it called out to me. I called it my life saver, because every day for three years, while we went through what became a very difficult divorce process, emotionally, I rode. I just automatically got up every morning, rain or shine and rode my bike.  I worked out a lot of my challenges on the seat of that bike. I wore the thing down and had to buy a new one mid-way. But it did its job, and led me to a speaking career. I do motivational speaking now and teach classes I call my BIKE LESSONS that help audience members see how they can take a traumatic event and turn it into a triumph.

When we spoke,  you told me how you do a regular BIKE seminar with women in transition in a local shelter. Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you to that work?  What are some of the issues these women are facing?  How have you seen them apply the principals of finding their best self, inner strength, killer instinct and expressive voice?

I was referring to my BIKE LESSONS. I generally teach them one letter at a time, so it’s a four-week program (or a half-day, if that’s all the time available). I’ve partnered with a homeless shelter in Phoenix. I teach it once a year, though I’d like to do it more often. They don’t want me to get burned out. It can be a tough crowd, not because the women are tough (though some are, for self-protection), but because they have really dark and sad stories to tell, probably like many of the women you’ve worked with.

It was a coincidence that brought me to them. I’m involved in a weekly women’s breakfast network group in Phoenix, and one of the members I first met was on the board of this homeless shelter at the time. After volunteering with her on a program that took us to Kenya to learn about women’s issues there, I suggested to her that I’d like to work with women here in the U.S., that I thought I had something that could be helpful to women in transition. So she introduced me to the director of the shelter. I got the grand tour, liked what I saw, and we discussed my idea for the empowerment class. They made it really easy to work with them, and the next thing I knew, the first class was scheduled.

So there I was, in the shelter’s library with 10 women, strangers, who wanted my help, and I related all too well to their stories. Abusive homes. Abusive husbands. Addiction. Drugs. Poverty. I’d known this in my own past. They were telling me stories that came from my own past, not always mine directly. But it was very close to home. So I was able to adapt my lessons to fit their needs. And we had fun while we shared. I didn’t want it to be heavy hitting or a big downer. I wanted them to take what they had known–the painful past–and be able to see beyond that. That’s what my BIKE LESSONS are all about. To find the way back your Best self, to reconnect with your Inner strength, to become aware of that Killer instinct, and to use your Expressive voice to seek help as needed. By coming to me for those four weeks, they were doing that.

Later, I learned one of the women took her past and now uses it to help girls get off the streets. She was a prostitute, and now she’s helping turn other girls lives around. I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think that she used my lessons to find the strength to do that. She mentioned at the end of our time together that she wanted to do what I was doing, and now she is. She’s become a role model for the women who come in after her. The next class I taught told me she told them they’d have fun taking my class. So I think I leave a positive impression, and that’s my intent, to leave them with hope that there’s more out there for them if they reach for it.

How about you?   How do the BIKE principles work in your life?   How long did it take before you really felt you were putting them into action? Is it a series of steps to complete or an ongoing process?

My BIKE principles are part of my everyday life. It’s an on-going process that grows with me, provided I work on it. It’s not something you just learn once and then that’s it. It’s about constant awareness and living life consciously. But that’s the reason it works so well. It’s a tool that acts as a reminder. It’s about determining who you really are inside. Once you have those four letters, your BIKE–it’s a mental thing, not a metal thing–in place, you have your foundation. I sometimes call it a 12-step program reduced to 4, because a lot of the work is about taking personal inventory of who you are, where you’re at, and what do you need to work on (spiritually, emotionally, physically, financially, sexually) to be whole again.

This “mental” BIKE is another way to think of that process. It’s a more active approach, I think, because a good reason why it worked so well for me, especially in the beginning, is because I gave myself the time to assess the things that really mattered to me that had gotten cast aside for a while. I’d been in a relationship I didn’t know wasn’t good for me. But once my ex confessed to his truth, that opened the door for my truth to appear. I could take responsibility for myself again, because I was informed. I knew what I was dealing with. I’m grateful for that. I might still be stuck if he hadn’t done that for me.

So once you have your BIKE in place, once you know who you really are deep inside, your core self, that knowledge is always going to be there to help you, to remind you, to hold you accountable. You eliminate blame and guilt from your life. You just have to deal with you. So that, during times of doubt, you’ll remember what you’ve achieved in the past to carry you beyond the next challenge. You’ll use your successes to create more successes.

You’ll know how deep you can dig to find the strength to ride up those symbolic hills, and you’ll know your limits, too. You’ll not only know that your gut is speaking to you when you feel hesitant about doing or saying something, you’ll begin to pay attention and take action based on that hesitancy.
That’s why I refer to instincts as Killer. We all have instincts. The problem is we don’t all pay attention to them. We sometimes ignore them or push them aside. We don’t trust our own judgement. With your Killer instincts intact, you do. You’re honed in on what’s really important.

And the voice?  It’s only Expressive when you use it–to seek help, to get advice, to speak up for yourself.

This all boils down to self-esteem. If you really don’t know who you are inside, what you’re really made of, what really matters to you, you’re going to move about in life without direction, without goals–and you’re not going to get anywhere. The purpose of my special brand of BIKE is to keep you moving forward, despite the setbacks. Whatever setbacks you experience, they won’t hold you back for long. You won’t let them. You’ll know yourself better than that.

Can you tell my readers a bit about your blog and what you hope your readers take away from it?


My blog was set up to be an extension of my lessons. I use the things that occur in my everyday life, the challenges that we all face on a normal basis, to show readers how the BIKE works in real life. It’s a reminder. So when I’m experiencing a challenge, I tell a story of how I overcame that challenge, or maybe how I screwed up and what I did about it then. It’s a continuation of the lessons I learned from the seat of my metal bike that became the mental BIKE. And it’s the raw beginnings of the book I’m now writing called LESSONS FROM THE SEAT OF MY BIKE. I’ve been at this since 2004. That’s the year I first discovered what the bicycle had done for me and gave my first presentation about it. It has since evolved into the BIKE concept or philosophy, and the blog is all about how its practicalities–how to make it work for you. It’s not always a direct lesson. You sometimes have to read into the inspirational moments. But that’s what it is. I hope it’s inspiring and interesting and entertaining.

Can you give us a little sneak preview about what you’ll have to say to my readers?


In my guest post for your readers, I’ll be sharing specific tips on how to live strong in recovery. In other words, I’ll share tips on how you can live that conscious life I mentioned earlier. That’s what you need to stay focused on positive forward movement. So I’ll share practical ways you can make sure that happens.

Thanks, Jackie. I look forward to sharing your thoughts tomorrow and I’ve no doubt my readers will gain a great deal  from your insights.

See you then.

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Filed under addiction and recovery, ex-offenders education, Guest blogger, reentry, reentry resources, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility, talents

Straight Talk: Dr. Paul K. Fauteck, from felon to practicing psychologist

Offenders often tell me they’d like to hear advice from someone who’s been where they are – a person who’s  successfully turned his or her life around.  So today I’m launching a new feature – Straight Talk – which I hope will do just that.

Dr. Paul K. Fauteck, Psy.D,  is a forensic psychologist and retired expert witness for the Cook County Court system in Chicago.  He’s also a reformed felon — the designated black sheep of a dysfunctional family who decided on a career in crime at 13 and quit school after he was caught stealing from football players’ lockers.  He quickly graduated to auto theft and burglary, losing his first partner who was killed by the police at 18.  Undeterred, Fauteck got involved with a gang writing counterfeit cashiers checks. By 21, he was doing time  in federal prison.

When he got out four years later, Fauteck had $20, a GED and a challenging road ahead of him.  He took a series of low-paying jobs, eventually finding some success as an advertising copywriter.  Along the way, he got some therapy and came to understand the behaviors that had been holding him back.  He also developed a keen interest in psychology, returning to school to earn his Master’s degree in 1976 and opening his own counseling practice.  In 2001, he wrote the book he wished he’d had when he got out: Going Straight: An Ex-Offender and Psychologist Tells You Why and How. Reviewers describe it as a no-nonsense guide on how to move beyond the criminal mindset and live a productive life.

Recently I had a chance to talk with Dr. Fauteck about his experiences and what he’s learned from his work with other ex-offenders:

Let’s start out with a little background.  What would you say got you started down the wrong path?

My family situation wasn’t the best. I was the scapegoat, the kid who wasn’t wanted.  But I could always get attention or help as long as I was  behaving antisocially.   That said, I don’t want to give impression that I or anyone else can blame their circumstances for criminal decisions.  Plenty of people grew up in the same or worse situations and didn’t go out and break the law.  I had to take responsibility for that. I was angry at the world, and I didn’t feel comfortable in normal society.  I wanted to be in charge.  My idea of that was playing by my own rules, not society’s rules.

What made you want to change?    Was there a turning point?

Well in truth I vacillated for a while even after I went to prison. I was not a model prisoner.  I spent time in solitary.  I even learned some new rackets. But it was dawning on me that this was a really dumb  way to live. I was tired of people telling me what to do.  Then, a few months before I got out, my father died.  He was in his mid-70s.  That hurt a lot because he was the only member of my family I felt I could love and respect.  He’d always loved me in spite of everything.  And here, the last place he’d seen me was in a prison waiting room.   That’s when I said, that’s it. I’m not coming back.

A lot of offenders say they’re never going back, but nearly two-thirds are rearrested within a couple of years.  Why is “going straight” so difficult?

I believe the biggest obstacle is the offender. I was certainly my biggest problem.  I intended to be a good guy, but I didn’t know what that meant.  I didn’t know what to do.

Going straight is hard because it’s not just a matter of changing what you do.  It’s a matter of changing who you are. There’s so much more to a criminal lifestyle than just breaking the law.  You have a lot of attitudes beliefs, behaviors and associations that aren’t constructive.  I didn’t know how to be straight.  I had a short temper.  I was wonderful at making excuses for everything.  I was also good at deceiving people.  I lost a lot of jobs just because of my attitude.  I could always find someone else to blame, and I didn’t take criticism well at all.  Most of the time, I was able to avoid swinging a fist at someone. But I did some very foolish things.  I didn’t plan ahead. I didn’t know how to manage money.  I didn’t know how to be normal American citizen.   A lot of ex-cons are like that.

So how did you eventually change?   What do ex-offenders need to do to turn their lives around?

There was stuff I had to learn over a long period of time.  I was close to going back to the old ways and getting myself in trouble again so many times.  I think it’s a miracle that I made it through.

One of the things I came to understand is that different criminals have different motivations, but in some ways they’re alike.  They have these thinking habits that are likely to cause problems for society and for themselves.  If I spend a lot of time sitting around feeling sorry for myself — worrying that I don’t have as much money as I should have and wallowing, for example —  that can lead to some criminal behavior in the same way looking at pornography might affect a child molester.  What I had to do was learn to catch myself in those “pre-decision” moments.  When I first got out, I was so lonely and frustrated that I was angry all the time.  I would feel anger building up in me, and I had to learn to stop and take a breath right then.  I had to walk away.  I had to say I don’t want to go back to that behavior.   Too many people don’t catch themselves in that pre-decision state.

Are there other triggers or situations that ex-offenders need to avoid?

As I said, one of the worst things the ex-con has to deal with is loneliness.  It’s difficult to just walk up to someone and say, “Hi, I’m an ex-offender.”   But you always know people who will welcome you with open arms – the criminal element.  You know where to find them and that’s not always the best thing.  Sometimes other offenders can understand your situation, and that can be beneficial.  St. Leonard’s House in Chicago has counselors who are former offenders, and their program works very well.

The problem when you put a bunch of ex-offenders together is this:   they’re all trying to learn new ways to think and form new habits, but one of them is going to have that moment.  It’s what Glenn D. Walters, author of The Criminal Lifestyle, calls the F—- It  Moment.  That’s the moment that you slip, and whatever you’ve been thinking about, whatever your plans were, none of it matters.  That’s when  you commit a crime.

People also backslide because they set themselves up. They don’t plan ahead very well.  The criminal-thinking kind of guy will take off on a road trip without enough money.   Or because of laziness he’s more prone to be unemployed.  Then it becomes, ‘I got my last paycheck weeks ago.  What else could I do?  I didn’t have any choice.”  I would say, “you had a choice to not wait that long before you dealt with the situation.”

Do you think ex-offenders today face different challenges than you did?

When I got out there weren’t a lot of programs to help convicted offenders,  which is one of the reasons I wrote the book.  Now you have many more services.   But in some ways I think it’s much harder for people than when I got out.  These days, it’s so much easier to find out whether someone has a record.  It’s also become the norm to think someone with a felony record is likely to re-offend.  So it’s more difficult to find jobs and get a fresh start.  One of the most important things an ex-felon has to do is to learn to discuss his criminal record, especially with potential employers.

What advice would you offer to someone just getting out?

Take advantage of the help that’s offered, but don’t expect people to do it for you.  Don’t sit around waiting for a miracle.   Going straight isn’t a one-time decision. Becoming a pro-social citizen is a process.  It can take a while, depending on how deeply immersed a person is in criminal lifestyle, and how much of their existence is built around criminal activities.  But it can be done, and it’s worth it.

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Filed under criminal records, ex-offender psychology, jobs ex-offenders, starting over, taking responsibility

The shame of it all

Recently, I was doing a mock job interview with a young man serving a sentence for a drug-related crime.  He was a little nervous but handled even the difficult questions about his criminal background well.  He also  seemed sincere in wanting to turn his life around. At the end, I told him he’d done great and he looked genuinely surprised.  “When you all walked in, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go through with it,” he said blushing. “I just felt so much shame. ”

Anyone who’s ever felt shame — and that would be most of us — knows what he means. It’s an awful feeling – a free floating cloak of  embarrassment and humiliation . Shame  makes you feel that you’re bad, guilty and somehow defective, and what’s worse, that you’ve brought it all  on yourself.  It’s certainly not the kind of emotion that has anyone raring to go out and sell himself to an employer, let alone the larger world.

But what I told him, and what I’ve come to believe, is that feeling shame, while uncomfortable, is often good.  In fact, it’s usually a necessary part of the process of rebuilding a life after a felony conviction.  When I  get to the part of the course where we talk about the impact of incarceration on my students, the majority usually admit to  feeling some kind of shame. If they don’t I get a little worried. It’s hard to move on past something if you don’t acknowledge the wrongs you committed and feel the associated pain.

I’m not alone on this either.   While excessive shame is unhealthy,  it can be necessary, says Dr. George Simon, a clinical psychologist who specializes in personality and character disorders. Shame can be a warning that something you did was not appropriate.  There’s a danger in not feeling anything, he notes.  That could be the sign of a disordered personality.   People who accept responsibility and feel remorse, often feel shame.  But hopefully this will lead to forgiveness and change.

So how do you move past shame and get on with your life?  You start by recognizing that guilt and  shame are signals, not something to get lost in.  If you wallow in these thoughts too long, they  become self-destructive and counterproductive, or what ex-offender Leighton Bates  calls “having a pity party for yourself. ”   In his very thought-provoking essay here, Bates also notes:

If we focus on the guilty feelings and shameful thoughts, we are focused on the self, and we are not dealing with the problem in a straightforward manner. So we have guilt reminding us of all the wrong we have done, and shame telling us we are bad. These two emotions keep us in a cycle of thoughts and feelings that keeps us acting out on others and ourselves in a totally negative way…

Bates talks about his own feelings of shame and how guilt comes crashing down in prison, where you can’t use alcohol and drugs to dull your senses.  But he also shows that you can get beyond it, by letting go of these emotions and directing your energies outside of yourself to others. Like a bruise, shame is there to remind you of a mistake, but it will also heal and go away if you let it.

Readers, how have you dealt with shame?

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Filed under ex-offender psychology, starting over, taking responsibility