Tag Archives: reentry

The fear factor

When it comes to getting over the emotional hurts of failure, it really doesn’t matter how good or bad your personal history is. The only thing that matters is that you face your fear and get moving.       — John C. Maxwell, author

freefall2

Too often, the biggest barrier to making a change or taking a positive step in life is that other F-word. FEAR. It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting over after serving time, regrouping after a divorce or simply trying to get a new project (or long-neglected blog) up and running.

I was reminded of this last night as I sat with a group of 8th graders who will be making their confirmation in our local Catholic church this May.  My role as discussion leader was to go around the circle and have each teen share something that scared them.

As you might expect, there was plenty of nervous laughter. I also got a few shrugs and attempts to change the subject.  One girl pecked away at her cellphone as if she might find the answer there. But nobody wanted to volunteer that they were afraid of anything.  God forbid. It was easier to talk around it or challenge the need to even discuss the subject.

Finally, just when I was despairing we’d spend the rest of our time in silence,  a boy I’ll call Andy spoke up.   “Spiders,”  he said.  “They creep me out.”

The other teens laughed and the tension was broken. Suddenly our circle awash with fears. Bugs. Snakes. Heights. One boy even confessed to being terrified of getting run down by a car.  Sure, these weren’t likely their deepest, darkest fears, or the one they would never voice — looking foolish in front of each other. But at least these kids were sharing something and learning they weren’t alone.

Afterwards, the event moderators upped the stakes by asking for volunteers for a series of “Fear Factor” type challenges.  Teens competed to eat bowls of repulsive-looking “mystery” food.  Some ran an obstacle course with dog biscuits or smelly fish in their mouths. Two girls picked live bugs out of jars of candy. By the end of the night, Andy, from my group, was up in front of more than 100 of his peers, racing to finish off a suspicious-looking green goo and whipped cream pie.

This all happened over the course of about twenty minutes with a group of self-conscious 13 and 14 year olds.  That’s what got me thinking about John C. Maxwell’s quote above.  Maxwell, who’s written two dozen books on leadership and  maximizing your potential, has spent years studying the secrets of successful people.  In his bestselling book, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, he advocates learning from your errors, but leaving them in the past. Too many people become mired in replaying their failures and unable to move forward.  The only way to get over your fear, he says, is to take action.  Even if it’s just one small step towards your objective.

So what one step can you take for your future today?  Is it making a list of employers?  Going to a 12-step meeting? Following up with your friend about that potential part-time job? Researching degree requirements at the local community college?  Taking your sister up on her offer to watch the kids so you can visit your local employment center?

Whatever that step is, try to handle it like my teens eventually did.  Acknowledge your fears, but don’t fret.

Just do it.

Leave a comment

Filed under employment ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, inspiration, personal responsibility, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility

Out and Employed is BACK!

Yes, it’s been awhile.   More than a year and a half, actually.  When I took a break from writing this blog, it wasn’t because I’d lost interest in the issues faced by folks who have criminal records. Rather, it was that I needed to pursue some writing that actually earned me money.

So I did.  And I continue to.

But a funny thing happened along the way.  Many of you didn’t stop reading.  In fact, daily page views for Out and Employed steadily rose.  Some of you continued to share your struggles with me privately or even send me questions.  I felt bad about not always being able to respond.  I figured maybe other blogs or websites would pick up the slack, and they have.  There’s a lot more out there than when I started this blog in early 2009.

And yet…it still seems that there can never be enough.  So as of today, I will be relaunching this blog and getting back up to date on the state of the reentry challenge — what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and what the new issues are.  I’ve already updated my links to add new resources and fix the broken ones (thank you to the careful readers who pointed those out).  Please let me know if there are any other useful sites that I should have on my blogroll.

My initial impressions: Obviously, the job market hasn’t gotten any easier.  But the information out there to help ex-offenders and others with criminal records has definitely improved.  I remain in awe of The National Reentry Resource Center, which continues to offer the best one-stop shopping for anyone looking for assistance making the transition from incarceration back to working life.  In fact, a new addition on their site gets my…

Most useful help line:  Did you know that in many parts of the country you can dial 211 if you need help finding food, housing, health care, counseling or other community services?   I didn’t.  To see if this service is available in your area, go here and enter your zip code.

Most encouraging statistics:  Recidivism — that’s folks returning to prison — is significantly down in a number of states.  A report issued by the Council of State Governments in September found Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas and Vermont each were able to reduce their recidivism rates through a variety of measures. These included programs targeting those at highest risk for reoffending, improved training for parole officers, more community-based housing and increased use of home monitoring.  For each state, the study compared three-year post release recidivism rates for individuals released in 2005 with those released in 2007.  Michigan showed the biggest improvement with an 18% drop in its rate, while Kansas was second with at 15% reduction.  For more details you can read the report.

Most pressing questions:   Here’s where you can help me.  What are your questions?  What challenges are you facing right now?  What would you like to see me write about?  Please let me know and I’ll try to cover it in a future post.

1 Comment

Filed under employment assistance ex-offenders, jobs ex-offenders, recidivism, reentry, reentry resources, starting over

Will Tim Riggins be able to find a job after he’s released?

I usually try to keep my facts and fiction fairly separate on this blog.  But watching this season’s final  episode of “Friday Night Lights,” I was struck by how well the show captured the character of so many who end up serving time:  good people who’ve just made very bad decisions. 

With Tim Riggins, the troubled, but talented football heartbreaker from Dillon, Texas, you always got the sense that here was a guy who could go either way.  Abandoned by his parents, he was essentially raised by his nere-do-well brother Billy, who’s forever  coming up with get-rich-quick schemes that skirt the edge of legality.  In the first couple of seasons, Riggins weaknesses for alcohol and women, as well as his tendency to take the path of least resistance  were a great source of drama, but more often than not his downfall.  

Tim Riggins in happier times

This year, he’s graduated from football stardom and headed off to college to finally make something of himself. Only college isn’t for him and soon he’s back in Dillon, living in a trailer owned by a cocktail waitress he hooked up with and working in a repair shop with his brother. When he finds out Billy is trafficking in stolen cars on the side, he knows it’s illegal, but can’t resist one last chance to make a quick buck. 

Same old Tim, right? Were any of us surprised when the police showed up?

But here’s where the writers did something interesting.  Yes, Tim is caught, but he’s also already changed more than even he has realized.  For one, he’s spent the year resisting the high schooler who’s been throwing herself at him.  He also refused to take advantage of her mother.  And in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, he takes the fall for both himself and his brother, so Billy can stay with his wife and his newborn.  In other words, as he throws off his old “football star” persona to begin serving his time in jail, he’s already on the path to redemption.  

It will be interesting to see what happens next.  What will Riggins do after he gets out?  Will he be able to find a job?  I know that actor  Taylor Kitsch, who plays Riggins,  has gone on to feature films might not be back next year, which is too bad.  It would be interesting to see the writers explore his reentry.   Perhaps they could shed a similarly realistic light on the challenge of starting over. 

Anyway, if you haven’t seen the episode, you can catch it here for a few more weeks. 

****

As an additional note:  this will probably be my last posting for the summer.  It’s time to take some time off for fun and family.  In the interim, I hope you all enjoy the rest of the summer.   See you back here in September.

Leave a comment

Filed under breaking the law, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, inspiration, job search ex-offenders, personal responsibility, reentry, second chances, taking responsibility

Employers, what will it take to get you to hire ex-offenders?

The federal agency that supervises offenders on probation and parole in Washington, DC  isn’t going to tiptoe around this question anymore.  Instead, at a time when a bad economy has made finding a job with a record even more difficult, officials at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency have started flat-out asking employers whether they’d consider bringing a former offender on board, and if not what might be done to change their mind.

It’s all part of a new media campaign designed to bring awareness to the fact that not everyone with a criminal record is the same.  On any given day, the CSOSA’s Community Supervision Program is actively responsible for more than 16,000 offenders, many of whom are alcohol and drug-free, skilled, employment- ready and have put their past behaviors well behind them, says Leonard Sipes, the agency’s senior public affairs specialist.  Yet, only about 53 percent of those individuals are currently working — a statistic CSOSA aims to improve by confronting the issue head on.

” There’s a certain point where you’re not going to make an omelet unless you  scramble some eggs,”  Snipes said.  “So we decided to take a risk.    What do we have to lose by trying and giving businesses a voice? Sure, some will be harsh and negative, some will stereotype – but if  we don’t engage in this conversation things will stay the same.  Hopefully by doing this we’ll  open the doors for one person to get hired and then maybe for two more the next time and build from there.”

The CSOSA will run video and radio interviews with employers on  its website and YouTube.   While some employers have been encouraging,  many  have told Sipes that they simply don’t want to hire ex-offenders because they’re worried about having to deal with trouble.  “They want ironclad guarantees that the person will show up and do the job without creating problems,” he says.

Often, the companies want CSOSA to stay involved with the individual, so its caseworkers can help handle any situations that might arise.  Typically, the agency will refer only the most employment ready, mature and reliable individuals in order to avoid such problems, but they are willing to work with the employer to help ensure things go smoothly.  It’s in everyone’s interest, Sipes says, since studies show getting offenders back to work reduces recidivism and improves  public safety.  Employers who hire ex-cons can also take advantage of incentives, including  tax credits and federal bonding.

What can ex-offenders do to improve their chances?  Feedback to CSOSA so far indicates most employers are simply looking for someone with a good attitude.  Skills aren’t always as important, as they will often teach the right person, Sipes notes.  “If you  present well and  can say, ‘ I’m going to be here every day and I’m going to be a benefit to your company and all I need is an opportunity,’ —  a lot of people caught up in the criminal justice system have a hard time expressing that, but that’s what employers want to hear.”

It will be interesting to see what bringing this conversation to the surface will do.  Readers, how about you?  If you know companies that hire or don’t hire ex-offenders, what are their reasons?  Do you think more employers can be convinced to give former felons a second chance?

4 Comments

Filed under background checks, bonding ex-offenders, companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, employer incentives ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, job search ex-offenders, jobs, jobs ex-offenders, recession ex-offenders, reentry, reentry resources, second chances, starting over, Uncategorized

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.

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