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You Serve Your Time, Earn Your Freedom, Then the Job Market Shuts the Door in Your Face

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April 29, 2016

This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

When I was in prison on a nonviolent drug offense, all I could think about was getting out, even though I had a life sentence without parole. I worked hard to learn welding and cooking, skills I was sure would help me find a job to support myself if I were ever released. I imagined that I would have a chance to build a new life, and after I’d spent 16 years behind bars, my dream came true. President Obama commuted my sentence.

In August 2015, I walked out into freedom. I was ready to get a job and start living. I’d heard that it’s hard for those who have served time to find work, but I was confident because I thought I had the skills I needed to get my life back on track and become a productive member of my community. I had no idea that the job market is barricaded against people like me.

After I left prison in Oklahoma, I was placed in a halfway house run by the federal Bureau of Prisons in Dallas for a year before I would be completely on my own. I wanted desperately to find a job. I felt confident about my skills and started to look.

The first place I applied was Whole Foods because I’d heard they hired ex-felons. I told a cashier that I wanted to talk to the manager about a job. The cashier said that if I wanted to apply for a job, I had to “go over there,” and he pointed to a wall. I didn’t see anyone, so I said, “Nobody is over there,” and he said, “I know, you apply through a computer.” All my enthusiasm about getting a job drained out of me because I didn’t know how to work a computer. When I went to prison in 1998, computers weren’t everywhere the way they are now. And the halfway house didn’t have any computers for residents to use.

I went over to the computer and tried, but I couldn’t figure it out. I left sweating and discouraged. But I kept going, walking into every business I could find. Every place was the same thing: computer after computer.

Then I tried temp agencies. The man at the first one didn’t mind that I had a drug conviction. “Oh, that’s no problem. Everyone goes to jail for drugs nowadays.” But then he asked how long I’d been in, and I said over 17 years. His eyes got big, and he pushed away from the table. He said, “I’m sorry but I’m not going to be able to process your paperwork.” I asked why, and he told me that if people find out how long I was in prison, they will not feel safe around me, nor will the customers. I said, “It was a nonviolent crime,” and he said, “There is no way you can get that much time for a nonviolent drug crime.” There was something, he insisted, that I wasn’t telling him.

I tried for a month to find employment. I filled out application form after application form that asked about criminal convictions, and as I checked the box marked “yes,” I knew that I would never hear from that employer. It tormented me: How could I convince someone to give me a chance at a job?

I decided I had to prove to the next potential employer that I’m worthy. On my next interview, I took the actual piece of paper with the executive grant commuting my sentence that the president gave me. When the interviewer asked me about my conviction, I showed her my executive order. Next thing I know, she is calling other people into the room, and they are looking at me and my clemency paper. The interviewer told me she would talk to the manager and tell him to hire me because she knows how hard it is for someone who has served time to get a job. Her brother was in prison, and she’d seen it happen to him. The manager agreed to hire me as a welder, but I was unable to get the job because I didn’t have a driver’s license. Mine had expired after 17 years, and it was going to take a month to take a driving test.

I brought out my executive grant at another interview, and it worked. I was hired at last as a welder.

I know, I’m incredibly lucky to have that piece of paper — and even with it, it wasn’t easy, but this country has tens of millions of people who have served their time and won’t get such a document. What about them? They all deserve better odds at getting the jobs they need to support themselves and their families — jobs that are critical to staying out of prison for good. There is a misconception out there that most formerly incarcerated people don’t want to work. That’s not true. Many of us do, but we face roadblocks that prevent us from getting work and settling back into our communities.

I’m in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with lawmakers and attend an event at the White House. I hope my story will help them better understand the importance of passing laws that would stop businesses from automatically screening out former prisoners when they’re hiring. I’m thankful the president commuted my sentence, but he can and should require all businesses that contract with the federal government to ban the box indicating a criminal record from their employment applications, just as he ordered federal agencies to do last November.

My good fortune doesn’t end with my commutation by the president. I was able to get some job training while in prison, but programs like those are few and far between in jails and prisons across the country. It’s time to treat those who are serving time like future employees and productive members of society instead of future felons.

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