By Burke Brownfeld
Several months ago, I went on a quest to understand the challenges faced by ex-offenders returning home from prison.
As a former police officer, I understand the business of fighting crime through arrests. However, I wanted to look at this from a new angle: What do these former prisoners face when they walk out of jail and into society?
I contacted various ex-offenders and probationers, asking if they could help me understand their experience. I heard stories about job searches and interviews, and I was shocked by what I was told.
I asked a group of ex-offenders serving probation, “How has the job search process been for you all?”
Jon, who spent several years in prison, said: “I went around to so many businesses looking for a job. I got so desperate that I started telling people that I would do any kind of work. I would even scrub the toilets, if it meant I could get a paycheck.” Eventually, Jon found a job at Domino’s Pizza that pays minimum wage. He is grateful for the job, but explained that with all of the court fees and fines that he still owes, he is left with little money to pay his bills.
This is a common challenge for many ex-offenders. Because many must pay fines, fees and restitution payments to the court, they effectively pay a 65-percent tax rate on their salaries.
Then I heard from Allan, who explained the job application process to me. Allan is a convicted felon. He told me that he walked into countless restaurants, looking for work. He filled out application after application but always hesitated when he arrived at the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
Allan told me that when he checked the box “yes,” most employers would take a look and say, “Thanks for coming in. We’ll let you know.”
Allan said that employers wouldn’t even consider him as a potential employee once they saw that he was a felon. When he was called for an interview, the employer looked down on him. Allan explained, “People think you’re an animal. We’re still human. People make mistakes.”
The story of Jerry Wimbush is what put this all into perspective for me. Jerry wants his story shared to help educate others about the ex-offender experience. Jerry used to deal crack cocaine on the streets of Alexandria. He has been in and out of prison for decades.
Jerry told me about his glory days. At about 6-foot-4 and weighing more than 300 pounds, he would stand like a giant in Alexandria’s old open-air drug markets, peddling crack cocaine and making good money. He told me that, many times, he was released from prison and committed himself to living an honest life.
His first priority was to find a job. Jerry had experience as a tow truck driver. But once he had a felony on his record, no one wanted to hire him. Jerry felt that businesses “saw the criminal record as a black eye.” Therefore, in need of an income and low on hope, he always returned to what he knew best: dealing crack.
Luckily, Jerry did turn his life around. Jerry’s family supported him, he found religion during his last stint in jail and he started a property preservation company. Jerry is dedicating his business to helping other ex-offenders get back on their feet, because he knows how difficult it truly is, even when a person is committed to change, to find work and have a stable life after prison.
– The writer is a member of the Economic Opportunities Commission of Alexandria and a former police officer. This is the second in a three-part series.