By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007
It's hard to sell hope to a man who has knocked on a hundred doors applying for jobs and has been turned away again and again. Potential employers find out that he robbed a fast-food restaurant or that he stabbed someone in a drunken fight, and they say no thanks, even if the crime occurred half a lifetime ago.
It's even harder to persuade an employer to trust that man when there are dozens of other applicants to choose from, people without criminal records.
But yesterday, at a conference and job fair in the Washington Convention Center called "Disrupting the Prison Pipeline," Tara Davis, a volunteer from a nonprofit program in Norfolk, was doing her best to convince Tony Murray, 39, that he should not give up his struggle to find a steady job. Murray was convicted of manslaughter as a teenager, and it has haunted him for more than two decades.
"You have to have courage to change your mind-set, to get over that rejection stigma. Those positives can outweigh all the other negatives," Davis urged Murray, a District resident. He was leafing through brochures for a job training program for ex-offenders. Then he realized the program was only for those with records of nonviolent crimes.
"Aww, geez," Murray said, sighing in frustration. His parole ends in five months, and he needs to find a job by then. He said he hasn't been in trouble in 20 years, "but every time they see the nature of my charge, they say they can't hire me. It never goes away."
Davis began telling him about another training program that might accept him, but Murray had lost heart.
Across the room, at another table full of brochures for a similar nonprofit program, this one in the District, Vincent Aleck and Tony Lewis -- both ex-offenders who help others learn job skills and find steady work -- ticked off a daunting array of reasons why so many men who come out of prison are unable to find a place in the workaday world.
"For one thing, most jobs around here are either federal jobs or contractors for the government, which means no felons," Lewis said. "Then a lot of men are dealing with personal issues like addiction, family problems, conflict resolution. Some have never had a real job in their lives, except prison work in a structured environment. If they go back out in society, a lot of guys lose the will or the motive to work."
Aleck, 37, who said he served 12 years for armed robbery and was released in 2004, said he was determined to succeed after he came out because "I decided I didn't want to die in prison." Although the Transitional Employment Program where he works has helped hundreds of men find jobs, he said, "nothing can help unless you are ready to change your mind-set. If you just come for the job, and not to change yourself, it won't work."
Several other participants pointed out that even private companies that train and employ state prisoners in useful trades, especially automotive parts manufacturing, rarely hire them afterward. Most jobs available to parolees are in either subsidized training or low-skilled positions in maintenance, lawn care or restaurants that rarely lead to higher or better-paid employment.
Yesterday's event, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, drew several hundred people, most of them activists, experts and people involved in nonprofit agencies that help ex-offenders. The keynote speaker was U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who is sponsoring a bill called the Second Chance Act to finance and coordinate programs to help ex-offenders.
"There are more than 700,000 people coming out of jails and prisons every year and going back to their neighborhoods," Davis said. "If everyone else is working and I can't get a job, I can't get money or food stamps. I can't live in public housing. That is forcing individuals like me into a lifetime of recidivism, in and out of prison, over and over again."
After Davis spoke, a District man named Zachary Simms stood up in the audience. He identified himself as an ex-offender and said that he would like to get involved in helping others but that he had to get permission from his parole officer just to attend the conference and that he had only heard of the Second Chance Act the day before.
"My real dream in life is to be a college football coach, but that will never happen," Simms, 49, said later. His last job, which he lost for taking too many days off, was as a laborer. "They need to be teaching kids in school that if they steal, it can ruin their entire life, and their dreams will be gone," he said.