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After prison, building a new life means more than just doing right

By Alex Halperin
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 6:46 PM

Last Feb. 9, Louis B. Sawyer Jr. reported to "receiving and discharge" at FCI Allenwood, a federal prison in central Pennsylvania.

He took off his prison-issue khaki pants and shirt, and pulled the jeans, sweatshirt and jacket that had been provided to him over his gangly frame. The staff completed the paperwork, and a guard escorted Sawyer to the checkpoint. His nephew was waiting in the lobby on the other side.

Sawyer passed through, and the men embraced. Someone in the background said, "You're free to go," and with that, Sawyer, then 49, who had spent more than half his life locked up for murder, walked into the winter morning. He rode to his nephew's nearby home for a special meal of grilled fish, macaroni and cheese and greens. He got to have orange juice, which was banned at Allenwood because it can be fermented into an alcoholic drink.

Sawyer's nephew, Gary Williams, gave him clothes and a black hat with a cross and "Jesus" written in rhinestones. After the meal, the family sat around talking and snapping pictures.

"They showed love," Sawyer said. "They knew Uncle Louis was home."

Williams, a carpenter in his 30s, had volunteered to house his uncle and help him find work, but authorities rejected the plan, which left Sawyer to return to Washington, D.C., where he had no home, no job prospects and no family. A blizzard had hobbled the mid-Atlantic, and Sawyer called Hope Village, his appointed halfway house, to ask if he could delay the trip. Permission denied. If he wasn't there by midnight, he'd be considered an escapee.

Before the 200-mile drive, Sawyer visited his mother at a nursing home. He hadn't seen her in at least eight years, and she now had Alzheimer's. "We talked, hugged," Sawyer said. "She wasn't too coherent, but she was not incoherent. ... I'm grateful, just being able to be in her presence. She knew I was there. That's all that counts."

It was dark when Williams's SUV reached Hope Village, an unimposing cluster of brick buildings on a side street in Southeast Washington. "Everything was quiet, surreal. The snow was coming down," Sawyer said. He'd brought his leftovers from earlier, toiletries he'd picked up at a dollar store and a box with his important papers, including a list of courses he'd taken in prison and a job recommendation from a warden.

Sawyer checked in and entered the kitchenless, two-bedroom apartment he'd share with up to seven roommates. He had four months to find a job and permanent housing. If he failed, he could be evicted and end up homeless.

The snow would shutter the District for much of the week. Sawyer had waited 25 years for his second chance. He'd have to wait a few more days.

***

Every year, more than 2,000 people return to Washington from federal prisons, according to the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. After years in a cell dreaming of freedom, they're often unprepared for it. Many have minimal education and work experience and are shackled by drug addictions and mental illnesses. Those who are capable of searching for a job need to find a boss who will overlook their crimes. The latest national data indicate that about two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years.

Few politicians want to be seen as coddling criminals, but U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said repeatedly that job training and substance abuse programs for returning prisoners can improve public safety and reduce spending on prisons. Reintegrating prisoners back into society is a near-universal problem, but this past year, the situation in Washington has been particularly bleak. The 2008 U.S. District Court decision Sellmon v. Reilly altered the parole release guidelines for some D.C. offenders who committed a crime between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s. As a result, up to a few hundred more longtime prisoners returned in 2010.

They are surfacing in a down economy when many skilled workers without criminal pasts struggle to find work and charities are stretched. As of mid-December, the District's Office on Ex-Offender Affairs had a staff of three, roughly one for every 800 people who returned last year.

Sawyer was perhaps better equipped for his release than many. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson Senior High School and says he studied psychology at Virginia Union University in Richmond without earning a degree. (The university couldn't find a record of him.) Sawyer says he does not drink alcohol or use drugs. Statistically, he is less likely than a younger parolee to commit another serious crime.

Like the overwhelming majority of returnees to the District, Sawyer is African American. His thin face has the rubbery features of a character actor. His expression morphs from cocky teenager to worried parent. He kept up on dental visits in prison and flashes a disarming grin filled with Hollywood-caliber teeth. He's bald and often covers his head with a Jesus-themed cap. He does not wallow in self-pity or anger. "I'm one who takes the initiative," he said. "I'm going to go out and seek what needs to be sought. I'm going to go out and make something happen."

Sawyer's preparations for freedom began in prison. He sent away for his birth certificate and wrote letters introducing himself to prisoner-support groups and officials at the Justice Department and White House. He saved their replies; some curtly dismissed him, others were encouraging. In prison, he completed a 4,000-hour administrative apprenticeship, the equivalent of two work years.

Once some of the snow had melted, Sawyer met with a social worker to discuss classes he could take and charities where he could find clothing. He presented her with his résumé and said he hoped to find a desk job as an administrative assistant.

In those early months, Sawyer acquainted himself with 21st-century Washington. In a class at the University of the District of Columbia, he waded into the Internet. "I found that you can fill out applications online, and I said, 'Oh, man, this is what's happening.' "

He was even more surprised by gentrification. "When I left, they didn't have all these $300-, $400,000 homes in Southeast Washington." He'd pick up flyers for job fairs and clothing drives, "anything that was returning-citizen friendly," and bring them back to his less intrepid roommates at Hope Village. "A lot of them didn't know where to go."

Hope Village, the largest halfway house in the District, is a for-profit company contracted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house returning prisoners. The facility is supposed to serve as a launchpad into productive life. But some of its rules could impede job seekers. The computer lab is reserved mainly for a GED course, and residents aren't allowed to keep cellphones or laptops on the premises -- yet residents can pass time with digital toys, such as Xboxes and DVD players, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Not long after his release, Sawyer applied for an administrative training program at the charity So Others Might Eat (SOME). It appeared that his enrollment was on track -- until he volunteered his police record. Then the charity rejected him because there's a nursery school in the building, Sawyer said. He argued in vain that his crime had nothing to do with children. "That's 25 years ago," he recalled telling a SOME employee. SOME declined to comment on his case.

Sawyer avoided directly discussing his crime, but The Washington Post reported it this way: In 1986, he was convicted of paying a security guard named Marvin C. Williams (no relation to Gary) to kill Paul F. Smith, a friend of Sawyer's family and a financial official at the Gethsemane Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, where Sawyer was a deacon. Prosecutors said Smith suspected Sawyer of stealing donations to the church. After he fatally shot Smith, Williams told police that Sawyer had paid him $40 to do it. Sawyer pleaded not guilty due to insanity; his lawyer argued that Sawyer had a narcissistic personality disorder.

"The past is the past, and sometimes we have to let that die, let it be, because we can't change it no matter how hard we try," Sawyer said. "It happened. I apologized for it. I made amends for it. I've asked God to forgive me. I've asked the Smith family to forgive me, and we have to move on."

Sawyer had always been a churchgoer but said he did not have his "Road to Damascus" revelation until he'd been in prison about 15 years. As he tells it, he asked to be placed in solitary confinement because "my life was messed up, and I was tired." He said he stayed there three or four months, talking to God. "During that time of transfiguration, He spoke with me. I spoke to Him, and we had a very good conversation."

When he was transferred to the federal penitentiary in Lee County, Va., Sawyer co-founded a mentoring group called Men of Principles, with a "spiritual base" and a sense of propriety aimed at gangster culture. "We didn't believe in men wearing their pants half on and half off," he said. "We don't use the 'b' word nor the 'n' word." He carried the Men of Principles torch to Allenwood.

After his release, he looked for a church near Hope Village and wound up making the well-trod walk from the halfway house to Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, the historically black congregation where the Obama family would celebrate Easter a few weeks later. He met the Rev. Yvonne Cooper, an elegant woman with chin-length dreadlocks who runs the church's Missing Link Ministry for ex-offenders. In 1994, Cooper was convicted of accepting bribes while working for the District government.

She faced a long prison term, but "God saw me doing the ministry, I believe, that I'm doing today, and He massaged that and turned it into an eight-month sentence."

At Allen Chapel, Sawyer said: "They were not judgmental. They were not critical. They did not look down on me." During announcements from the pulpit, the Rev. Michael E. Bell Sr. asked Sawyer to stand and welcomed him home. Sawyer said he knew then that "this is where God wanted me to be."

At Sawyer's request, several months later Bell appointed him a trustee in training, an unpaid position with responsibilities that include being at the church on select evenings to ensure things are running smoothly. The pastor said he was aware of Sawyer's charges but not that he'd committed them against a church official. "That would not change my feelings about Louis or the potential that he has," he said, acknowledging that some congregants would feel different. "A church has to be a place of restoration."

Before services one Sunday last spring, Cooper sat with Sawyer in the joyful hubbub of the church's function room. "The housing situation, the employment situation, that's all going to bear fruit," she said. "Other people that I've seen, because their faith wanes, they wind up going back out into the street. But Louis, it'll never happen."

In church, Sawyer greets the flock with his winning smile and sayings, such as "God is worthy to be praised!" Sawyer stands for much of the service, pumping his fists and moving his arms with the music. Every week, he said, he gives $5.

***

Sawyer likes to say that someone returning from prison needs five things: transportation, clothing, physical and mental health care, employment and housing. Hustling between the hodgepodge of local charities, supplemented by his savings from prison work -- UNICOR, Federal Prison Industries, pays inmates between 23 cents and $1.15 per hour -- Sawyer obtained a semblance of the first three. But gumption alone wasn't finding someone to sign his paycheck.

He applied for jobs at Pepco, The Washington Post and elsewhere, but he was more enthusiastic about networking through his church. Allen Chapel "has a whole lot of folk that know folk," he said, and he thought getting to know them was more productive than blind applications to companies, many of which would be prone to dismiss him when they saw the checked criminal history box on his application.

Sawyer familiarized himself with the 253-page directory of resources for ex-offenders released by the District's Public Defender Service. It lists dozens of GED classes, apprenticeships and job-training courses. The job-training programs open to ex-offenders typically teach "life skills," such as personal finance and stress management, lessons Sawyer sat through repeatedly in prison.

Phil Fornaci, director of the D.C. Prisoners' Project, said the programs are "about these guys trying to convince someone else that they're a decent person more than anything else." After prison, ex-offenders have to "bang on every single door and talk someone into hiring you, which is a virtual impossibility."

"It's really not easy -- and it shouldn't be easy," said Calvin Woodland Jr., a former drug dealer who worked at a gas station when he got out of prison and is now chief of staff for D.C. council member Jim Graham. "People should have to struggle. We shouldn't come home and be given some gift just 'cause we're home."

Sawyer eventually began a program at the local Opportunities Industrialization Center, where he was helped with a résumé that introduced him as a "goal-oriented professional with twenty-five years of Administrative Assistant experience."

Sawyer also tried to make contacts outside the reentry community. One afternoon in April, he was in his UDC computer class in a dreary basement classroom. As the teacher walked the students through an obscure clip-art function of Microsoft Word, Sawyer ignored the lesson to read his e-mail. He found an invitation to a Democratic Party strategy session. It was a networking opportunity, and he thought it might be catered (Sawyer found the food portions at Hope Village too small). There was enough time before curfew to check it out.

It was a long trip -- two buses to Capitol Hill, across the psychic divide between what Sawyer called the "local city" and the "national city."

Wearing black plastic sunglasses in the fading spring light, Sawyer was optimistic, predicting he would have a desk job by the end of the month. "I'm not a construction worker. I'm an administrative man," he near-chanted. "Name it and claim it, confess it and possess it, believe it and receive it."

Sawyer arrived during a presentation on the midterm elections to hundreds of rapt activists. In some settings, surviving the ordeal of prison bestows gravitas on ex-felons. Not here. Not this night. Sawyer was just a face in the crowd. And they didn't serve food.

***

By early May, Sawyer had a month left at Hope Village and still hadn't found new housing or a job. Nevertheless, he was invited to speak before a House subcommittee.

In 1997, Congress created the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency to handle probation and parole in the District and shifted to the federal government the responsibility for incarcerating the District's convicted felons. The law, known as the Revitalization Act, relieved Washington of a financial burden, but since the 2001 closing of Lorton Correctional Complex, the District's equivalent of a state prison, Washington's felons have been scattered in federal prisons. When housed hundreds or thousands of miles away, prisoners often find it even harder to maintain damaged relationships with friends and relatives and connect to opportunities back home.

At any time, the agency is supervising more than 16,000 people in the District, about 35 percent of whom are on parole or a similar regimen called supervised release. Supervisees' unemployment rate hovers around 50 percent, said Leonard Sipes, the agency's spokesman.

"The research is clear," Sipes said during a public access TV show he hosts. "The more they work, the fewer crimes they commit, the greater their chance for becoming taxpayers instead of tax burdens."

Problem is, most people don't see it that way.

The subcommittee was holding a hearing on the prisoner distance issue. Sawyer joined a panel that included another former inmate and Harley Lappin, director of the Bureau of Prisons.

Wearing a tie but no jacket, Sawyer appeared unintimidated by the Rayburn Building's high-ceilinged chamber. Hands clasped in front of him, he began his testimony by correcting a factual error by the chairman. Then, as in conversation, Sawyer discoursed on earthly concerns and divine grace. He described his sustaining faith but also how, when he was in southwesternmost Virginia, as far a drive from Washington as Boston, his visitors had to endure an overnight bus ride.

"Mr. Cook and Mr. Sawyer, you are both very motivated men," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, (D-D.C.). "Your testimony has been invaluable."

The next day, Sawyer was scheduled to have a crucial interview at East of the River, a relatively comfortable transitional home in Southeast. Well before business hours, Sawyer used his contraband cellphone to call reporters, reentry activists and employees at the court services agency to say that Hope Village had slapped him with a "no movement" restriction, apparently for not receiving permission to testify. According to Sawyer, he received the invitation the night before the hearing. He immediately dropped it in his case manager's inbox, he said, but there wasn't enough time to obtain the required clearance. Hope Village declined to comment.

After his calls, at least one of his contacts also made some calls, and by the afternoon, Sawyer said, the restriction had been lifted. He met with East of the River, which accepted him.

***

By early June, Sawyer's job-training course was winding down, but he hadn't found work. He'd begun considering construction jobs, or maybe starting another training program, when he attended a city job fair at the convention center. It was a loud, bustling scene, saturated with hope and desperation.

Sawyer had become a familiar face in the reentry community. He strutted around in a tie and Jesus cap, carrying a bag of pens, stress balls and other swag he picked up. He saw a woman he knew and asked her to a meal. Some of his other acquaintances wore the telltale lumpy hand-me-downs of the newly released. They seemed to move slower than everyone else, as if they were underwater.

"Most of these organizations ... do not hire returning citizens," Sawyer observed, surveying rows of booths in the massive room. To prove his point, he approached the U.S. Small Business Administration and asked about its hiring policies. With the exaggerated courtesy that ex-felons sometimes encounter, the man said Sawyer would have to pass a background check. Leaving the fair, Sawyer called the whole thing "window dressing."

Increasingly, Sawyer spoke about being an activist working with ex-felons to guide them around the reentry labyrinth. A woman at Allen Chapel was leaving her job at University Legal Services, which supports returning prisoners with mental illnesses, people at the margins of the margins. She encouraged Sawyer to apply.

He got the job.

In August, more than six months after he left prison, Sawyer started as a part-time peer-advocate, a position that could evolve into full-time work. He'd be helping clients do what he'd done, get their needs met in a world that views them with hostility and fear.

It's something like his dream job.

"It's about those who are coming behind me," he said, envisioning himself as a role model. Maybe, he said, the other ex-offenders will see him and think: "If he can make it, then so can I."

As of mid-December, Sawyer was living in housing run by Samaritan Inns in Northwest Washington and still working part time at University Legal Services.

Alex Halperin is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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