Shedding the Stigma of Prison

Cultural, Personal Changes Will Help Ex-Inmates Find Redemptive Place in Society, Advocates Say

Donald Zimmerman has served prison time, but now says that a dedication to family has him determined not to return.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Donald Zimmerman was mad at the world, stewing again in a 6-by-9-foot mayonnaise-colored jail cell. Then, he remembered the advice a counselor had given years earlier.

"She told me, whenever you get angry, to close your eyes and take a deep breath," the 28-year-old Southeast Washington man said, recalling when he was locked up after a police officer pulled him over in October 2008 for a routine traffic stop. They found a outstanding warrant for an old robbery charge, for which he had already served time.

Using his counselor's suggestion, Zimmerman changed: As quickly as he became upset, something on the inside told him to get rid of that anger, get off the guilt trip and let it go.

For some ex-offenders, the most important part of reentry is not freedom from a jail cell but making an internal change. For some, that means forgiving themselves for their crimes. For others, it's deciding to stop and listen to the world around them.

But, with a criminal past hanging over their heads, how do they get there?

"If, in fact, we are sincere about helping someone transform themselves from a situation of stigma to one of acceptance, there needs to be a change in language used to describe them," said Badi Foster, president of Phelps Stokes, the nearly century-old District-based foundation that recently launched an initiative called the Homecomers' Academy, aimed at addressing reentry issues and changing stereotypes about former offenders. "Instead of defining themselves by their deficits, many are redefining their statuses as lifelong learners."

As many as 60,000 D.C. residents -- one in 10 -- are felons, 15,000 of them under court supervision. Two-thirds are rearrested within three years. Forty percent are sent back to prison.

Legislators at the national and local levels regularly introduce so-called second chance legislation to expunge nonviolent crimes and ensure that ex-offenders are not permanently discriminated against. But Carnegie Mellon University is scouring empirical evidence regarding ex-offenders to discover how long it takes -- if it can be determined -- for them to be redeemed, or deemed harmless to society. The preliminary results of the study, highlighted in the May issue of Criminology, show that a person's criminal record, depending on the crimes, could indeed become irrelevant after a certain number of years. Led by Alfred Blumstein and doctoral student Kiminori Nakamura, the study could help employers conduct background checks on ex-offenders with a better understanding of the risk involved.

The results also support what many advocates have long believed: that every ex-offender, no matter the offense, is forgivable.

For the past year, Cortez McDaniel, 56, a mentor for the Phelps Stokes' Homecomers' initiative, has promoted his recidivism prevention workbook, a how-to guide he created in prison to help people once they are released. McDaniel said he has watched many overcome their criminal past and the stigma society attaches to being a felon.

"So even though society's got this vision that it's not possible," he said, "I truly know in my heart that it is."

In Montgomery County, the Rev. Tim Warner is the community liaison for the African American and faith communities in the county's executive office of community partnerships. He also runs his own nonprofit organization, Onesimus Human Resource Development.

Onesimus was a slave who in biblical times robbed his master and was converted by the Apostle Paul. In the book of Philemon, Paul urges Philemon to mediate on behalf of those like Onesimus -- people "once not profitable" to the church and community -- so that they can reenter the fullness of life in society.

Warner, a Methodist minister, said the participants in his program sometimes return to crime, but others clean up their lives.

"If you go to any correctional facility, I would argue that 20 percent of the people there need to be there. You and I would want them to be there," Warner said. "I do not discount the power of God to redeem them, but I don't know if it is in my power to do so."

"Another 20 to 30 percent of the people who are there shouldn't be able to be in jail in the first place because they have drug and alcohol problems," he said. "But 50 percent of the rest of the them, they need a shot. Work needs to be done on them, and some of them can come around."

Zimmerman counts himself among those who deserve a break. He caught his first charge in 1998 after he robbed a man for some money he was owed. The judge gave him probation because it was his first offense, but Zimmerman returned to selling drugs and using PCP and marijuana. He eventually was arrested for distribution of crack cocaine.

He spent six months in the D.C. jail before being shipped off to a penitentiary in rural Pennsylvania about 50 miles east of Philadelphia, where he spent four years yearning to go back to a normal life.

Although he could walk around now with a chip on his shoulder for his last incarceration, in which he was released after 42 days because the robbery warrant had been cleared years ago, Zimmerman now counts the stigma of having a record as a blessing.

"My record defines me. I'm not ashamed of it one bit," Zimmerman, a portly man with an equally large smile, said one recent afternoon while at his aunt's home, taking a break from cooking his family a meal for his son's birthday. "It makes me who I've become now. It makes me stand tall."

He said his record reminds him every day that being there for his family and raising his 5-year-old and 7-month-old sons are too important for him to go back to jail.

Zimmerman is now a dispatcher for a trucking company and plans to attend community college in the fall to study culinary arts.

Most of all, he said, for the first time in a while, things are normal again.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company