Aaron Williams' reasoning seemed impeccable. As long as he was going to be doing 10 years in the slammer, he might as well spend the time improving his mind and his post-prison job prospects.
And so for five years at the federal prison in Atlanta and another five in Lewisburg, he took every course he could get into: Arabic, barbering, small business management, dental technology, heating and air-conditioning, carpet laying and even something called "coping." A junior high dropout testing at the 4th grade level when he went in, he left prison with the equivalent of almost four years of college credits.
He's been out on parole for three months now, and for the last couple of weeks, he's been out of work.He's only moderately frustrated that he has been unable to find work in the areas he trained for. His real frustration is that he was forced to quit the one job he did find. His probation officer made him do it.
Rudolph Yates, who runs a program called Efforts from Ex-Convicts (EFEC), had found Williams a job in a halfway house run by the agency. The hours were terrible (he worked a two-man midnight-to-8 a.m. shift, keeping track of residents as they returned from passes, doing security checks and reporting problems to the day shift). But the pay -- $10,500 a year -- and the prospects for advancement held the hope of transforming him from a family liability into a reliable breadwinner.
The job lasted four days. On the fifth day, his parole officer, Paul Dipolito, invoked Clause No. 10 of the certificate of parole that federal prisoners must sign as a condition of their release: "You shall not associate with persons who have a criminal record unless you have permission of your probation officer."
There's no question that his EFEC job brought him into association with persons with criminal records. But, given his own record of self-rehabilitation, he thought be would have no problem getting permission to continue his work. He was wrong. Dipolito said no, and an appeal to the regional parole office in Philadelphia brought no relief.
As a result, the 37-year-old Williams is out of work and on the brink of losing the car that would help him expand his now-desperate job search into the suburbs.
Yates said it wasn't charity that prompted him to hire Williams at the halfway house. "Based on my interview with him, his educational accomplishments and the glowing letters from prison officials, I thought he could be extremely useful to our organization as a kind of role model.
"As I understand it, the rule is designed to keep parolees from hanging around dives and seedy pool halls -- not to keep a man from taking a legitimate job. You know what I think? I think the probation officer went off half-cocked and made a misjudgment, and the bureaucracy has its back up and won't try to be flexible."
If there is an alternative explanation, you can't get it from Dipolito, who says, "The only response I can give you is that I can't give you a response." Daniel P. Lopez, regional probation commissioner in Philadelphia, said he was "inclined to go along with the probation agent, based on my personal experience . . . . This is a job that would be detrimental to this young man."
"It's a silly decision," says Williams, who spent much of his in-prison time teaching Arabic and the Islamic religion. "Every time I go somewhere -- the 7-Eleven, the movies, the market or downtown -- I see ex-cons. You've got so many blacks in D.C. who have been locked up, it's impossible not to come in contact with ex-cons. But the point is, they don't influence me; I influence them. I don't smoke or drink or do drugs. I don't need nobody to help me do bad. In fact, I have helped a lot of people straighten out. Check my record."
But Williams' in-prison record isn't at issue.The issue is the senseless insistence on stretching a questionable rule (the D.C. parole board dropped it some years ago) to the point of silliness.
It's hard enough for an ex-convict to get a decent job, and harder still to stay straight without a job. By what logic does it make sense for a government agency -- established to help ex-offenders re-enter society -- to go out of its way to turn a rehabilitated man into a jobless bum?