Unless his civil rights have been restored, a felon is disqualified from over a million jobs in the Florida economy. Regardless of the nature of his crime, these restrictions prevent a felon from working in nursing, as a construction contractor, a security guard, a notary or pest control operator as well as other jobs. The state has adopted at least twelve different approaches to restrict the employment opportunities of former offenders; it is estimated that these restrictions may affect over 600,000 potential Florida workers.
Even without such restrictions many employers are reluctant to hire people with a criminal record.
Competition for entry-level and low-skilled jobs increases these difficulties. Steady employment is known to be an essential element in keeping former offenders out of prison and back on track to a law-abiding lifestyle.
After serving several years in the federal prison system, I was released into a halfway house. I was told that I’d have to find a job within two weeks or I’d be returned to prison. While looking for a job, I had to report where I was going, the time I was leaving the halfway house, and my means of transportation: bus, train, taxi, or automobile. I was fairly lucky in that my family had given me a very inexpensive car which I was approved to use by the authorities at the halfway house after my first week.
When I arrived at the job interview site, I had to call the authorities at the halfway house to let them know I had arrived. After the interview, I had to call and tell them I was heading back to the halfway house. They had a pre-determined time frame in which I had to be back at the house; if I arrived outside of that time frame, they could consider it an escape and I would be returned to prison.
My work history was in the motorcycle industry. That’s what I knew so I looked for a job within that industry. Unfortunately for me, many owners of motorcycle companies had had previous run-ins with the law and, because they had felony convictions, I was restricted from working for them. I had to turn down several full-time, permanent job offers and found it more and more difficult to find a job within the two week time frame to avoid being sent back to prison. Just before the two weeks were up, the authorities saw that I was actively and sincerely looking for work and gave me an extension on the time frame.
Finally, I was given a break. I found a job at a motorcycle shop making $125 for a forty hour work week. It fulfilled the requirements of the halfway house to have a job but I spent the next six months looking over my shoulder: with all the rules I had to follow, the goal seemed to be to send people back—not help them succeed.
Luckily for me, I had friends and family who were there for me. They had given me the car to use, gave me extra money, and gave me a place to stay when I was released from the halfway house and put on a bracelet [made to wear an ankle monitor]. If it wasn’t for the friends and family, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the halfway house experience and would have been sent back to the federal system.
I truly believe that Project 180 is the friends and family that most of us need upon our release and will go far in helping us become providers for ourselves and our families.
Some jurisdictions are exploring alternatives to incarceration as a means to sanction nonviolent offenders. The incarceration of nonviolent offenders, including those who fail to pay child support, is a drain on limited state resources. It also compounds the criminalization process, making it harder for former offenders to find and hold a steady job and maintain family ties.
Holding a steady job can be even more difficult when former offenders experience homelessness. Former felons reentering the community after incarceration face an increased risk of homelessness while people who are homeless are more vulnerable to incarceration. In a recent survey in Sarasota and Manatee Counties, 7% of homeless individuals (85 persons) had spent the previous night in jail, prison or a detention facility.
I was born and raised in New York where I learned the brick-and-block trade [masonry]. I was in the union, married, and financially able. When the union went on strike, I joined the Army’s Engineer Corps where I was a Private 3rd Class in charge of a squad. Because of a drug charge, I received a dishonorable discharge. Although I did some light drugs—nothing heavy—I was innocent of the charge for which I was discharged.
I came to my parents’ house in Florida and landed a job helping to build Epcot. I was introduced to crack by a woman I knew but still got up and went to work every day. I moved to Sarasota and worked on many of the high-rise buildings you see all around you in downtown Sarasota. I had a car, a two bedroom apartment, a computer—everything I needed.
I went to the union hall every day and worked until the work disappeared. Five years ago, construction jobs dried up. I’ve been struggling ever since.
I’ve been to jail about twenty times for failure to pay child support. They come and pick me up and take me to Polk County where I do my time and then bring me back to Sarasota. It’s gotten in the way of having a steady job; if I had a steady job, I’d be able to pay child support.
The community needs Project 180 because there’s a revolving door at the jail. People get in and come back out and do the same thing that they’re used to doing. People need Project 180 because they need to know how to handle the world before they’re thrown back into society…somewhere they can learn a trade or occupation and get the motivation to do the right thing. They need Project 180 to put them in the right direction and to tell them they can make it in the world.
I was born to an alcohol- and drug-addicted mother and father. My mom drank and did drugs while she was pregnant with me and gave alcohol to us kids so we’d sleep while she partied. My earliest memory is of going to a church party, asking everyone for sips of wine and downing their drinks when they weren’t looking. When I was three years old, my sister and I were placed for adoption because of physical and mental abuse as well as malnutrition.
My adopted dad sent me to an Ivy League prep school but that didn’t last; I got into fights and became the one everyone watched out for. When I was expelled from prep school, I moved back home to our rich, preppy town. As a jock and a rock-n-roller, I didn’t fit in but at 12 or 13, I found some friends. We drank a lot and took every drug, using more and more as time went on. When I freebased cocaine I became instantly addicted. I eventually had a $5,000-a-day habit and that doesn’t pay for itself. I was arrested for burglary at 17.
During my first time in jail, I got my GED but otherwise just killed time. When I got out, I didn’t face up to anything; I was always a manipulator and conniver. If I didn’t have someone [to support me], I’d find someone…relying on my looks, which is how I’ve managed for a long time. When I was re-arrested, I was sent to prison where I saw riots, prisoners killing each other, beat-ups. I told myself I was never going back, that I would never do this again.
My desperation to stay out of prisons and institutions became greater than my desperation to go back to stealing so I could have another fix. I had finally realized that this lifestyle was taking me nowhere fast. I got into NA and AA; now I go to meetings every day and finally have sanity back in my life. I have a full-time job working for a powder-coating company and plan to go back to school to get my Social Work degree.
My experience has been rough. Sometimes it takes a lot of struggle to gain wisdom. Most people have either an addiction or alcohol problem that got them in jail. And the best way to get past it is to treat it. Project 180’s clean and sober housing program would definitely be of benefit to teach people how to be stable and to give them tools to become successful members of society.
When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut or an Air Force pilot. Unfortunately, I had some dysfunctional home circumstances that played a strong role in making sure that never happened. I was smart with a strong, adventurous spirit but didn’t have the proper outlet to fulfill it. As a result of my advanced academic skills and a lack of stimulation, combined with social dysfunction that I inherited from my alcoholic father, school was boring. I eventually dropped out.
The very first day after dropping out I knew I had made a terrible decision. I had too much unsupervised time on my hands and wound up meeting others in the same situation. This eventually resulted in my repeatedly committing crimes against property over a relatively short period of time.
I almost had myself turned around at one point by going through a juvenile residential program. We had positive activities—scuba diving, sports, normal things—and some great role models on staff who gave me great self confidence. But when I got out I went right back to the same home environment, same people, and the same desire to do something adventurous. Had I had one good mentor, things could have turned out dramatically different.
I had just turned 17 when I found myself at the end of my rope. It was during a strong ‘tough on crime’ regime and I was sentenced to 14 years for crimes against property.
As a prisoner, I worked on a plumbing detail because we were building new prisons. A couple of master plumbers who had been in the union mentored me and I learned the trade. I started to read plumbing magazines and a handful of books on plumbing. I had a fanatical desire to teach myself and not become a statistic. Along the way I had long-distance support from my family which kept me from being swept away in the overwhelming negative current that goes along with being incarcerated.
I was released after serving ten years. I found a job making $8 an hour which wasn’t enough. I tried working ridiculous hours and tried to fight the frustration of ten years of negativity. I ended up with a bad attitude and did some things that could have gotten me back in trouble. I justified my behavior by thinking I deserved to live a better life and that I would make it happen by any means necessary.
I almost landed back in prison and that was a turning point. I made the commitment to harness my energy and convert it into positive actions toward being a success and not a statistic of recidivism. I transformed my thoughts and actions into a fanatical desire to succeed. I got my civil rights restored and used the plumbing skills I’d learned. I saved up some money, took some classes, studied like crazy and got my contractor’s license. That was a big breakthrough as they would never have allowed me to get my license if my rights hadn’t been restored; at that point, only a handful of former offenders had done that.
I’ve worked hard and now own my own business and, with the help of a very accomplished businessperson, have begun to mentor others.
The incarceration rate multiples exponentially year after year. It’s a financial liability and divisive to our culture; a strong nation shouldn’t be so divisive. People are our country’s greatest assets. Why do we continue to turn them into liabilities? If we took all the money we put toward keeping someone in prison and put it toward programs like Project 180, we’d turn these liabilities around into assets and make our nation stronger.