Archive for the ‘Ex-offenders and jobs’ Category

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

Continuing this series Gayle Saks-Rodriguez writes about her experiences teaching incarcerated women and men of all ages. I first came across Gayle’s writings on OpenSalon.com, an interactive platform established by Salon.com, as well as on her own blog, “My Life in the Middle Ages.” Her pieces are honest, insightful, warm and gently humorous, and she’s not afraid to take on difficult topics as you’ll see from “Hide and Seek.” Too often teachers are portrayed as “money-grubbers,” interested only in maintaining their “cushy jobs” under the protection of tenure. Gayle belies that myth: In order to become a teacher—and a teacher in a very difficult and demanding environment—she gave up a comfortable, well paid career because, as she writes, “I know now that this is the work I was meant to do.” Gayle has embraced her work as a teacher of society’s throwaways with such enthusiasm and caring that I asked her to share some of her experiences helping students regain their footing in a world that seems to have little room for them.

Hide and Seek: When Locked up Students Misplace Their Inner Child

Two years ago I fell into what I call my “happy place”—a volunteer teacher position working with newly incarcerated women in a Northeast prison.  The experience has made me abandon an 18-year succession of nicely compensated jobs in non-profit fundraising.  I know now that this is the work I was meant to do.

When I first started working with the women in a weekly workshop, I devised a curriculum that I called “sensory memoir writing.”  As part of the course I asked my students about their dreams. After all, we all have a dream, the ultimate end-point, our “eyes on the prize” of something.  It should go without saying that at no point in a person’s life is prison the “pot at the end of the rainbow.”  Yet that wasn’t the case with these women. In trying to get them to uncover the dreams they once had, I led them through an exercise that I hoped would “uncrush” their spirit in the process.

One student remembered her love of figure skating and how becoming an instructor of kids was something she always wanted to do.  She was able to re-live the freedom of spinning around on the ice and how freeing that was for her.  A beautiful 20-year old Latina talked about becoming a professional guitar player, a skill she picked up as a teenager as a way to bring her closer to a checked-out father.  While another woman, white, in her 40s, hardened by years of heavy drug abuse, said she lost her dreams at 10 when her mother shot her up with heroin for the first time.

Then three months ago I scored a part-time job with a community based non-profit teaching life and transitional skills to males at various stages of reentry after serving prison stints from 2 years to 26 years. Their ages range from 15-65+.  I customize my curriculum to the skills my student’s need, everything from basic hygiene for a very low-functioning small group of youth offenders to parenting and anger management for a pretty hard core group of felons who feel they have learned everything they need to know. I teach interviewing skills and resume writing to a group of older students who find themselves in the worst Catch-22 of their lives, desperately WANTING to turn their lives around but finding that no one will hire them with the types of offenses that are easily uncovered.

The youngest group is made up of those in the juvenile justice system. They are too young to be committed as adults, but have a history of crimes under their belts that often doesn’t bode well for a better future.  I rarely know the details of what they’ve done, but they often volunteer little snippets of their learned behaviors.  These young men speak, sometimes sadly, sometimes with indifference, of their incarcerated parents and siblings, the very adults who were supposed to be their “teachers” but who left them behind, because they were driven by their own addictions and demons.

As I do with the women, I use a similar ice-breaking exercise with each of these groups, asking questions that encourage self-reflection.  My students have to think about and answer prompts such as “I am happiest when___________” or “When I am alone I_______________”. The last prompt on a list of 25 is “My child within is________”

I have compared the answers of all the groups I teach—female and male—to this last prompt.  They have said things like, “My child within is playing video games,” “is at Six Flags,” “is happy,” “curious.”  Every once in a while there will be women who have grown up together and one will help the other to remember their common upbringing, hanging out at the other’s home after school, backing up the other’s assertion  of how cool her mother was.

The older men have said things like, “still there,” “strong,” “determined.” While the youngest group, the under 21-year olds, often describe their “child within” as happy.  They seem to have some support on the outside, still grin ear-to-ear when they talk about “my moms,” their “baby mamas,” or their grandparents.   They have often discussed their happiest childhood memories, most involving family trips that include a stay in a hotel, room service and swimming pools.  Oftentimes, the implication is that those memories will remain firmly planted in the past, one-offs, not to be repeated any time soon.

After a recent class I read the answers to the questionnaire of a seemingly detached Latino young man whose head had been on the desk the entire time, not participating or sharing his answers with the small group.   When I read the answer to the last question my heart seized a bit: “My child within is gone.”

So many of these men and women—young and old—have had their dreams stomped on.  Last week I asked a 17-yr old what his dream is.  He answered without hesitation, “My dream is to have a dream.”  Time and time again I’ve heard from students that they firmly believe that dreams never come true, even when what they had visualized themselves becoming in the past is as simple as being a dog walker or hair stylist.  Their paths have been road-blocked by bad choices and absentee role models.   If we—teachers, families, neighbors—can’t show them the way, show them the steps that CAN be taken to help them get to a realistic end-point, then we all have failed.

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The statistics are grim, but the reality behind those numbers is even grimmer for the many young people locked up in US adult prisons. Since publishing I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, about my years teaching in a New York county jail, I spend a lot of time writing, talking and hearing from families, professionals, and the young people themselves about the failures of our child welfare and criminal justice systems.

Depressing, discouraging stuff. That’s why I need to tell you about Andrew.  Andrew is a young African American in his late 20s. He’s got a home, an education, and a profession. Andrew is a success.

But it wasn’t always that way. As a very young child his schizophrenic mother was placed in long term care and Andrew was shuffled around to various family members until eventually he ended up in the foster care system. There he was moved from home to home to home. Then at 16 he was placed in an overcrowded and understaffed foster care facility where kids like him were warehoused. But he supposed it was better than being homeless. At least he had food and shelter. He even learned some things, mostly how to get into trouble, serious trouble.

Andrew would be the first to admit that he did stupid stuff. You might say that the first time he got arrested, the time he hopped a cab with a buddy who then pulled a knife and robbed the cabby, really wasn’t his fault. But he wouldn’t agree. Wrong place, wrong time, still makes a crime. And there was no way to excuse the other felonies he committed after that, felonies that landed him in state prison.

Andrew was just another young, black male fulfilling the destiny society defined for him: broken-down family, raised in the ‘hood, poor, uneducated, unemployed and unemployable. America has a place for kids like him—jail or the grave.

But somewhere along the way he realized he didn’t want either fate. During one of his county bids he enrolled in school and got himself into counseling with our school social worker. He studied for his GED and achieved it. With that first taste of success Andrew peeked over the top of the box society had put him in and glimpsed a different way to live. He began to recognize in himself the young man the social worker kept hinting at to him: someone who had survived a mentally ill mom, a neglectful family, a broken foster care system, and a punishing criminal justice system; someone who was ripe to make changes. Through his own efforts and the social worker’s encouragement both while he was in jail and after he was released, Andrew began to do what he had to do to change.

And change he did. He enrolled in community college and excelled even while working 2 or 3 part-time jobs at a time to support himself. For awhile he slept in the back of the pizzeria where he worked or in a rented room he shared with a couple of other homeless young guys. After finishing his associate’s degree he earned a scholarship to a Bronx college where he received his BA in social work, again while holding down multiple jobs.

Andrew didn’t stop there. He got another scholarship, this time to Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Work. In 2008 he earned his MSW as well as the recognition of the New York State Social Work Educators Association as the “Social Work Student of the Year.”  He now works at a county Youth Bureau helping at-risk kids navigate the minefield of the streets.

Andrew is a success by anybody’s standards. By the standards of our penal system he’s a damn miracle. But we’re an unforgiving and shortsighted nation, and so our tenacious stereotypes of ex-offenders, reinforced by CORI laws which give employers the right to deny felons jobs, has limited Andrew’s possibilities in state social service agencies and academia. While interviewers acknowledge his personal, academic and professional accomplishments, that’s as far as it goes. In America, once a felon always a felon.

Andrew got where he is because of his resolve and hard work and because someone had faith in him and acted on that faith. Unfortunately our criminal justice system doesn’t provide that kind of support even though it is in the best interest of the society it is committed to protect.

But just because the prison system doesn’t—or won’t do it—that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook.  Teachers, social workers, youth advocates, clergy and their congregations, community activists, family members, neighbors, employers, concerned citizens, we all need to push to have these exclusionary laws changed; to challenge our own and society’s attitudes about ex-offenders; and to take a chance in whatever way we can on some kid once locked-up now locked-out of the world. One kid by one kid: It’s a slow, chancy process. Maybe it’s even futile. But then again, there’s always Andrew.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

At the beginning of my ten years teaching teenagers in a county lockup, years I chronicle in I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup (Beacon Press), I was always surprised, and yes, disappointed, when one of my students got rearrested.

Jail’s a sobering place no matter how tough you want to think you are. The deprivation, brutality, and oppression gets your attention especially if you’re 15 years old. So once locked up, many of the kids I taught saw my jailhouse classroom as an opportunity to do something productive. Along with education, some got counseling to deal with their addiction and anger problems; others reconnected with family and church. When they were released, they talked about changing their lives for the better. They were sincere and determined, and I was hopeful that they would do just that.

Over time, though, my attitude changed. More and more I was surprised when a student didn’t return. Despite society’s puzzlement as to why jail is a revolving door for so many teens, the reasons became obvious to me: The kids I taught might have made significant changes while locked up, but the world they were sent back into—poor, violent, defined by racism—had not. I’ve seen teens walk out the prison gates alone, carrying nothing but a plastic bag with their clothes, a token for the bus, and the county’s other freebie—the wise words, “Don’t come back.” That’s all. No planning, or guidance, or support to make the mega-changes needed to turn their lives around, changes that when you’re a kid with no resources feel insurmountable.

One major stumbling block for any former inmate is jobs. Ex-offenders don’t get hired. Teenage ex-offenders get hired even less. When I asked guys, “What are you doing back here?”,  they would talk about not being able to get jobs they knew they were qualified for because they had a record. It’s hard to “do the right thing” when the streets and their hustles—drugs, auto theft, guns, robbery—are the only employers eager to hire you back.

States have made it easy for employers not to hire someone with a record by formalizing that refusal in their CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) laws. The biggest roadblock to getting a job is a pretty simple one: the yes/no box on an application that asks, “Have you ever been charged or convicted of a crime?” That box has buried a lot of young men and women trying to start a new life. Check “yes” and the application gets dumped without anyone talking with you, hearing your story, or evaluating you in person. Check “no” and you’re back in the world you’re trying to put behind you, a world of deceit, dishonesty, and manipulation.

Josh is a good example of the power of that box. After serving time, he cleaned himself up at 17. He signed into drug rehab and earned his GED. Then he got lucky. He was accepted into the French Culinary Institute, completed the program, and was ready to fulfill his dream of being a chef. Giant steps for a young man who had been homeless and addicted. But his luck stopped there. No restaurant would hire him because of his record.

 

Originally CORI laws were designed to help employers make responsible, informed decisions when hiring, and thus to protect citizens from harm and abuse. But these laws have actually turned out to be an impediment to that very protection. If, after individuals do jail time, they are still pushed to the margins of society, unable to legally support themselves and their families, they will only go back doing the things we want to protect society from.

Some states are beginning to understand this vicious cycle and are considering changes to their CORI regulations. Massachusetts is one of the first states to make that sensible and humane reform. One of the most significant changes the state has made is to remove “the box” from applications. An employer can still ask about a prior criminal record, but now at least an ex-offender will have the opportunity to explain his or her past and present themselves as they are now. It may be an awkward and painful conversation for an ex-offender to have fresh out of jail, but it’s a lot more dignified than the deadening silence of the wastepaper basket.

As a teacher I am always pushing my students to “think outside the box.” It’s time that more states do the same and examine closely the laws that limit the possibilities of success and mobility of people who, if we really believe in our own system of justice, have served their time and want to take their place in society.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside