Posts Tagged ‘CORI Reform’

Now that all the high school graduations are over and the backyard barbeques celebrated, I’m finally coming down from the contact high of all that youthful exuberance and optimism.

It’s easy to get swept up into those good feelings. But now as I move into summer’s quieter months, I can’t help thinking about the high school students I taught in a county penitentiary and what “commencement” meant for them.

Success never came easily to my students. Why should it? They came from lives wrecked by poverty and discrimination. It tried to wreck their spirit, but it never could, not completely. In that way my students weren’t any different from the kids at our local high schools—like their peers, they believed that life was there for the shaping.  That faith in success, though, didn’t always translate onto the streets. So they got caught up in crime, got arrested, did their time.

When that time was served, their “commencement” was being released from jail. The “graduation ceremony” wasn’t much: Down to booking to sign papers, their clothes stuffed into black garbage bags. Then the booking officer handed the “graduate” bus money and delivered the keynote address, “Stay out of jail.”

And that’s exactly what they intended to do. My jailhouse students talked a lot about “starting over again,” and I believed each of them. Because while they were locked up, most worked to change things for the better. They studied for their diploma or GED. They worked at staying clean and sober. They grappled with the rage of disappointment that tore at their guts through anger management programs. If there was a thread of family life left, they reconnected with it.

When they hit the streets, they were determined to shake the dust—and smell—of prison off them forever. But the only thing that had changed while they were locked up was them, not the streets. There was nothing out there for them, no services, no resources, no one. The only things waiting were the same predator-prey food chain, the same joblessness, and the same lure of the streets with easy money.

I knew the litany these young people heard from corrections and probation officers: Get a job. Go to school. Stay away from your buddies (the only people who even remembered your name.) Stay away from your girlfriend (the only one glad to see you.) Stay in the house. Start over. Stay out of trouble. And I’ve watched more than one kid’s face fall when he was told that he had to find someplace else to live. He couldn’t live with his mother because his probation didn’t allow him to associate with anyone with a record, and since his brother, or uncle, or cousin was already there he needed to find another home.

It’s not hard to guess what all those demands sound like to a 16 year old fresh out of prison: Stop being the only person you recognize. Stop living your life.

I often tell people that the changes we demand of young ex-offenders are things most of us, even with all our assets, would find daunting. The isolation. The loneliness. The helpless rage of unreasonable expectations. Yet these kids are told to make those changes with no one to help or guide them.

It happens, though, if rarely—some kid takes the plunge into all that fear and dynamites his life apart.

Alex was one of those kids. The judge made it clear. This time no probation. Instead a full county bid. Next arrest, a long stretch in state prison. Even at 17 Alex knew that going back to the same neighborhood, the same friends and enemies would seal his fate. “I might as well stay here and wait for the next bus to state prison,” he tried to laugh it off but couldn’t.

I can’t tell you what happened, but something did. Everybody had given up on him, with good reason or not, but somehow he hadn’t. Alex had a cousin in California that he never met but who said he could come live with him. So at his “graduation” he hopped a cross country bus. However, there was nothing quixotic about his move. Alex had never been out of his own town except to go to various jails and detention centers. He knew he had to do it. It was a terrible struggle at first. The dirt jobs. The loneliness. The disorientation. The fears of failure. Eventually, though, the jobs got better and he signed up for college. Last I heard Alex was close to a real commencement.

Watching that final moment of triumph when our local high school graduates flung their caps into the air I imagined all the hands—of family, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors—that over the years had made that moment possible.  Young ex-offenders at their “commencement” haven’t had, and don’t have that same net of hands. And yet, there are plenty of hands in each of their communities to help, if they only would. That way kids like Alex wouldn’t have to go 3,000 miles for a chance at a new beginning.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

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