The Long Road Home

Why so many parolees go back to prison, and how a new approach could help turn them around.

Ray Maestes barrels into the conference room like an old-timey evangelist. "Who has a job?" he asks.

Three hands go up. Maestes, the DOC "employer-relations specialist" who heads the center's job development program, beams at their owners. "You are blessed, brothers," he says. "Those of you who don't have jobs need to stay for the workshop taught by this nice lady over here."

Ray Maestes builds relationships with "felon-friendly" 
employers, continuing the work of John Inmann, who's 
remembered in a plaque at the center named after 
John Johnston
Ray Maestes builds relationships with "felon-friendly" employers, continuing the work of John Inmann, who's remembered in a plaque at the center named after him.

The nice lady is Alison Schwedner, who also works on employment issues for the DOC. As she launches into her presentation, Roy stays in his seat. So does Rudy, the young man who asked Salinas about John Inmann. (Several parolees interviewed for this article asked that only their first names be used.)

Elroy Isaac stays, too. The clock is ticking for all of them, but for Isaac, it's almost high noon. The man needs a job.

Isaac is 47 years old and hails from San Diego. He'd been in Denver only a few months when he was picked up on a drug charge. Three-year sentence, three years mandatory parole. He hasn't reached the parole part yet, but last month he was sent to a halfway house. The management there gave him two weeks to find a job, then another two weeks, and if he doesn't come through after that, they could send him back to prison. The market is terrible and he doesn't know the city, not nearly well enough to find the kind of warehouse production or assembler job he's looking for, so here he is at the Work and Family Center, listening intently to the nice lady's advice.

Schwedner talks about where to look for jobs. She talks about the need to find a survival job while looking for a better job. She talks about how to fill out job applications, taking special care with the question about prior felony convictions. Be totally honest, she urges. Expect a background check. And be prepared to explain yourself at an interview, using what the center calls the Incarceration Speech.

Assuming the role of job interviewer, she asks Isaac what he would tell a prospective employer about his conviction.

Isaac studies his hands. "I was convicted for possession of drugs," he says. "I was enticed by the excitement of the money. I feel like I have learned a big lesson in the error that I made, and I'm starting to better myself."

Schwedner glances around the room. "Would you guys hire him?"

"Kind of iffy," Rudy says. "He didn't really look at you. When I talk to someone, I look 'em right in the eye."

"Eye contact. Good suggestion," Schwedner says. She turns to Roy. "How would you discuss your conviction?"

Roy makes eye contact. His eyes are blank. "Which one?"

Schwedner explains the Incarceration Speech. "I recommend that when you're asked about the conviction, all you want to say is the time and the crime," she says. "If I'm an employer, I don't want to hear that you were caught up in a bad lifestyle or that you were in the wrong place at the wrong time or that you were in a crazy relationship. Who cares? You put yourself in that place.

"Think about how the employer is going to see it. Mr. Isaac, what can you say to me to assure me that you're not going to steal one of my computers to buy drugs?"

"I don't know," Isaac says.

"I'd say I'm in the process of turning my life around," Rudy says.

Isaac makes a second run at the Incarceration Speech. This one is better. More eye contact. Nothing about the excitement of the dope trade. He talks earnestly about his drug programs, the counseling he's been through, his determination to be successful.

"Are you clean?" Schwedner asks. "For how long?"

"Two years."

"Say that. Just because you go to counseling doesn't mean you're a different person. Let me know that you are."

She turns back to Roy. "How can you assure me that you're not going to get violent in my workplace?"

Roy shrugs. "I don't know how to address that," he says. "I had a lot of problems in the past, but that was a long time ago."

Rudy is not happy with Roy's answer. "You have to put yourself in a survival mode," Rudy tells him. "You got to put your game face on, you know what I mean? You can't be like this hard-ass dude."

"Nobody knows you're a felon until you tell them," Schwedner says. "It's very important that you get an opportunity to explain who you are and that you make the most of that opportunity."

The session gives Isaac some new ideas for the job hunt, some tips on how to stop selling himself short. Warehouse jobs are scarce and time is running out, which is why so many people in his position, regardless of their skills, end up mopping floors or flipping burgers. A parole officer or case manager gives you ten to twenty working days to find a permanent job. In the meantime, you're supposed to work day labor to meet expenses -- while still attending every group meeting and mandated treatment program at the halfway house, providing urine samples on demand and dropping everything to call in any time your keepers feel like checking on you.

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