The Bottom of the Rack

Fresh out of prison and hunting for a job, Casey Holden has picked up a few dirty looks and plenty of don't-call-us-we'll-call-yous. Now 26, Holden has been locked up most of the time since he's sixteen, including the last four years in Colorado's supermax -- not the best place to polish your interview skills.

But persistence can sometimes trump the odds. A few days ago Holden found a part-time job at a Grand Junction pizza place. It fits with his school schedule and all his parole appointments. Five weeks into his new life on the streets, and he's a working stiff. It's a major leap in his journey back to society, a journey he's sharing with Westword in weekly installments; see previous reports here and here, along with some fascinating comments from people rooting for Holden to succeed.

It's not a glamorous job. "Dude, I'm at the bottom of the rack," Holden says. "I put pizzas in boxes. I work with a bunch of sixteen-year-old kids. I don't want to do that forever. But a job's a job."

And Holden's grateful for it. Of all the hoops a parolee has to get through, the job search may be the worst. Most of the time, ex-cons have two choices when they confront that question on the job application about prior felony convictions. They can fess up -- and kiss the job adios. Or they can lie -- and wait for the background check and the termination to follow. Once in a great while, they find an employer who truly believes in rehabilitation, but the most available jobs tend to be the ones nobody else wants: asbestos removal, day labor, that kind of thing.

Three years ago the Legal Action Center released a state-by-state report on the barriers facing people with criminal records as they emerged from prison. The report examined job opportunities, housing issues, even such basics as getting a driver's license. Overall, Colorado was ranked worst in the nation for its re-entry problems; the details can be found on this page. Fighting Colorado's hellacious parole failure rate, and the resulting drain on the state budget for more prisons, is a top priority for Governor Bill Ritter, who recently proposed beefing up community treatment and re-entry programs to reduce recidivism. The proposed package can be found at this link.

But changing the situation will take more than money; it will also take some change in the kneejerk attitude toward the ex-cons in our midst. Compared to the lifelong stigma they carry, even leprosy seems fashionable. Holden isn't exactly advertising who he is, but he figures his coworkers have some idea. He's all tatted down, and the first day on the job he discovered his first cousin works at the joint, too. That caused a little comment among the troops: What kind of guy has that many tattoos and doesn't even know where his cousin works?

Holden doesn't mind the chatter. He's taking home a paycheck this week, and that's sweet. -- Alan Prendergast