Tag Archives: prison

Don’t Throw Away That Background Check. . .

I have spent 18 years in criminal justice reform working with children being tried as adults as well as young men and women struggling to make a successful transition from prison back into the community. And what I know to be true, is that we are all better than our worst mistake…as one of my mentors Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries continues to remind me. We have all had second, third and sometimes tenth chances throughout our lives and careers. But not everyone has. I have been working with industries and companies to change the way we see and treat people with a criminal record. Having honest conversations about what it takes to hire a potential employee to whom you offered a job…but changed your mind when you receive the results from a background check.

Chris is a perfect example. He interviewed for a job at an animation studio. His resume was solid: A.A. in Sociology, B.A. in Psychology and 3 years of solid employment history. His art portfolio impressive: graphic novel and writing samples waiting for someone to see the potential of an extremely creative, brilliant man. He was offered the position…contingent upon a background check. Three weeks later he received a phone call about a list of misdemeanor charges and an 18 year old felony conviction that came back in the report. The hiring executive was sure there must be a mistake. There was. The misdemeanor charges were not his. Looking at the dates, he was in prison at the age of 16 for the felony conviction, so they couldn’t be him. Not exactly the “clarification” they were hoping for.

Chris and I met with the HR department and hiring executives and navigating an honest conversation, we addressed mutual concerns. And then, without making Chris feel like he was at another parole board hearing, we got to the heart of the issue with one question, “What have you learned about yourself in the past 18 years that you want us know?”

Without hesitation and being brutally candid, Chris shared a bit about his childhood, how he grew up talking to heroin addicts in the back alley behind his apartment. “They were the only adults that talked to me.” Sitting alone on streets curbs making up stories about families walking by, wishing his life could be more like theirs. Raised by his grandparents by the age of 8, whom although they loved him, they couldn’t get a handle on the pain he was harboring. The streets called him. The gang attracted him. Arrested at least 8 times between the ages of 12 and 16, Chris was well on his way to prison. At 16 he was charged as an adult for a violent felony and sentenced to 20 years to life.

His first day on the yard the guards pulled him aside, recognizing he was a small 16 year old, and strongly reminded him, “If you hear us yell ‘get down’…GET DOWN. Or they’ll shoot you from the tower.” Chris went on to talk about the reading, writing and education he immersed himself in while still in prison. Finally pursuing the things he really cared about in life. Doing something good. He learned how important art was as his outlet, keeping him sane and providing income as he drew portraits of inmate’s loved ones or designed personal greeting cards for them to send home. How his love of DC comics had been his safe place. He learned that this skill is something he’s been working on most of his life, and that doing something positive not only affected his life, but may be able to affect the life of another kid with similar experiences.  The studio took a chance and hired him.

Here are some facts:

70 million people in this country have a criminal record. That’s about 1 in 4 people.

2 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States…90% of them will return home.

And the biggest obstacle to their maintaining a stable environment. . .A JOB.

In California we have “banned the box”. Which is a step in the right direction. But if we’re not going to work toward hiring people…despite their worst mistake, then we are stalled in the space of veiled “diversity” and not “inclusion”. We’ll interview you, but we still won’t hire you. Companies both large and small are getting on board to help shift this dynamic, but they don’t always know how to go about it. There are federal and state tax incentives for employers and evidence demonstrating the impact giving people a chance has on community safety and the reduction in the public cost for incarceration.

This issue is a microcosm of many other divisive issues we are facing in our communities. We need to be willing to step out of our individual comfort zones, into the gray area of the unknown and make an effort to bridge the gap with people whose background or culture we don’t understand. Our unwillingness to go there limits us from being able to truly create inclusive work environments that enrich our companies with broader ideas, new approaches, a stronger community…and better outcomes.

As a founding executive of a start-up non-profit, I took a staff of 4 and successfully built it into a staff of 28 with more than half of our employees having a criminal record….on purpose. We approached our hiring practices with a few questions in mind:

  • What do we need to know about who a candidate is today, in order to feel confident in hiring them?
  • What systems do we have or can we put in place to offer an employee a fair opportunity to prove themselves and feel supported in the workplace?

Opening our doors to a new pool of potential employees opens up the possibility of discovering a uniquely gifted individual …We can’t throw that away.



Women are women…no matter where we are

The first time I walked onto the women’s prison yard in Chowchilla, California – a stark contrast to the men’s prison yards where I’d visited as a prison Chaplain for more than a decade – it struck me that although the situation of incarceration is the same – the experience from a visitor’s lens was drastically different. That first day at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)– seeing what I saw – feeling what I felt – has been influential in my drive to strengthen our community of women to support our mothers, daughters and sisters returning home.

For me, the personal preparation for entering a men’s prison or women’s prison is similar. I have “prison clothes”; black, white, gray, muted-toned extremely loose fitting clothing, comfortable shoes, no-wire bra because rumor has it that bra wires can be used to escape prison, no make-up, no jewelry, hair usually pulled back. This dress code is a combination of the prison system requirements, and because the majority of my work inside institutions has been as a Chaplain. Early on I made a personal choice to use my appearance to help set the boundaries for the spiritual relationship that I am entering into with people inside institutional settings. I have a mental/emotional process I walk myself through to set down all of the day-to-day responsibilities I hold and show up prepared to “be present” for the few hours I have with men and women inside to encapsulate everything they are feeling and experiencing, process it together, talk through some tools and opportunities for coping and healing, all while trying to just be humans together in a very inhumane setting. Then as quickly as we begin, our time together ends abruptly with no hugs allowed; just a handshake.

What I recognized that day walking into CCWF, was the palpable difference in energy from a men’s prison. When I walk onto a men’s prison yard, I recognize the emotional “suit of armor” that everyone, including me, carries. The officers are largely unpleasant and seemingly unhappy. They must wear at least 10lbs. of gear; vest, belt, pepper spray, taser, giant key rings, blunt force tools, etc. There is a sign that warns of the high voltage wires in the fencing and there are stories of birds and coyotes getting zapped by them. You know there is a “gunner” in the towers around the facility keeping an eye out and highly skilled in hitting their target at any given moment. The fear of getting caught in that moment of chaos you’re always hoping the black and white clothing will stand out to the shooter so you won’t be collateral damage if something goes down. Entering a men’s yard, every single person; guards and the people incarcerated are on high alert. Someone is doing pull-ups, 2 guys are playing handball, others are running the track over and over and over again like hamsters on a wheel. Two other guys are motivating each other to do 10 more burpees, a group of guys is hovering close together and talking. And everyone is keenly aware of what everyone else is doing. Always waiting and ready for something to go wrong. As if there is never a moment to just breathe, relax, be human. On guard 24/7, 365 days a year for decades.

Somewhere inside of me I understand all of that. I’ve learned to put on my own emotional protective gear. I’m not “a woman” when I enter a prison, I am a spiritual representative seeking to meet other spirits on a human journey in their inherent goodness…for but a moment in time. Sounds altruistic, I know, but it’s also self-protective. That day I marched onto the CCWF prison yard, protected and “armed”, I stopped in my tracks because what I was met with was not an equal amount of armor. I encountered prison officers who weren’t as anxious or angry as they were in the men’s institutions. They were people who seemed to appreciate visitors. Right away I saw a working garden off to the side with a group of women tending to it. Women were casually walking the track together, talking, occasionally laughing out loud, greeting each other with hugs. When I entered a sleeping unit, the women’s cells were decorated as best they could with family pictures and art. They “nested”. Even in prison. I wondered, briefly, “Do they know they’re in prison?” And the truth is even more eye-opening. They absolutely know they’re in prison, as much as the soldiers on the men’s yards do, but like me and my friends on the outside, they live in the world differently from the way that men do. And as a deeply oppressed population amongst deeply oppressed populations in systems of mass incarceration, they adapt to their pain and learn to disguise it behind a smile, a song, a blossoming garden.

We, as women, are communal beings. We establish the foundation of families and nurture the fibers of our communities. We internalize our pain and are more likely to harm ourselves than take our pain outward to harm others. The number of suicides in women’s prisons is painstakingly higher than in men’s prisons. Over 92% of women in prison have experienced sexual and/or physical assault in their lives. 80% of women who are incarcerated are mothers and the primary caretaker for their children and approximately 90% of women in prison who have been convicted of murdering someone close to them, were victims of abuse inflicted by their “victim”.

Women in prison create community inside because that is their/our life blood. We need to belong. We need connection and family. And when women return to their communities after incarceration, they desperately seek to re-establish their sense of family and community that they had prior to incarceration and the community that was their survival mechanism while inside. What they often come home to though, is a system of re-entry providers that mirrors the prison system: designed for and by men. Women’s reentry programming has primarily been an afterthought. Men’s re-entry programs will take funding and claim to have women’s re-entry services that are little more than taking their men’s programming guidelines, throwing in a female facilitator and claiming they support women returning home. It’s insufficient and ineffective in its approach to the unique needs of women, the sense of community we need and the sheer numbers of available opportunities for support, housing and training. Childcare? Transportation? Hygiene/medical care? Parenting/family reunification? Employment opportunities that aren’t in a warehouse or construction site? All insufficient.

We can do better. Women have had an increase of more than 700% in our prison population in California in the last 30 years. The impact on communities when women get incarcerated debilitates communities for generations. We, as women with an increasing amount of influence and power, need to step into the uncomfortable space of diversity and build bridges to re-establish and strengthen our entire community of women, where everyone belongs in the circle, and everyone knows their inherent value. Imagine the change we can create in the world, together.