Start a victorious cycle: Aid ex-convict

April 13, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

I asked Darryl Russell about the slick, full-color folder on the dinette table in his house in Baltimore County. "Oh," he said, "that was for a company that sets you up in the cleaning business. But it was too much money."

The company wanted $4,000 to provide industrial vacuums and steam cleaners, and then a 5 percent take on revenue from cleaning contracts on office buildings. It was a good idea for Russell, a 45-year-old ex-offender eager to get on with his life, but not a great deal, and certainly not something he could afford.

So he kept the folder, and he uses it to file job leads.

The Sun's ex-offender information packet is in the folder.

Russell's last stint in prison ended two years ago this month. After his release, he called here (410-332-6166) looking for help in finding employment. I mailed him a list of Baltimore-area employers known to have hired ex-offenders.

There are all sorts of companies on the list, but not nearly enough of them. Those that are have tightened up as the economy slips into recession.

"Most of them," Russell said, "just aren't hiring. Do you have any more leads?"

Darryl Russell is one of close to 6,500 men and women who have criminal records and who have contacted The Sun since June 2005 for help.

Some have landed jobs, though I can't say how many because we haven't been tracking them. Only a few ever get back to us.

Some have told me about finding jobs, and keeping them.

Some have been arrested again. At least one that I know of became a homicide victim.

The majority who called here already had been rejected for jobs because of their criminal histories. The background checks haunt them. Some have not committed a crime in a decade and still can't catch a break.

Based on my interviews with paroled offenders or those on probation, approximately half of the men are like Russell - mid-20s to mid-40s, tired of using drugs and getting arrested for it. They want families, stable homes. Many mention that they'd like to make their mothers proud, and they don't want their working wives and girlfriends kicking them out of the house. They want to work, too.

Russell has worked plenty since he got out of jail - but for a temp agency that took part of his pay. He liked the job, operating a forklift in a distribution center in Anne Arundel County, but the company laid him off a couple of weeks ago.

He only worked for the temp agency because it was willing to hire him. Many other job applications have been rejected because of Russell's criminal record.

The criminal record looks like this: Between 10 and 12 of his 45 years spent behind bars; several theft charges; drug possession charges; one drug distribution conviction, in 1989. He stole when he was young, Russell says, "just to have things, clothes my parents couldn't afford for me." Later, after he started using cocaine, the thefts were for goods he sold for cash to feed his habit.

Russell was reluctant to talk about all this on the record, with his full name published.

But I told him it was necessary to be candid. He kicked his cocaine habit four years ago. He seems earnest about finding a steady job. Someone might read this and offer him one. It has happened before.

"I have resentments toward myself for what I did," he says. "I resent and regret that those things happened, but they happened. I wish life was like a VCR, and that you could push rewind and erase. I guess I'm saying [to prospective employers]: `Don't look at what I've done. Look at where I wanna go.' In many ways, I feel like I'm just growing up. ... The man I'm being today is who I really am.

"If ex-offenders are being rejected for second chances, they're just going to go back to the only other thing they know - hustlin', the street. Y'all got to start giving guys a shot of hope. ...

"Look, I'm not trying to give a pity party here. We have to go out and work. But how do you work when you put in a job application and you don't even get considered? You could have done 99 things right in your life, and that one thing you did wrong keeps you from getting a job."

In Russell's case it was more than one thing wrong.

Though it includes no crimes of violence, his criminal record probably scares prospective employers. Finding one who will give him a chance could take a while.

He's doing the right things - putting in job applications every week, reporting to Baltimore County's work force development office. I suggested a high school equivalency degree. He should also get federal bonding, insuring a prospective employer for up to $5,000 in theft. Russell agreed.

"My wife wants me to stay positive, and I'm going to," he says. "And I pray other guys take a shot of hope from me. If they see me get a job, they'll say, `If he can do it, I can do it.' Maybe that will help other guys coming out of prison."

Did you get that? If a local business gives Darryl Russell a job, others will be inspired to get off the street and go straight. That sounds like a two-fer.

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM. Adults with criminal records can obtain information about re-entry programs and jobs by leaving their name, phone number and mailing address at 410-332- 6166 or at dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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