He found God in prison

now can someone find him a job?

February 18, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

I listen to these stories -- I've heard hundreds over the years -- and some are more convincing than others, and some, like Shelton Brown's, come christened with so much God, you're in no position to argue.

Four years ago, Mr. Brown was selling crack and carrying a 9 mm handgun. Today he's on home detention and thanking God for the time he spent in prison, saying it was God who changed his life. It's what he fervently believes. If it keeps Shelton Brown from returning to his old ways, getting rearrested and taking up space -- at $26,000 a year -- in a Maryland prison, then I say leave it alone, and God be praised.

I've heard the stories of so many ex-offenders, mostly former drug dealers such as Mr. Brown, that I've learned how to tell the ones who are earnest from the ones who are just a wink and a whisper away from the streets.

The ones who want to go straight speak of making their mothers proud, of keeping in good graces with their girlfriends, wives or fiancées, and of supporting their children. They tend to be older than the 20-somethings who frequently violate probation and return to prison. The ones who have a chance have support from family, too, and that's true in Mr. Brown's case.

They don't mention God so much.

We tend to regard as almost stereotypical the thug who finds the lord in a prison cell. But in my experience, the invoking of the almighty has not been that common. I was a little surprised when Shelton Brown brought it up.

"I know God has something better for me," he said from the house he shares with his girlfriend of 10 years in Anne Arundel County. "God wants me to change. He wants me to be more productive and live positively, so my soul will be at peace."

Though his grandmother had taken him to church every Sunday when he was kid, and though he had the almighty "always in my heart," Mr. Brown stayed cleared of God when he was selling crack in Calvert County and carrying a handgun. "I was doing negative things, and it would have been hypocritical of me to pray to God at that time," he said.

Until a judge sent him to one of our institutions in Jessup, Mr. Brown says, he had never done serious time. (I checked that out and confirmed it.) He wants us to believe that being in prison for a few years actually taught him a lesson. "It was a wake-up call," he said.

We tend to regard as almost stereotypical the criminal unmoved by the clang of steel. We tend to think of them as hard-heads who never change. Here's a guy who says he has -- with the help of God.

And now he's looking for a job, with a criminal record and in the toughest job market in three decades.

He got his GED, took an employment-readiness course and trained to be a forklift operator while in prison. (That's another thing that distinguishes the earnest from the doomed: They prepared for release, to the extent they could, while incarcerated.) He's looking for a loading dock, warehouse or cashier's job like the ones he had before he started selling crack.

Then, with enough startup capital, he wants to open a kiosk in a mall and sell newspapers, magazines, music CDs and films on DVD. "And eventually," he said, "I'd like to open my own clothing store."

Right now, he's looking for any job he can take when home detention ends in four months.

I warned Shelton Brown that he's at an age -- he turned 30 just two weeks ago -- where it could still go either way. He could get a second chance from a company willing to give him one or let rejection push him back to the street.

"It's a test of not getting what I want immediately," he said when I asked if he was prepared for prospective employers who either are not hiring ex-offenders or not hiring at all. "God's testing me."

May God help him find a job.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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