Reformed Felons Help Newly Released|Prisoners Navigate a Tough Job Market

     HOUSTON (CN) — Every year 16,000 to 18,000 felons return to the Houston area after being released from Texas prisons. Whether they can avoid returning to prison largely depends on one thing: if they can find a job.
     The statistic does not include the number who return to Greater Houston from federal prison each year, are released from the Harris County Jail in downtown Houston or who move to the area after being incarcerated in other states, according to Willis Robinson.
     Robinson, 56, is manager of the City of Houston Community Re-entry Network Program, which since it started in 2008 has graduated more than 500 felons from its 12-week program, which offers clients counseling services with case managers, life-skills classes, computer-and-job interview training, help with resumes and job referrals.
     Robinson said the program has developed a job pipeline to the city’s Public Works Department.
     “They will not hire an ex-offender unless an ex-offender comes through our program. So we have a great working relationship with public works because they believe in what we’re doing, and it works,” Robinson said.
     “They all start off as temporary employees and we’ve got about 16 to 18 more who have now become full-time employees for the Public Works Department.”
     Robinson said the re-entry program has only a few criteria for admission: “Do not be a sex offender or an arsonist. Be 18 years old or older and have had some dealings with the criminal justice system, whether you’ve spent one day in jail or more than 20 years.”
     Faye Robinson, 59, is a case manager supervisor for the program. She said she would like to add a housing component because many apartment managers don’t rent to felons, and those who do often charge double the normal security deposit.
     Katie Shelton, 40, could use some housing assistance. She moved to Houston in July “to start her life over” after she was released from a federal prison in Minnesota.
     “I went to federal prison for a legal gun and bullets — my nephew’s gun. It was in my home and he lived with me. They came in looking for him and they arrested me for the gun,” Shelton said.
     It’s a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison for felons to knowingly possess guns.
     A tall, bleached blonde with an easy laugh, Shelton said she’s familiar with blue-collar work because she grew up working with her family’s tow truck, sanitation and home-moving business in Oklahoma.
     She shoveled snow and did landscaping at the low-security federal prison in Waseca, Minn. for 12 cents an hour and worked with a prison crew in Arizona, where she served time for drug crimes and felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. In Arizona she cut down trees, dug manholes and moved boulders outside the prison in Perryville, making 25 cents an hour.
     “I know how to shingle roofs, I know how to lay rebar down, I know how to lay cement,” she said with a laugh. “I mean, I’m good at it.”
     Despite her work experience, by late September had applied for 13 jobs in Houston with no takers.
     “I’ve put in my application at Wal-Mart, grocery stores. Kroger denied me, a restaurant, waitressing, even stocking and packaging. I haven’t had any luck,” she said.
     “No one’s ever going to hire me unless it’s under the table; that’s what I believe, because I’m getting turned down left and right. And it kind of hurts. It makes me feel like I’m worthless, but I’m not going to give up.”
     Shelton is living at a halfway house in downtown Houston and is eager to move out due to the sleeping arrangements, metal cots with “paper thin” mattresses, meager rations of no more than half a cup of food a day, and residents’ blatant drug use.
     “There’s a lot of K2 being smoked in there,” she said. K2 is a common name for synthetic marijuana, a far more dangerous drug than the plant.
     Like Shelton, Crystal Johnson, 35, is starting her life over in Houston, her hometown.
     Johnson came home Aug. 3 after serving 13 years in a Texas state prison.
     Johnson, who is African-American, had six children before she was incarcerated in her early 20s for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. She clashed with her family during her first days back home and wondered if she would ever find a job.
     “My first two weeks it was hard, to the point some days I would just be thinking, ‘God, I wish I was just back in prison because this is just too much,'” she said.
     But unbeknownst to Johnson, her parole terms had put her on the path to employment.
     She had to attend a class called Battered Intervention Prevention Program at Second Chance Consulting in North Houston, where she caught the eye of the company owner Johnnie Tatum, who runs the class.
     “When I saw Crystal the first day I saw pain in her eyes and I could tell she was afraid,” Tatum said.
           Tatum offered Johnson a part-time job and now she works in his office 4 hours a day, answering phones and helping organize files on the company’s more than 2,000 clients.
     Second Chance Consulting offers parolees and probationers classes in anger management, parenting, defensive driving, alcohol-and-drug education and more.
     “I could see she was slipping, feeling like she might slip into a depression, because when you slip into that depression then you stay in the house. And then her family, they didn’t understand all the stuff that she was going to need, and they were bumping heads. So now she’s coming here and she can make a little change and take care of herself. It has helped,” Tatum said.
     “She looks totally different than the first time I met her and she hasn’t been here more than maybe a month, if that.”
     Johnson laughed as she recalled her first encounter with technologies that were not prevalent when she entered prison, but now are part of everyday life in the free world — and looking for technology that no longer exists.
     During her first week home, she took the bus to run an errand that finished two hours earlier than she expected, and her mother was supposed to pick her up, so she went looking for a phone.
     “I just take off down the street looking for a pay phone,” she said. “So finally after I had walked up and down the street for 30 minutes, I finally stopped and I asked this lady, ‘Excuse me, ma’am, do you know where a pay phone is around here? You know, the thing you put the quarters in?’
     “She said, ‘Oh sweetie. They don’t have pay phones anymore. Everyone’s running around using cellphones. You don’t have a cellphone? Oh, you need to invest in one of them. That could be the best investment you ever make.”
     Tatum, 49, understands her challenges all too well. He was raised by a single mother in the Acres Homes neighborhood in northwest Houston, where the average per capita income is $35,000 — $30,000 below the state average, and 9.2 percent of residents are unemployed, according to city-data.com.
     Tatum, a bald African-American man built like an NFL linebacker, said he first smoked marijuana when he was 7.
     “My older siblings left it in the ashtray, but I had seen them do it. So that’s where I picked it up from. So me, wanting to be cool, I took it to school with my friends. That’s when they sent a letter to my mom, and I can just see it like it was yesterday,” Tatum said in a meeting room at Second Chance Consulting between sips of soda, ice cubes rattling in his large Subway Sandwiches cup.
     Tatum’s mother sent him to see his uncle, who beat him with a fan belt.
     He said that as a kid, most of the adults in his life did not encourage him to see beyond his troubled neighborhood.
     “They told me that I would never amount to be shit; I would be in prison before I’m 25, probably would be dead before I’m 25. ‘So you’re telling me all these things but you expect me to do something different?'” he asked.
     He dedicated himself to football, playing fullback and inside linebacker in high school and college, believing it was his ticket to a better life.
     “I understand why I thought it was my way out, because football or basketball or something like that, you could see on TV consistently. If you were a doctor, I never saw a doctor before. I never saw an attorney. But I could see football every Sunday.”
     With his football dream sidelined, Tatum said, he took a correctional officer job at the Darrington Unit in Rosharon, 30 miles south of Houston, in 1988.
     A guy who Tatum grew up with and played football with was incarcerated there, and he played on Tatum’s loyalty, and persuaded him to bring in drugs for him.
     Tatum branched out to smuggling in drugs for other inmates.
     Set up by a snitch, Tatum walked into a setup and was arrested with 3 ounces of marijuana.
     He was incredulous when his court-appointed defense attorney visited him in jail and asked him to sign a plea deal.
     “He told me, ‘If you sign for 18 years. We can get this done today.’
     “I said, ‘Man, I’m Johnnie Tatum. I had weed.’ I said, ‘I’m not signing anything. Eighteen years!’
     “See, what was happening back then, you could sign for an 18-year sentence and probably do three years on it and come home. And I was young. And I thought about it, but thank God I didn’t sign that. Because once you get out, and I got all this time, I would probably be just getting off parole.”
     Punishments for marijuana crimes in Texas are much lighter nowadays.
     “I’m not crying about it, but, dude, I had marijuana,” Tatum said. “I got people coming to these classes now with marijuana cases, I don’t say anything, but, man, they’re getting six months probation. I’m like, ‘God damn, man. I got six years.’ I did two years on a six.”
     After he got out of prison, Tatum connected with a football coach he’d met as a teenager, and the coach persuaded him to move to Ogden, Utah to attend Weber State University, where Tatum played football and earned an associate’s degree in radiological science and a bachelor’s degree in advanced radiology.
     He moved back to Houston and didn’t let his background stop him from getting a good job in his field. He became the radiology director at Methodist Willowbrook Hospital in Houston, making $120,000 a year and up to $15,000 in yearly bonus pay.
     Then his past came calling. A hospital employee had taken several sick days off and he and a supervisor were talking about firing her. The woman came to work sick one day and Tatum said he urged her to see a doctor.
     “That was on a Tuesday. Thursday she was dead. So for me it was over,” Tatum said.
     He said his background left him no choice but to resign, given the tragedy’s possible ramifications.
     “If that family would have come to try to sue Methodist, and her attorneys had found out I was a convicted felon, oh, they would have a 90 percent chance of winning the case because they’re going to paint me out as being this bad guy that wasn’t fair to this lady and now she’s dead. So they had to give me a choice: Either you resign or we terminate you,” he said.
     Tatum used the MBA he obtained in 2004 from the University of Phoenix and opened Second Chance Consulting, though he never wanted to own his own business, and would have preferred to keep his radiology job.
     “I never really wanted to be an entrepreneur; I was forced out,” he said.
     Despite his reluctance to go out on his own, he appears to have found his calling.
     When he opened Second Chance Consulting in 2009, he bought some large filing cabinets for the business.
     “When I first moved in here I was looking at those file cabinets like, damn, can I do this?” he said with a big contagious laugh. “Now you go back there it’s packed. I don’t want to sound like I’m exaggerating but I know we’ve seen over 2,500 people. That’s a lot of people, man.”
     Tatum is overseeing the renovation of a cemetery in Acres Homes that became overgrown and neglected under a former owner. He said the “greedy” owner dumped out bodies, resold caskets and stacked dead people on top of each other.
     He drove by one day and “it just looked like a jungle,” so he decided to assemble a team to clean it up. Four years later, the project has progressed to the point that officials recently erected a historical marker at the cemetery. Tatum puts probationers and parolees to work there to complete their community service hours.
           Tatum has established a relationship with Goodwill Industries of Houston, which sends him military veterans who were incarcerated after leaving the service, and pays them to work for him at the cemetery.
     The veterans work for Tatum for 90-day periods and put the job on their resumes with the goal of finding something permanent, Goodwill case manager Eric Tillman said.
     Although Tatum is giving back to his old neighborhood with the cemetery project, he said he can no longer live in the area, which has the same pitfalls he faced as a youth there, and he moved his mother out of the neighborhood into his home.
     “Even when I go back periodically, now I don’t even feel comfortable because I’ll go back and these guys got guns on them and marijuana and crack cocaine,” he said.
     Tatum, who takes blood pressure medication, said his wife urged him to stop visiting his mom there because he would come home upset by the young guys selling drugs there, who don’t know him, so they wouldn’t move out of the street to let his car pass.
     Tatum said petty disputes can quickly become hazardous where he grew up.
     “In most communities like this you call each other by your nickname and if you are in the streets, and you’re doing things, nobody really knows your real name,” he said.
     “So we were down there, it’s minor, but somebody called out this guy’s real name. Man, he got upset. He said, ‘Man, it’s only three guys in here that know my name. Don’t you ever.’
     “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Johnnie this was you.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ I got in my truck I was laughing to myself. I’m like, ‘Man, let me get the hell out of here.’ This was right down the street from where I grew up.”
     The Houston employer that hires the most ex-offenders is probably the city itself.
     Alfred Jones, 44, is a graduate of the city’s Community Re-entry Network Program, which now employs him as a customer-service representative. “I connect the clients to the services they need,” he said.
     On a recent day in October, Jones patrolled the halls of the Kashmere Multi-Service Center in northeast Houston, a building with large classrooms and computer labs that houses the re-entry program.
           Jones, who could pass for a man 10 years younger, attributes his looks to his healthy lifestyle. “I work out every day, no habits, don’t drink, never smoke, nothing. I’ve never smoked in my life.”
     He returned to Houston in 2015 to live with his 70-year-old mother after spending 18 years in the Texas prison system for robbery.
     Now he’s making up for lost time. He works full-time for the re-entry program then changes out of his business attire and goes to work for Home Depot.
     He pointed through the glass doors of the multi-service center to a BMW sport-utility vehicle in the parking lot.
     “See that truck. I’m a prison man; that’s my truck, a BMW. I have a 2016 Kia because I’m rolling, man. I have my own business. I redo homes. I remodel houses. That’s what I do on the side. So on my off days, I don’t do the off days,” he said, snapping his fingers.
     Jones, whose gift for gab is evident in his eye contact and conspiratorial tone, said he taught life classes in prison and now leads a men’s group every Thursday for the re-entry program.
     When he was enrolled in the program, he said, a staff member noticed he was always the last to leave the building, even after the employees, and offered him a job.
     For Jones it’s more than that.
     “There’s a purpose for me to be here other than the bullshit,” he said. “This is why I stay here so long. Because somebody’s going to come through these doors and ask for something. They don’t have any resources; they don’t have the knowledge. So it’s up to me and it’s my job.”
     
     
     Photo caption 1: Second Chance Consulting owner Johnnie Tatum at the company’s Houston office. Photo by Cameron Langford.
     
     Photo caption 2: Rest Lawn Cemetery, before and after renovation work. Photo courtesy of Johnnie Tatum.
     
     Photo caption 3: City of Houston Community Re-Entry Network Program customer-service representative Alfred Jones at the Kashmere Multi-Service Center in Houston. Photo by Cameron Langford.

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