Programs help ex-offenders get fresh starts

 Re-entry program includes resume writing, interview tips

By Scott Smith
Kokomo Tribune

KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) — William Sears wishes there was some way to remove some of his prison tattoos.

The 38-year-old father of two has spent the past four years re-acclimating to life on the outside, but people get a look at some of his tats, especially the teardrop below his right eye, and they make judgments.

“My tattoos and not having a real firm job history,” he told the Kokomo Tribune when asked what obstacles he faces in trying to land steady employment.

There’s no doubt Sears, who attended a job fair at Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church Wednesday with his wife, Tonya, has done some things he regrets.

But he’s also done his time and he’s removed himself from the California gang life he grew up with. As a further step, he’s just completed a 10-week training program offered by Kokomo’s Gilead House called Aiming for Success.

Aiming for Success isn’t so much a job training program — although it has a component on resume writing and interviewing — as much as it is a re-entry program for offenders, Gilead House director Reba Harris explained.

“We try to teach some of the soft skills — communication, and the importance of relationships and of family,” Harris said. “There’s anger management — how to control their comments and handle conflict. The goal is to help them become more employable.”

Sears, soft-spoken with a deep voice, acknowledges he’d love to be able to get into a job situation where no one knew about his criminal past.

That anonymity could happen sooner rather than later, thanks to changes in Indiana’s laws. Under Indiana’s Second Chance Law, offenders can now petition to have their convictions expunged from the state’s central criminal history repository.

That means employers wouldn’t be able to spot an expunged conviction on a limited criminal background check and now have to rephrase application questions.

Under the new law, a person may be questioned about a previous criminal record only in terms that exclude expunged convictions or arrests, such as: “Have you ever been arrested for or convicted of a crime that has not been expunged by a court?”

It’s a significant change for ex-cons, and recognition that getting ex-offenders into employment situations may be one of the best ways to keep them from returning to prison.

“Indiana should be the worst place in America to commit a serious crime and the best place, once you’ve done your time, to get a second chance,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said when he signed an update to the law last month.

Sears said he tells employers about his history even though he served his prison sentence in another state and it doesn’t always show up on employer criminal background checks.

“I tell them the truth, but telling the truth can hurt you,” he said, adding hiding the truth causes its own problems and telling the truth “is an important part of my rehabilitation.”

“You can see it, and you can hear it. They say they aren’t going to hold it against you, but they do. If something comes up stolen, you’re the first person they’re going to look at.”

Howard County Superior Court 1 Judge William Menges sees both sides of the issue.

He gets all the county’s drug dealing cases, and he doles out the sentences.

But he also runs the county’s Drug Court, which offers non-violent drug offenders a chance to seek treatment and life changes, deferring prison as long as they stick to the program and stay on the straight and narrow.

“It’s going to have a major impact because people aren’t going to know they’re interviewing a felon,” Menges said of the expungement law.

But the reality, he said, is that “whether you serve a long prison sentence or a short sentence, studies show you’ll be back out in a short time.”

With so many offenders coming out of prison every year, “we’ve got to do something about recidivism,” Menges said.

Wednesday, Sears and nine other Aiming for Success candidates were graduating and the ceremony was being held together with the first-ever Aiming for Success job fair, giving candidates a chance to meet with potential employers and service providers.

“We realize many of these people have had difficult childhoods and they’ve developed skills to survive, and when they’ve been in prison, they’ve developed more skills to survive,” Harris said. “But these skills they’ve developed are very damaging to the community.”

She calls it being “more people-oriented,” and talking to Sears, it’s easy to get a sense of how that’s not the easiest thing, coming from prison.

Keeping to oneself is a solid tactic in prison, especially if you’re trying to avoid gang affiliations. But Sears talks about feeling shy around people, of wanting to sit in a corner, staying watchful, when he goes places outside the home.

“In 10 years, I never once got any mail from any of my so-called homeboys,” Sears said. “Nobody cares about you when you go in the system. I did a lot of thinking in prison.”

Since getting out, he’s had odd jobs and a job which didn’t work out, because Sears said, the boss didn’t trust him.

But he said he’ll keep trying.

“I get frustrated. A man’s supposed to work. That’s true not just on a cash level, but on a mental level,” he said.

“It will happen. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take,” Menges said, when asked what he tells frustrated ex-cons about the job search. “Keep trying, because if you don’t ask for a job, you’re not going to get one. You have to keep asking, until someone does say yes.”