Finding Work After 34 Years in Prison

After 34 years of incarceration, the author was anxious to start working and contributing to society. Read his story of re-entry, employment, and the motivation of a former lifer.

(The author is an avid motorcyle rider, and comment on how feels grateful for the freedom he feels on the open road.)

My last paycheck behind the walls was for nineteen cents an hour. I was a sought-after employee, having served 34 years and already proven my work ethic. Anytime a position came open in the prison, I had a significant chance of being assigned, if I chose to be. As my time came closer in February 2014 for Governor Brown to allow the Parole Board to release me, or not, I had the expectation that—if I were to be released—I would have to work a little harder than the average job seeker, but that I would be gainfully employed in a couple of weeks at the latest.

My expectations were completely unrealistic. Ahead of any serious effort at job hunting, I had to navigate the maze of DMV, Social Security office and the various other appointments my parole agent had made for me. Before being incarcerated in 1980, I could walk into a business and talk my way into a job that might very well start the same day. Now I was being told to apply online and, “somebody will get back to you.”  It made me wonder if a person would ever see it.

All of the Lifer support groups I attended in prison emphasized being honest about a record so there would be no negative repercussions later. What they failed to understand is that employers for the jobs I was applying for only checked back seven years. I could put “no” in the box and still be right, as my last arrest was 1980. It cost me my first two opportunities for work. I tried to explain that as a lifer, I had to earn my way out and make significant changes most prisoners weren’t required to. I thought the employer would feel my excitement and recognize I had proven myself many years ago. That wasn’t the case. As I shared my journey and the joy at being able to work for real amounts of money, I could see their eyes glaze over and their body posture close up. Clearly they weren’t viewing what I had overcome with as much enthusiasm as I had hoped.

Job fairs, online ads and networking seemed to be a slow process. After all, I just wanted to work. Why couldn’t they see I was just the guy they needed?  Finally my opportunity came and I was ready for it. I work a full-time station at a new steakhouse & grill. After the position was mine, I realized how anxious I had been about finding work, paying my bills, and making the adjustments necessary to function in this new world. It is a relief that allows me to sleep better at night and welcome the new day with confidence.

My current struggle is one of communication. Almost everyone in the kitchen speaks Spanish and while I can get by—it’s just barely. Even my supervisor (who speaks much better English than I speak Spanish) clearly uses English as a distant second language. Some of my friends grumble about them not learning English, but I take a different view. If I want to do well there, I need to do my part, not expect everyone to change for me.  Estoy apprendiendo Espanol muy despacio. I think of how it must be like when a Spanish-speaker is trying to learn a job with nothing but English speakers and I can now truly empathize.

Empathy? Me? Finding a desire and ability to empathize is one of the measuring tools I use to keep me on the forward path. I feel grateful for this chance to be a member of the community and I’m willing to take whatever steps are necessary to do it well. Finding employment has been key for me to evolve from a surreal feeling and wondering if I belong here, to feeling confident and hopeful about the future. Employment is a huge factor in stabilizing a long-term parolee. It brings with it the feeling of having a life-preserver in the ocean while treading water.

There are other pieces to the puzzle that various groups stepped up with as I entered this bright new world from prison on February 12, 2014. The Re-Entry Center, Community Solutions, Good Samaritan and Bridges of Hope all helped my transition in ways I’ll always remember and pay forward.

I feel grateful each and every day and take my place in society seriously. I want to be a good citizen, a good neighbor and a good man.  You’ll find that most of the prisoners who have served more than two or three decades in CDCR have similar sentiments. These people need employment soon after release. That investment will reap this community untold amounts of return by people who are some of the most motivated and appreciative people you will ever meet.

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Tom............I hope and pray buddy you get this info from me. I am your Canadian pen pal that wrote to you last Fall of 2013.Congratulations on your parole, Tom!!!!! Good for you my dear friend..........I am so proud of you. I would love to reconnect with you, Tom, and I pray this message will get to you. I have thought of you often in 2014 my friend. Let's connect again buddy. your Canadian friend, ROGER

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