Handcuffed and Shackled: Running the Hurdles of Conditional Release

Hurdle
Noun

  1. An upright frame, typically one of a series, that athletes in a race must jump over.

  2. An obstacle or difficulty, e.g. “there are many hurdles to overcome”

Former prisoners re-entering the community on conditional release face many obstacles on their journey back into the community. After being separated from society, in many cases for years at a time, I would liken the experience to running a race of hurdles, but with handcuffs and shackles on. I can say this from experience as I have been serving my sentence in the community of Ottawa where I have recently been granted day parole. It has been a little over two weeks and I have had to overcome several “hurdles” myself and I can tell you that the shackles remain tight and the handcuffs are heavy.

Adapting to the rigours of life outside the rigidly predictable but often toxic walls of a prison is no easy feat for the men and women who have served their time and underwent punishment in the hands of the State. To come out the other side of the experience of imprisonment unscathed is an exceptionality in most cases, and even I, who by some standards have had several protective factors which have insulated me from some of these harms, not least of which included my association with the Book Clubs For Inmates and the wide-network of support and resources both material and spiritual that I was able to tap into, have struggled.

the shackles remain tight and the handcuffs are heavy.

The struggle is real and I would like to share a recent experience that I have had in my attempt at securing part-time employment with hopes that this will shed some light on the barriers that parolees can face as they attempt to successfully re-integrate into the community. Of course, there have been many other hurdles, like when I was told that I cannot attend a spoken word poetry event for creative self-expression because the venue sometimes serves alcohol (even though no alcohol was being served at the time I was hoping to attend). Or the fact that I must report every individual that I speak to or associate with to my case-worker at the halfway house as well as my parole officer, and that if I even think about setting foot inside a residence other than the halfway house that my Parole Officer must conduct a full-scale community assessment. No, these are minor in comparison with the experience that I have had in attempting to secure employment as it has struck at the very core of my being and is fundamental to success in the community, as this is where we derive not only our livelihood and meet our basic needs, but also weaves deep within the fabric of our identity as human beings. Think of the job that you do and try to separate who you are from what you do and I am certain that you will see this connection and how important it is.

One caveat before I begin. My case is unique. Although I have been having difficulty in my search for work I am also a part-time student at the University of Ottawa where I am studying Criminology as a scholarship recipient of the Book Clubs For Inmates, a scholarship made possible by benevolent patrons who have made significant material contributions to this organization. Furthermore, I have also recently been awarded a research assistant position at the University of Ottawa by Dr. Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology whose actions are in in harmony with his beliefs when it comes to the idea that no one in society is disposable.

It all began in my first few days in the city of Ottawa. Despite the fact that I am a part-time student, the graduated curfew and system of privileges in the halfway house is tied in large to one’s behaviour and this includes securing employment. Naturally I began my job search right away. I updated my resume and re-formatted it to account for the gaps in my employment history. The technical term for this type of resume is functional. With my functional resume in hand I began applying for jobs. This has become ridiculously easy with the evolution of technology and products designed to assist in the job search. By the end of the first week, I had applied for at least 50 jobs, mostly in call centres or for door-to-door fundraising in sales. These seemed like relatively easy jobs to secure and were in an abundance of supply. Within a couple days the calls for interviews began rolling in. I should mention that in that short window of time I fractured my foot while out on a run and after a trip to the emergency room was placed in a cast and given a set of crutches. Despite this injury, I continued my job-search but the door to door opportunities were out of the question. 

The first interview that I attended was at a telemarketing company. I hopped on my crutches and made my way down to their office, which ironically, was in the exact same building that the local parole office for the Correctional Service of Canada has relocated to. The interview went swell, I was dressed for success and was certain that I was qualified to conduct market research over the telephone. I have an undergraduate degree in sociology and several years of experience in call centres both inbound and outbound. I closed the interview with a promising handshake and the woman who I interviewed with assured me that I would be receiving a call in the next day or so. While I was confident, prior to the interview I was handed another form to fill out which asked whether I had ever been convicted of a criminal offence for which I had not received a pardon. I figured honesty was the best policy but worried that this might hurt my chances of securing the job.

The answer was clear, it was my criminal record. I was perfect for the job, but company policy allows for no exceptions when it comes to this fact.

A couple of days passed and I received an e-mail that I would not be receiving employment. While the e-mail did not state this explicitly, I was certain that my disclosure was the deciding factor. For my own reasons, I decided to contact the company and ask if this were the case or if there were some other reason, perhaps related to how I interviewed or my employment history as to why I did not receive the job. The answer was clear, it was my criminal record. I was perfect for the job, but company policy allows for no exceptions when it comes to this fact.

I rolled with that one and received word back on two other jobs that I had applied for and was at the secondary telephone interview stage. New to me, but many companies are now screening their applicants through an online system called Back-Check. Within a single day, they know whether you have ever been convicted of a criminal offence, there is no getting around it. Once again, the answer was that they could not proceed with my application due to my criminal record.

At this stage, I decided that I would need to get a little bit more strategic. I had applied for a job with a company which fundraises for large-scale non-profit organizations. They seemed extremely excited to have me come in for an interview and there was no mention at that point of a criminal background check. While the work wasn’t the most endearing (stopping people at the mall and soliciting them for a donor acquisition to a large non-profit organization), the pay was good (17.00 an hour) and the schedule was flexible and could accommodate my schedule at school. I went to the interview which was held in an executive suite at a local hotel and it went fantastic. They loved me and hired me on the spot.

I was scheduled for training the next day and sent several online documents to fill out including a contract, a 2-hour long online training session (and quiz), and then my heart sank when I received also another request for a background check. By this time, it was about ten o’clock at night, and I had already made it official by telling all my Facebook friends that I had gotten this sweet job. Needless to say, I was feeling a touch deflated. But as I thought about the information that I had shared on Back-Check I decided not to throw in the towel quite yet. They had gotten to know me, they wanted to hire me because they knew I was right for the job, and hopefully this could outflank any policy the company might have around hiring people with criminal records. I decided that instead of just letting Back-Check tell the story of my criminal record that I ought to take matters into my own hands and tell my own story. The following is the exact e-mail that I sent to the man who hired me on the spot. To protect the identity of this person I have used a pseudonym.

Hi Bill:

I would have preferred to speak to you about this in person and I know that we will get that opportunity when we meet tomorrow, but I feel it necessary that I at least attempt to provide some context to you in lieu of my having a criminal record. Obviously, this will be made available to you tomorrow when Back-Check reports the criminal record which I have disclosed to them. It is my hope however, that given your interest in employing me that my honesty and what I have been able to demonstrate in terms of turning my life around will encourage you to proceed with my employment.

I have a lengthy criminal record which begins in 2005 when I was eighteen. My last criminal convictions were in 2012 where I was sentenced to 8 years for Robbery X 3. While in the depths of my addiction to cocaine I committed three robberies in the city of Toronto, including two banks and a bingo hall. When I was apprehended in Manitoba and brought back to Toronto I pled guilty at my first court appearance and was handed the above-mentioned sentence. Since that day, I have never looked back and been on a mission to turn my life around and redeem myself in not only the eyes of society but the eyes I see in the mirror every morning. I am attaching a copy of my academic CV which indicates some of the work that I have done over the last four years but what it doesn’t show is the inner work that I have done to recover my life and face the demons that led to my life of addiction and crime. That can only be shown by looking at the man you saw in the interview room and thinking about how it is possible that he could have done the things that show on my criminal record.

I am not trying to make excuses but I came from a broken family. My Mother, who suffered from alcoholism and died from the disease when I was thirteen, left me at the hospital when I was born. I remained in the care of my Father, who also went to prison from the time I was 8-16, and took care of me in my early years. Nevertheless, I found myself in foster care on several occasions and when my Father went to prison I was placed in the care of my Aunt and Uncle. I attended at least 10 different elementary schools and four high schools before dropping out in grade 10. At that time I was kicked out of my Aunt and Uncles house and lived a transient life until I came in conflict with the law for the first time at 18. After that it was a revolving door as I went in and out after every relapse into my cycle of addiction to cocaine. All of this changed in 2012 when I was sentenced to 8 years in prison and decided once and for all that I was not going to waste my life anymore. While incarcerated my Father also passed away and this was a promise that I made to him on his death bed.

I have kept that promise and in July 2016 I was granted day parole. While in prison I earned an undergraduate degree in Sociology and published several papers in academic journals. I organized charity events for the Boys and Girls Club Kingston, The Youth Diversion Program, Make A Wish Eastern Ontario, and The Kingston Youth Shelter. I assisted other prisoners in dealing with challenges that they had adapting to the conditions of prison life and served as a peer counsellor promoting harm-reduction. In addition, I became an advocate and have made contributions to local, regional, and national news-media regarding prison related issues, and spoken in front of judges, lawyers, and other stakeholders in the criminal justice system. As you know, I am currently working on my second degree in criminology with plans to become a professor of criminology. The experience and strength that I have shown has become a valuable source of inspiration for many people around me who believe in me and want to see me succeed. I am never going back to prison and I am committed to redeeming myself. I am aware that companies like yours have rigid polices around this sort of thing but it is my hope that my story will outflank a rigid policy. From what I understand about your company so far, a story has a lot of power and it is my sincere hope that you will read the truth in it. 

Whatever your decision, I respect it and understand. I know that there are consequences to our actions and if I am unable to receive this job it will be another reminder of that fact. In any case I have appreciated the opportunity that you have given me so far to showcase my talents and go through this interview process. It has only made me stronger as a person. At the same time I know that I can do this job and do it well. Please take all of this into consideration when making your decision. If there is any information that you require at all, I am totally willing, as I have shown, to be upfront and honest.

Looking forward to speaking tomorrow.

Regards,

Jarrod Shook

At 6:30am the following morning I received an e-mail from Bill. He expressed appreciation for my honesty but said that he could not comment until he spoke with the company Human Resources specialist and to his credit he did take the liberty of forwarding my e-mail in its entirety to the head office. I bit my nails for most of the morning as I was supposed to attend training at 10:00am. At 9:15am I received a personal telephone call from the HR department. It was a heartfelt rejection, once again company policy dictates that those with a criminal record cannot be considered for employment. I was informed that this was largely a policy of the client. I found that ironic because during my online training I was tasked to familiarize myself with the non-profit’s Mission Statement. It reads as follows:

"is an international partnership of Christians whose mission is to follow our lord and savior Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice, and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God."

Evidently this mission does not extend itself to those with criminal records who are trying to redeem themselves in the eyes of society. This is not to denigrate the non-profit or the fundraising company, I just found it to be a touch ironic. To the credit of the fundraising company, they did offer to compensate me for the 1.5 hour that I spent familiarizing myself with the non-profit organization we would be raising funds for. 

Most parolees do not have these protective factors in their lives and are facing these barriers alone.

At the outset of this blog post I likened to experience of re-integration into the community to that of running hurdles, but with shackles and handcuffs on. My experience so far confirms this to be a valid analogy. At the same time my experience, difficult as it has been, is atypical. I have a ton of support, a University Degree, the status of Student to rely upon, and a network of support both material and spiritual that I can draw upon to make it over these hurdles, despite the shackles and handcuffs. Most parolees do not have these protective factors in their lives and are facing these barriers alone. Not only are they doing this alone but they are doing it while dealing with mental health and addiction issues, facing discrimination based upon their identifiable characteristics, and struggling to cope with the realities of life beyond the wall. They need your help.


 

Jarrod Shook is a writer, advocate, and student in Criminology at the University of Ottawa.