NEWARK - A returning citizen faces serious questions: Do I have anybody to help me? Is my old community a safe place to be? Can I get a job with my record? Will apartment rental agencies screen me out because of my record and my bad credit, and the fact that I have no money to put down? So where will I live? Can I stay sober? Can I get support for my mental health? How can I get to appointments if I don’t have a car?
For all these reasons, reentry is especially hard, says Wendy Tarr, an organizer for the Vincentian Ohio Action Network, especially if you don’t have a supportive community ready to welcome you back. The stress alone can derail a returning citizen by causing addictions to resurface and exacerbating mental health issues.
Not every returning citizen has the same experiences as Cole, Tarr says. “There’s a wide range of reentries—and this starts while people are still in prison. Tina had access to job training and supportive services while she was still inside.” But not everyone gets the same services inside or the same support when they leave. “You’ll hear stories of people getting put on a Greyhound bus with $50, still in their uniforms,” says Tarr. “This happens especially with jails where there are shorter sentences and few programs.”
“It’s crucial to have communities that are ready to receive people,” Tarr says, “and programs that can address the issues they’re facing. If we can do that when people get out so they’re not just dropping people off, then there’s a continuum of care. This is what made Tina’s transition work—she had a caseworker, housing, and a job.”
Securing employment is key, and that’s not a simple task for returning citizens. The struggle begins as soon as they start filling out employment applications and must check the box stating whether or not they have had a felony conviction. An application with the box checked is often ignored.
In recent years the movement to “ban the box” has urged employers to remove the box, and some have even encouraged legislation addressing the issue. Last year Jeremy Blake ’12, a Denison IT technician and member of the City Council of Newark, Ohio, helped write legislation to ban the box on city employment applications. After hearing the stories of returning citizens struggling to find employment and support their families, he knew that banning the box was the right thing to do. “So many people have been touched by the criminal justice system,” says Blake. “They have brothers, sisters, cousins, someone they know who has been incarcerated or struggles with mental health or addiction issues.”
Blake was encouraged to write the legislation by the Newark Think Tank on Poverty, an organization Wendy Tarr works with. The Think Tank has held forums to educate Licking County government officials and business owners about the issue. State governments also are banning the box on applications for jobs in the public sector. Ohio’s ban was signed into law by Governor John Kasich just before Christmas.
On the day the Newark City Council voted on Blake’s “ban the box” legislation, Tina Cole was there. When the floor opened for public comments, she spoke in favor of the legislation before the representatives of her community, the same community where she’d sold drugs years before.
“Taking this box off applications isn’t just giving us a chance to get jobs,” she told the council. “It’s showing us that our community is supporting us, that the city is backing us and is opening more doors.”
She said that if the legislation passes, returning citizens in Newark will be able to hold their heads high. She said that she worked hard to prepare herself for her return and wants to do good and support her family. She concluded by noting that “The last line in the Pledge of Allegiance says ‘with liberty and justice.’ We did our justice. We did our crime; we did our time. It says ‘for all.’ It doesn’t say, ‘except for convicted felons.’”
The room erupted in applause.
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