Second chances

By Sean Stillmaker

While getting  a job might be difficult already, it can be even more challenging with a prior felony on one’s record.

“Before I had this felony, I could get a job like that,” said Mark Young. “It’s going to be a little tougher, but I’m prepared.”

Mark Young, 46, is a resident in the Englewood neighborhood. Convicted of armed robbery, he was released from Vienna Correctional Center almost one year ago, but has yet to land a permanent job.

Employers are very skeptical in hiring a person with a prior felony, and there are very few provisions that protect ex-offenders from employment discrimination.

“There is no easy quick fix, but there are a lot of companies that will take a chance,” said Rodney Walker, executive director of Teamwork Englewood.

In 2007, the Illinois Department of Corrections released more than 35,000 inmates. On Chicago’s South Side, Englewood has some of the highest rates of returning people with prior convictions, Walker said.

Teamwork Englewood is a community organization that started a re-entry program in June 2008 to assist those with prior felonies in obtaining employment and additional education, health, housing and legal services at no cost.

Funded by the city and Department of Justice, the organization was contracted to service 150 clients a year, but has serviced more than 400 in eight months (there is no maximum service number).

“This is a key service,” Walker said. “People need us.”

The biggest challenge facing ex-offenders is finding employment, said Juandalyn Holland, director of the re-entry program.

“If you have a felony, you’re put at the end of the line,” Holland said.

The Illinois Human Rights Act does not prohibit an employer from inquiring or considering an applicant’s conviction history. It does, however, prohibit employers from inquiring about conviction history that has been sealed or ordered expunged.

“[Ex-offenders] are one of the most systematically discriminated groups,” said Johnny Outlaw, case manager for the re-entry program.

Young has been turned down by four employers in the past month because of his prior convictions. He has spent the past year working temporary jobs, saving money and dedicating his time to singing in the choir at Commonwealth Community Church, 140 W. 81st St. He meets with Outlaw on a weekly basis, carrying with him his plain black binder filled with job ads, his resumes and machine-operating certificates.

Currently working as a security guard for Revere Properties in Hyde Park, Young is searching for a decent job that could sustain him for at least the next 20 years.

“I just got to stay the course and be patient,” he said.

Ex-offenders should be punctual, dedicated and diligent to gain employment, Outlaw said.

Clients are most successful getting jobs as car mechanics and working in small local restaurants. Large companies are usually hesitant to hire them, he said.

Clients with theft and sex offense convictions struggle the hardest to find jobs, but a majority have non-violent drug offenses, Holland said.

“A person with a felony will work harder than a person without one because they have something to prove,” she said.

Young said he considers himself a consistent, dependable, hard-working, punctual employee.

He’s worked in construction, warehouses, printing presses, door-to-door sales and also served in the U.S. Army.

In his old life, he used cocaine for 18 years, sold drugs and regularly partied all night, he said.

On March 11, 2006, Young walked into Pet Particulars, 1329 S. Michigan Ave., and asked for the money in the register. He had a box cutter on him but did not use it or injure anyone. Police showed up and arrested him. Young served two-and-a-half years, and during that time, he worked on getting his life back on track.

“I was an idiot,” he said. “But the old man is gone and the new man is here.”

Clients have the most success in being honest and learning to convey their stories to employers, Walker said.

The re-entry program is also offering ways for clients to be self-employed. A 16-week entrepreneurial class teaches 32 clients how to construct a business model to obtain a small business loan to start their business.

During the summer, Teamwork Englewood will have a self-employed lawn care service that could provide jobs for ex-offenders also, Walker said.

Young remains hopeful he’ll obtain a long-term permanent job.

“The most important thing is to be patient,” he said.