Kansas City, MO – Billy McKinney speaks with gallows humor about a newly-released convict's quest for a job: "I got more applications in Kansas City than the people that make the applications. You know, I'm serious. And every place I done went, I've had people tear up applications after I filled them out. I was peeking around the corner and they tore 'em up."
McKinney spent 38 years in the corrections system for offenses some of which were violent. But his experiences are pretty much the same as others who did less time - like Lowell Summers, who did 2 and a half years for drunk driving. Somers says when prospective employers see a "felony conviction reported on the application, "everything washes away. They see you as a leper, basically."
Distrust of felons isn't the only obstacle faced by someone fresh out of prison. Bernard Bryant says after 20 years in the corrections system, he didn't have a birth certificate, a driver's license, many of the things one needs to get a job in the post-9-11 market. He says the state pretty much expects ex-offenders to handle those matters on their own.
Catherine Woolery adds a social and self-worth aspect. "You know, when you come out of of prison we're uncomfortable. We don't know how to adapt by ourselves. I can say that because I've been there. We don't. Somebody who says they can come from prison and adapt by themselves. They can't."
Fortunately, there are programs to help released offenders adapt. Woolery found Turnaround, a project of Catholic Charities. She says most ex-cons come to it for needs a lot more basic than to redirect their lives. She says their first contact is for things like food, clothing and bus passes. But as time passes Turnaround begins to give its clients a sense of family. "People who come here come from prison," she adds, "and when they come from prison most of those people don't have family."
Byron McKinney (not related to Billy McKinney) came to TurnAround for bus passes and a change of clothes... then signed up for case management services. It made a difference that has helped him find a job in retail sales. He says, "It helps to have someone that's on your team that you can talk to that shares the same common goal for you to succeed out here in this world where there is so much failure going on."
Billy McKinney put it this way. "I guess for probably 30 years, loneliness has been my friend. And that's no way to live, you know, because there's always trials and tribulations running through your head. But since I've been coming through these doors here, I feel good. I feel like I'm worth something. I feel like, 'you can do this.'"
And he did... landing a job at a meat packing company in St. Joseph. All of the ex-convicts whose voices are heard in this report have found jobs. In this economy. Bernard Bryant found his opportunity through another program: Beyond the conviction.
At Beyond the Conviction, on this particular day, about 25 people crowd a small classroom across from the Jazz Museum at 18th and vine. Johnny Waller is conducting one of the many classes on job opportunities. Today he's talking about the construction industry. He talks about the basics -- getting hired, getting some experience, but always mentions the entrepreneurial angle. In terms of today's class, experience means the opportunity to start one's own construction company.
Eight out of ten who come though Beyond the Conviction find jobs. Half of those start their own businesses. Bernard Bryant joined another Beyond the Conviction graduate - Michael Jackson, who founded a placement and hiring service called Alternative Workforce Solutions.
Jackson mused on the times, the economy, and the nature of their company. "When the economy is down, you know, you're supposed to go out and get a job and be productive. I can't be productive if nobody wants to hire me. I mean, you know, as Alternative Workforce Solutions go, that's one of our main goals... is to help that aspect of an at-risk job seeker, the offender."
Nearly 23 percent of those released from Missouri prisons are sent back to prison before a year has passed. The people quoted above are from among the success stories.
But this small band of released felons provide the rest of us, who have never been to jail, a good model for job-seeking in difficult times when some employers are trashing applications.
Billy McKinney says one key is not to let frustration turn into anger: "So they tore 'em [the applicationws] up, you know. So I didn't get mad. I just went back down and got another one the next day, you know. Because I'm determined.
Byron McKinney says another element is to expect to feel depressed and plan to deal with it: "The best thing to do is just keep your head up and keep going. And I've heard that before, but it's so easily... said than done, because sometimes you just want to give up."
Catherine Woolery adds, "Remember very few people can make it on their own. I see people can make it if they have somebody who cares. If there's somebody who cares for them, you know?"