I remember it like yesterday, when a group including Yango Sawyer and Debra Rowe, known then only as ex-convicts, met in my office. We all agreed that we wanted a second chance, to be treated like Martha Stewart essentially after she repaid her debt to society for her wrongdoings. We wanted to eliminate the stigma of being called convicts because we knew the term slammed doors in our faces before we even had opportunity to show why we were worthy of a second chance. Through the advocacy of this coalition of ex-cons, which later became known as “Returned Citizens United,” we were able to lobby D.C. legislators to adopt the name “returned citizens,” and to have the newly-coined term institutionalized across the nation, with lawmakers up to the President utilizing it.
Six years later, we now approach the reauthorization of the Second Chance Act, initially authored in 2009, following a rare dynamic bi-partisan duo between Rep. Danny Davis (D) and Sen. Rob Portman (R). Advancing towards this milestone, I think that it is time for legislators to enact additional components to the Act that will promote capitalization on the enormous economic resources of the more than 2.2 million prisoners in America, many of whom were entrepreneurs!
This year, I partnered with Congressmen Danny Davis and Daniel Young, for a Kemp Forum titled “Returned Citizens Matter: Road to Self-Sufficiency.” Together, we explored the benefits, roadblocks and successes of returned citizens who reintegrated back into society becoming successful entrepreneurs. There were stories like Kenise Hudges, who invested her tax return into starting the event planning company Ideal Visions; the establishment of a social enterprise in Potomac Gardens Public Housing formed by the non-profit Little Lights and returned citizens from public housing; and the story of Travon Warren, a leader of the gay D.C. gang “Check It,” who went from terrorizing the community to starting a clothing line with the organization.
None of this is rocket science. Most returned citizens were sentenced to prison for the act of being illegal hustlers, providing the wrong product or service. Many prisoners strategically were very effective at organizing and building enterprises. What if we empowered this population then to utilize their talents very similar to the manner in which the FBI utilizes the controversial skill of hackers who have engaged in illicit acts for the benefit of the nation? Solely having opportunity can allow an individual’s curse to become a tremendous asset. It is time for America to take a fresh look at how we empower returned citizens, as it is all too evident that current practices call for modification to dent unemployment rates and to prevent recidivism. In our nation’s capital, fifty percent of the 60,000 member returned citizen population are unemployed.
This is hardly a new phenomenon, and my story also is no exception. When I returned home from prison in October 1994, I was inspired by the prospect of making retribution to the community I once helped destroy with the illegal hustle of flooding neighborhoods with illegal drugs. There was only one problem with my renewed mission: serving my community did not pay bills. I adapted by using my network and reputation to become a promoter, producing events frequented by celebrities and various public figures. Later, as I grew disgusted with the low-commitment of the people I reached out to in the non-profit world, I decided to co-found the nonprofit Peaceoholics. Over a six year tenure, we expanded to employ a staff of sixty men and women, with eighty percent of employees being returned citizens. We trained the staff to use their experience as a tool for gainful employment and for healing the community. I know many other returned citizens who have similarly turned their experiences into productive enterprises through the formation of legal businesses.
Returned citizens, like myself, have no problem hiring each other because we recognize the marketable skill sets that many of us possess and the strong level of accountability that we hold each other to. But policies with specific focus on capitalizing on this strength are strongly lacking, and legislators must focus greater attention on establishing avenues to provide returned citizens a legitimate second chance.
During this time in our nation, where the President’s policies have rightfully released 6,600 non-violent prisoners, creative avenues need to be explored to address the prisoner epidemic and returned citizen plight. Otherwise, present statistics like the following will remain: Sixty percent of returned citizens return to prison within three years.
As the Second Chance Act goes before Congress again, the question of whether we all will take a serious look at empowering returned citizens, and truly give them a “second chance” lingers. Like Martha Stewart said following her release from prison, “Every person deserves dignity. Every person deserves opportunity.”
Ron Moten is a community activist and author of “Drinking Muddy Water.”