How to Succeed After Prison: Ignore the Pessimists

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"hope" Photo by Ricardo Jose via Flickr

I knew that there would be barriers awaiting me when I was released from prison on October 28, 2019. I was prepared for it.

As I have written before in The Crime Report, the myopic view of the world that I was able to perceive through the bars of a prison cell convinced me accepting “that one’s future is bleak—and that there is little that prisoners can do to change their destiny—can go a long way towards mitigating the risk of reoffending.”

That’s because, as I went on to write, “It inoculates against feelings of relative deprivation and you forgo chasing pipe dreams.”

But I was wrong.

Having been set free after 27 years in captivity, my perspective on reentry has broadened. I no longer believe that prisoners have to accept that their futures are bleak, simply because statistics reveal that most will spend their lives living on the margins of society.

Dreams can be turned into reality. My life is a testament to this.

Mea culpa.

But the fact that I am a little more optimistic about my own future doesn’t make the challenge of reintegrating into society any easier. Two months of freedom have taught me that no matter your age at the time of your offense, how much time has elapsed since the sentence was imposed, or your demonstrated post-conviction rehabilitation—your future prospects are greatly diminished, once you are branded a felon.

My first lesson in felony disenfranchisement came while attempting to rent an apartment in Everett, Wa.

While the city of Seattle has restricted landlords from using criminal history information to preclude former prisoners from renting, no such ordinance exists in the City of Everett.

So even though the rent for the apartments that my fiancée Aimeé Muul and I were interested in encompassed less than 20 percent of our joint income, and she had a pristine rental history, my criminal record made it virtually impossible for us to find a decent place to live.

Even the websites for apartments we wanted to rent made it clear that felons had little chance of being approved as tenants. Behind language that made a pretense of compliance with the Fair Housing Act, my college degree and gainful employment were meaningless.

The only landlords who were open to considering my application were those who managed apartments I had little interest in because a quick check of crime maps in the neighborhoods where they were located suggested the areas were ghettos by proxy.

But if we couldn’t find a manager willing to consider who I am in 2019 as opposed to who I was 27 years ago—the ghetto it would be.

Redemption Ignored, Opportunities Foreclosed

Countless people who committed crimes in their youth have had opportunities foreclosed on them because of their long-ago felonies.

I know several.

One was a law student at the top of her class who was accepted into a prestigious internship at the Department of Justice. The school started a blog so she could share her experience with classmates, friends and family. While awaiting her flight to Washington DC, a Department of Justice employee called to inform her that she could not be an intern because a background check uncovered a conviction for theft.

As a 17-year-old cashier at Mervyns, she gave all her friends employee discounts on their purchases. The record was apparently prima facie evidence that she could not be trusted.

Consequently, the hopes of a 27-year-old were dashed in an instant because the system saw her as a dishonest teenager instead of an adult honor student.

This is the story of Laura Shaver.

She is now a criminal defense attorney who recently received the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyer’s 2019 Anthony Savage Award. The award recognizes an outstanding trial performance or result achieved by an attorney in practice for less than ten years.

I am certain that the injustice she suffered at the hands of the Department of Justice led her to become a criminal defense lawyer rather than a government attorney.

It is also one of the reasons she hired me fresh out of the penitentiary.

Aaron Borrero, who served several decades in prison for a violent crime, is another example of someone whose transformation does not compute within the system.

While working for an asbestos removal company after being released, he realized that he could operate such a business better than his employer. So, he and his wife founded American Abatement and Demo. They saw it not only as a means to be entrepreneurs but to also help former prisoners earn a living wage and become contributing members of society.

Four years later, the company’s earnings are among the top three percent of Hispanic businesses. But the company’s success required Borrero and his wife to decrease his level of ownership and increase hers, in order to demonstrate to bankers and bonding companies that he is a minority owner.

The shift was necessary because his felony conviction prevented them from obtaining the capital and security which would allow their business to take on larger projects.

It is ironic that a company winning awards at The Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative Education program for its avowed commitment to help the formerly incarcerated had to restructure itself to cloak the integral role that a formerly incarcerated person plays in the company.

It is a testament to felony disenfranchisement.

But it is not just the criminal legal system that produces these inequities. It is also a product of a social and economic system that has been infected by the virus that led lawmakers to pass bills to give life sentences to low level crack dealers and imprison children until they are senile.

Seeds of Hope

Borrero’s wife, who is the CEO of American Abatement and Demo explained during a video presentation at Stanford University.

“We started this journey first to solve a local problem that needed to be addressed,” she said. “So we focused first within our community, and that was to help create jobs to help the previously incarcerated obtain employment, but with a livable wage.”

“I believe that if we choose to look at them differently, as humans who just made a mistake, then we can plant a small seed of hope.”

Fortunately, there are seeds of hope around me.

In the short time that I have been free, I have encountered people working within the system who have interacted with me based upon the man that I have become.

King County Prosecutor, Dan Satterberg, touted my work on his agency’s Facebook Page and wished me the best before I even set foot on the streets. We will soon be meeting for coffee.

Notwithstanding the terrible crime that I committed long ago and for which his office prosecuted me, he invited me to work with Project 180, a juvenile diversion program that helps youths work through personal struggles that may be leading to misbehavior and pairs them with mentors.

Several employees of the Snohomish County Office of Public Defense invited me inside their office to have baked brownies. Their kindness was so jarring to my psyche that I couldn’t keep myself from crying.

Anna Alexander, recently elected to the Snohomish County Superior Court, invited me to attend her investiture. She and her husband Rico Tessandore engaged with me before the event and at the reception like I was a human being, someone who made a terrible mistake as a teenager, but who was trying to meaningfully contribute to society.

Michael Obenland, the superintendent of the prison I was confined at just two months ago, contacted me after reading my last column to tell me, “I know how stressful life can be and I can’t even imagine walking out of prison after so many years.”

“I hope you are managing and coping with your new normal and I really appreciate your insight into your experiences,” he continued.

“Be proud of yourself, it may sound weird; but I am.”

The words and actions of all these men and women made clear they were willing to let me put my past behind me and create a new destiny.

I hope those who are denying opportunities to people who have paid their debt to society realize—as the superintendent of the prison where I was recently confined clearly perceives—that protecting public safety and removing barriers to reentry are not mutually exclusive propositions.

We need more seeds of hope to be planted throughout society.

Jeremiah and Aimee

Jeremiah Bourgeois and his fiancée Aimeé Muul

But fertile soil is hard to find in many places throughout this country. That’s why, despite my employment, column writing, and lecturing at universities, I dread the day when I must try and find another apartment to rent.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to The Crime Report and a paralegal in Everett, Wa. Originally sentenced to life without parole when he was 14, he was released in 2019 after serving 27 years of confinement. He welcomes comments from readers.

3 thoughts on “How to Succeed After Prison: Ignore the Pessimists

  1. Dear Jeremiah, not only are you a human being, but the array of traumas in your life coupled with the resilience with which you have faced them gives many of us a much broadened sense of what it means to be a human being. I thank you for that!

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