By **Alex Halperin**
Recently the Washington Post Magazine published my story about Louis Sawyer, a man returning home after doing 25 years for murder. Reporting the piece, I met folks at various stages of the re-entry process. Some of them stand a good chance of regaining some of their autonomy. However, if the latest data is to be believed more than half will be re-arrested within a few years. The distressing word “institutionalized” refers to people who are no longer capable of functioning outside prison walls.
In big cities, there are social service organizations open to working with returning prisoners but my impression in D.C. was that only a few can reliably install ex-offenders in jobs and housing. Some of the returning prisoners lacked the wherewithal to follow the regimen of appointments that they have to follow. In D.C., if a parolee misses an appointment or produces a “dirty urine” that regimen tightens and eventually people go back to prison for parole violations.
In some cases people miss appointments with parole officers for lack of bus fare or they skip court dates because they just forgot. Some of the returning prisoners did seem to possess, at the very least, an unhealthy impulsiveness. However, in most cases I thought that if they returned to prison it would be because they were too involved with drugs, they were incapable of navigating the system or they were too resigned to care.
Sawyer’s determination to turn his life around made him an exceptional subject for a story. But I’d like to mention one other group that helped him. Not long after he left prison, Sawyer became involved with the Welcome Home Reentry Program, which is associated with the Archdiocese of Washington. Welcome Home pairs returning prisoners with mentors. In D.C., it’s led by Joyce Void, a kind woman with a matriarchal protectiveness of Welcome Home mentees. Ex-inmates, she said, need “someone to believe in them. Once they’ve served their time, they’ve served their time, and that should be the end of it, but some people are not that forgiving, and our mentors are.”
Void introduced me to Yolanda Burgess, one of Welcome Home’s stars. Burgess, who’s in her early forties, is a hairdresser who stayed sharp in prison by styling her fellow inmates, a popular service before family visits. Upon her release in 2009, after serving more than eight years on drug and gun charges, she said she quickly found work at a salon. Within a few months, she was living in her own apartment in the suburbs.
When the salon closed, Burgess, who has a wide smile, a few tattoos and scarlet streaks in her black hair, started making house calls. “It’s convenient. They don’t have to pay for gas, they don’t have to pay for a babysitter … they don’t have to try and get off work.” She named her business Hair On Wheels and found clients in women’s shelters and old age homes.
Burgess did most of her prison time at Alderson, a facility in West Virginia nicknamed “Camp Cupcake,” where in 2004, domestic life tycoon Martha Stewart swept in for a five-month sentence. “I started watching how she still went to the library, still was typing. It was just like I was doing. I was still busy,” Burgess said. “It made me say, hey, yeah, I know I’m doing the right thing … Even though you’re in a bad situation, you still keep pushing and doing what you have to do for the future.” Offhandedly, Burgess remembered that Stewart prepared a sauce from crabapples picked on Alderson’s grounds; it made a few people sick. (Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia had no comment.)
Since leaving prison, Burgess’s marketable skill stabilized her while she explored her options. She’s always talking about what’s next. Still, she’s learned that her past won’t just disappear.
After she got out, Burgess passed the state exam for a Maryland real estate license, but when the decision letter arrived last spring “It was too thin,” she said. “I went to bend it and I was like, ‘Unh-uh, this ain’t good.’” Though she had references and is a licensed cosmetologist in Maryland, the letter said she lacked the “good character and reputation” to sell real estate there. (After Burgess appealed, the commission reversed its decision.)
Since then her future has brightened. Over the summer, Burgess regained custody of her son, who was a baby when she was convicted, and she gave birth to another son. She sends me periodic updates on the state of the real estate market. I’d bet she’s selling the hell out of a lot of houses. But a few days after she received that letter she was sitting in a park on a sunny day, and the rejection made her tear up.“I was a little bit lucky because I had a trade,” she said. “But what if I didn’t have a trade? How far up the ladder are you willing to let an ex-offender climb?”
Copyright 2011 Alex Halperin
Alex Halperin is a senior editor at Guernica.
To read blog entries from Alex