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Barriers await ex-offenders when they rejoin their communities

Richard Samuels had been in and out of prison so many times he was getting tired. He'd been imprisoned in the Midwest, in Indiana and Illinois, and down South, in Georgia and Florida, for charges including burglary and fraud. Samuels spent 26 years in prison and got out for the last time in 2014 after serving 8 1/2 years of what was originally a 25-year sentence.

It was during that stretch in prison — his seventh total — when Samuels said he had an epiphany. Something needed to change. He got an associate's degree in general studies and almost completed a bachelor's degree while in prison. A year after he got out, Samuels started Growing Indy, which has training and recovery services for people going through re-entry.

Samuels, 58, participated in a re-entry edition of the Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE), a simulation developed by Think Tank and put on by the Marion County Commission on Youth on April 12. The simulation showed social workers, parole officers and others — who played current inmates, returning citizens and friends and family — what some of the many challenges are for people coming out of the country's prisons and jails.

"All we're asking for, as people who have been involved in the criminal justice system, is a fair playing field," said Samuels, who has a 30-year-old daughter and 31-year-old son. "Allow me to rise and ascend to the heights of making the type of money that I can take care of my family."

In real life, Samuels didn't spend more than eight months at a time out of prison. Finding any job that would hire someone with a criminal record was difficult, never mind finding a job that paid a decent wage. He didn't get one of those until after he left prison for the final time. He worked his way up to executive director at Community Action of Greater Indianapolis. But even then, Samuels said someone leaked his record to a significant funding source, and he stepped down to avoid the

controversy.

"Society didn't see me," Samuels said. "I was invisible. That's the thing, and that's what this is all about, to show you there are people out there who need to be viewed and need to feel that they are invested in."

At the end of last year, about 47,000 of Indiana's residents were behind bars, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The majority — 26,000 — were in state prisons. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 95% of all state prisoners will be released at some point. From there, it's back to a reality where people want to help ex-offenders get acclimated, but poverty, along with a web of bureaucracy that doesn't give enough helpful information to those who need it, leave people coming out from behind bars feeling like they never really left confinement.

At a re-entry job and resource fair April 4 at Eastern Star Church, Richard Holcomb was looking for any job, but he would prefer something with food if he could be picky. Holcomb, 48, got out of Hamilton County jail about three months ago. It was his third time in jail. He signed a plea for residential entry, "and it's hard to get a job with that on your file," he said.

Holcomb, a father of four, estimated he had applied to 100 jobs since getting out. He said he's heard back from some employers, but he hasn't gotten past an interview yet.

"If I can get a job, that's gonna help me out a lot," Holcomb said. "When I didn't have a job, that's when I was getting in trouble."

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits public and private employers from discriminating against job-seekers on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity or religion, but its protections for people with a criminal record are weak. Employers can discriminate against those people, with the stipulation that discrimination has to be applied uniformly.

Indiana does have a so-called second-chance law, passed in 2013, which allows people to petition to seal or limit access to their criminal record. The law has five categories, ranging from arrests that didn't lead to a conviction to violent or sexual felonies.

Laura Hester, a talent acquisition consultant for Caito Foods, was set up at the front of the room at the job and resource fair. She said Caito Foods, which specializes in fresh produce, works with organizations such as Public Advocates in Community re-Entry (PACE) and Flanner House to offer employment opportunities to people with criminal records.

"A lot of people don't get those opportunities," Hester said. "I think if you're coming out of the system and not having an opportunity, it's good for people to be able to have something to look forward to."

What Samuels and Holcomb experienced during the gap between their imprisonment, when they couldn't find a decent job, is typical, and research suggests it's a significant factor in recidivism. The adult recidivism rate in Indiana was 33.9% in 2017, the lowest rate since at least 2012, according to the Indiana Department of Corrections. (That means 33.9% of offenders released in 2014 returned within three years of their release date.) In a paper published in October 2018, Amanda Agan of Rutgers University and Michael Makowsky of Clemson University found the average minimum wage increase of 50 cents nationally between 2000 and 2014 reduced recidivism within one year by 2.8%.

Just as employment can be hard to find with a criminal record, so too are assistance programs. Drug felons in Indiana are currently banned from receiving help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), though Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill last year to lift that ban, effective Jan. 1, 2020. In order to collect unemployment in Indiana, a worker must have been fired from a job at no fault of their own.

At the re-entry COPE training, participants also got the experience of navigating different agencies and organizations, some of which are an extension of the criminal justice system, such as probation and parole, and others that provide services and assistance. In a debriefing session afterward, many remarked how frustrated they got when it wasn't clear where they should be or when they had to spend too much time waiting in lines.

That was perhaps stressful in the moment, but no consequences remained when the whistle blew to signal the end of the last 15-minute month. In the real world, though, that everyday stress has ramifications.

Cameual Wright, medical director for Care-Source in Indiana, volunteered at the training and said the risk of a formerly incarcerated person dying within the first couple weeks of being released is about 12 times higher than normal because of increased rates of suicide, homicide and even heart attacks.

"I think there's a tendency to minimize their challenges and say, 'Well, they just need to get a job, or they just need to follow their parole restrictions,' or whatever the case may be," Wright said. "But I think what this simulation highlights is you have to worry about housing. You have to worry about food. You have to worry about clothes. You might have to reunify your family."

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.


Thinking about our planet: Earth Day 2019

"Protecting Our Species" is the theme for Earth Day 2019, which is April 22. This year, the Earth Day Network is raising awareness on how human behavior affects the plants, wildlife and insects that comprise the ecosystem.

The goals of this year's campaign are building a global movement that embraces nature and its values, encouraging individual actions such as adopting a plant-based diet and eliminating pesticide use and raising awareness about the rate of extinction of millions of species.

"It's very important to be educated on the Earth as you can't fix your habits if you don't know there's anything wrong with them," said Elizabeth Crosby, a biology major at Ball

State University. "I think Earth Day is a great way to raise awareness, the same way we use racial history months to raise awareness on social issues and celebrate culture."

Changing behavior is as simple as educating yourself on how to sort food waste and trash and how to buy products that create less waste. A small change could be ditching plastic straws in favor of resuable straws — or no straw at all.

An annual worldwide event, Earth Day brings attention to how humans treat the planet and what actions can be taken to slow down or halt the damage already done — and prevent further damage from occuring. The day became official in July 1970 when President Richard Nixon declared April 22 as Earth Day. The day is significant because millions of people protested the 150 years of industrial development that caused fires in rivers, deformities in children, lead poisoning and pesticide use on April 22, 1970.

About one billion people in 192 countries participate in Earth Day each year by signing petitions, planting trees and cleaning up neighborhoods.

Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, said talking to community leaders is an important way to affect change.

"We really recommend that everybody talk to their candidates, whether it's a school board or your mayor, talk to them about what their environmental position is," Rogers said. "Because climate change is here, and believe it or not human beings are causing it."

People can participate in Earth Day by finding an event in their community, creating their own event on the Earth Day website, or working with faith-based groups or schools that are participating.

"I think the most important way to participate is to create an event yourself," Rogers said. "That could be with your friends or family. Through Meetups or Facebook, people are doing Earth Day events large scale and small scale."

Interested in learning more about Earth Day and creating your own event, visit www.earthday.org for more information.


'Stop the Violence' Peace March

The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the Ten-Point Coalition and the Young Men Inc. Youth Program hosted a peace march recently in one of the highest crime areas in the city to demonstrate that summer is coming and to ask everyone to help stop this senseless violence before the warmer weather arrives, which seems to stimulate more violence. The march began at 34th Street and Keystone Avenue, went through Washington Park and back to 34th Street. Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department blocked off the path of the march. Participants shouted "Keep the Peace" as they walked with enthusiasm, trying to make their message heard.


Growing lack of affordable housing leaves low-income families with few options

A recent study by the Urban Institute reports that in communities across the nation home prices and rents are exceeding the reach of an increasing number of households.

"For every 100 extremely low-income households, there are only 29 adequate, affordable, and available rental units. That means two parents who both work minimum-wage jobs might wait years to find a safe, affordable place to live with their two kids," the report states.

According to Michael Washburn, president at Exit Realty of the Carolinas, based in Charleston, South Carolina, there are a number of troubling factors that contribute to this problem.

"Rules and regulations that govern where and how housing developments can be built," Washburn said, "vary widely from one municipality to another. Government and the private sector have to come together to streamline the process of building homes and apartments," he added.

One possible solution to dealing with this problem, said Washburn, is offering developers property tax incentives that make it possible to reduce the cost of land acquisition. Another more long-term answer is expanding public transportation. Modern light rail systems enable residents to have a reliable, economical commute from areas where housing is more affordable to areas where their jobs might be located.

"It doesn't help much to have an affordable rent," Washburn said, "if you have to buy a car and pay all the costs associated with buying gas, maintenance and insurance."

This growing lack of affordable housing is particularly acute in Charlotte, North Carolina, said LaWana Mayfield, who represents District 3 on Charlotte's City Council, because of rapid population growth fueled largely by individuals who have relocated from high-cost-of-living cities hoping to find a more affordable lifestyle.

Mayfield also noted that the hosting the national nominating conventions of the nation's two major political parties puts a city in the national and international spotlight, spurring massive growth and sudden attention that can be disruptive. Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2012 and has been selected as the site for the Republican National Convention in 2020.

Other important factors contributing to the lack of affordable housing, said Mayfield, are the expanding wage gap between corporate executives and their employees and the ongoing assault on labor unions, which for decades helped to insure wage growth and better working conditions for their members.

Despite these external historical factors, Mayfield strongly believes there is an important role for personable responsibility when weighing the many elements that go into purchasing a home.

"Home buyers need to take the time to do the research on an area where they are considering buying and understand the current market trends," she said. "We are bombarded in the media with the idea that we should spend money, but it's important to understand the long-term impact of your investment for both your family and your community."

Mayfield emphasized that just because a buyer qualifies for a mortgage at a certain level, does not mean that obtaining that budget-stretching mortgage is the best decision in the long run. "Just because you can pay it," she added, "does not mean you should.

"For example," she continued, "suppose a couple qualifies for a $500,000 mortgage. Rather than buying a home for that amount, they might do better to buy a house that costs $150,000 and spend $50,000 fixing it up. That would give them more financial flexibility to consider other investments or to cope with an unanticipated event such as the loss of a job."