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 CareSource 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.
Richard Holcomb (right), 48, talked with Patsy Pitts (left), a family support services specialist at Fathers and Families Center, at a re-entry job and resource fair April 4 at Eastern Star Church. Holcomb has been out of jail for about three months and wants to work with food, though he said he would take any job at this point. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)