Commentary

Saunders: Ex-con is glad he went to prison – it may have saved his life

bsaunders@newsobserver.comAugust 14, 2013 

Kevin Harris is an unusual ex-con. Not only does he cop to the crimes that got him sent to prison when he was 18, but he contends that getting locked up was the best thing that ever happened to him.

That’s right. With the pride of an Ivy League graduate and an enthusiasm usually reserved for recommending a restaurant or movie to a friend, Harris told me this week how going to prison for larceny probably saved his life. “If they hadn’t got me then, I would’ve gone eventually anyhow. But it would have been for a more serious offense.”

At the least, he figured, it saved him from a much longer sentence than the five years to which he was sentenced in 1986.

“I was messing around with drugs, I was carrying a gun, I was running around with a rough crowd,” he said. “They’ve got mug shots online, and every so often I’ll go and look to see who’s been arrested. … I see a lot of the same faces I used to run with. It didn’t change for them. I’ve got no reason to think it would’ve changed for me.”

Class of 1987

Harris wrote to me in response to a column about my foiled efforts to visit prison inmates, to chat or teach them to read and write. He wrote, “While not trying to be smart, if you really want in, it’s really not that hard.”

The dude knows whereof he speaks. “I am an alumnus of the N.C. Department of Correction, Class of 1987,” he began. “I could easily say I was unjustly imprisoned, but the reality of it is I deserved to be there.”

Harris was sentenced to five years for breaking and entering and larceny, but was released after nine months.

“I learned more in the nine months I was there than I did in the 12 years of public education I had,” Harris said.

What was the main lesson? “That there was no way in hell I wanted to go back,” he said.

“Nobody really came and talked to us,” he said. “I turned myself around pretty much on my own. I went to school (in prison) for just a little while, mainly because it was something to do other than sit in a cell. … I ended up being a maintenance man and worked on a road crew.”

Harris said that on his first night in a 72-man dorm full of “nothing but arms and elbows,” “I basically sat down and considered my circumstances and made myself a promise right then that I was not going to be in there again.”

Out of a job

He has kept that promise, but now finds himself in a different type of cell: that of the unemployed ex-con. This one may take more than nine months to exit.

“I worked very hard and found some opportunities and leveraged them into increasingly better jobs. I went to college and graduated with honors. I got a good white-collar job and continued to leverage it into higher and higher levels of responsibility and salary. I did not conceal my past when I was hired and made sure that I was completely transparent during the hiring process.”

But he lost his job recently, and he thinks his criminal past may have played a part.

“I can’t prove it, but after 13 years and four promotions, I was terminated from my job. This happened two days after I returned from paternity leave from the birth of our first child,” Harris said. “I am now an unemployed convicted felon with a family to feed who cannot find a comparable job in a market where even those without the extra burden of the criminal background have a hard time.”

Yikes. If you’re willing to take a chance on a new father who’s an ex-con – albeit an honest one – and have a job for him, drop me a line. I’ll pass it on to him.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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