La’Kia Young has never been to prison, but she’s still doing time – has been since 2010.
The cell to which she’s confined is more insidious than the metal ones that house so many in the gray-bar hotel, the slammer, the hoosegow, the clink.
Invisible though they may be, she runs right into those bars every time she tries to run to daylight and lift her family and herself out of their present circumstances.
Young, you see, was convicted of a felony – Medicaid and food stamp fraud – that caused her to lose both of her jobs as a customer service representative and an administrative assistant. Although she was sentenced to probation, you could say she was also sentenced to a lifetime of unemployment, because the smudge on her record has prevented her from getting another job, she said.
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Young, 39, nonetheless feels she has a lot to be thankful for Thursdsay. “I have friends and family who are not here anymore, but I’m thankful for the ones I have,” she told me Wednesday. “I’m going to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Durham.”
Despite spinning a tale of woe, she is a long ways from woeful. She is, indeed, so upbeat and positive that it’s easy to see why so many companies have been impressed with her presentation and offered her jobs – offers they rescind once they see her record. Next Thanksgiving, she hopes to have even more to celebrate, specifically a published book and a job.
“Last year, I did a competition for job interviewing with Phi Beta Lambda” – an organization of future business leaders – “and I won in the state and went to the nationals. I know I have those skills that employers want. ... When I’ve gone on interviews this year, I get positive feedback. They say, ‘You’re everything we’re looking for,’ but it still comes down to this criminal record. One company even told me, ‘We believe in second chances.’”
Someone called her back, but only to say “Thanks, but no, thanks.”
Her story – surprise, surprise – is not unusual.
“It’s very common,” Barb Baranski said.
Baranski, a volunteer with the Capital Area Re-entry Program, said, “No matter how well someone does in an interview, as soon as that question comes up, they toss the resume. That’s why we’re trying to get them to remove that box from job applications. The Wake County Commissioners removed it from applications there” but it’s still a box that keeps too many people boxed into a no- or low-wage existence.
Young is trying to escape that box by taking business administration classes at N.C. Wesleyan University. For several years she has been a member of the Middle Class Express, a Wake County Human Services program that helps people become self-sufficient by teaching interview and job skills.
Even before talking to Baranski, I knew Young’s story was not unusual. Several years ago, I wrote a story about a woman from Raleigh who’d done 10 years in prison for using drugs, but instead of letting the time do her, she did the time. The woman earned two degrees in prison and kicked her heroin habit, but she discovered upon being released that she’d merely traded in one type of cell for another – one that circumscribed her movements as severely as the ones at Central Prison.
Despite her qualifications, she cried, no one would hire her because of her past.
On the same day the column ran, a trooper from the State Highway Patrol called and woke me up around the crack of noon. He placed me on hold, and a few moments later Gov. Jim Hunt came on the line and said in his inimitable way, “You have that woman call me and I’m gon’ git her a job.”
I did, she did and he did. The last time I talked to the woman, she was still employed with the state.
Beautiful story with a happy ending, right?
Kind of, but we can’t depend upon a magnanimous governor to personally help find work for every ex-offender who comes out looking for a chance at redemption.
There must be some employers out there looking to make a difference, to help lift someone who is sinking in despair onto solid ground, who is willing to take a chance. If you’re that employer, call Glen Purnell at the state Department of Commerce, 919-715-0111, ext. 214.