Between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015, the Virginia Department of Corrections released 605 people from prison into the Richmond area,. In that same period, 952 one-time inmates living in the area completed probation and parole. Many of these 1,557 individuals made their way to the nonprofit reentry program known as OAR. OAR is an acronym that until last year stood for Offender Aid and Reentry, but now stands for Opportunity. Alliance. Reentry. Which is to say that the three letters once represented one way of thinking about former inmates and now signify another.
“They were not born felons,” says OAR’s executive director Sara Conlon. “They committed a crime. They served their sentences. They can be productive members of society. They are people with felony convictions. Not felons.”
Each year, OAR serves 4,200 people who are reentering society after incarceration. It does this with 14 staffers and an annual budget (this year) of $700,000. You could look at it as Conlon does: It costs the state of Virginia an average of $27,928 a year to incarcerate one healthy adult. OAR provides a year of services to keep a person from going back in for $213.
It is here I come to talk to people about Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s April 22 executive action restoring voting rights to 206,000 people once convicted of a felony, provided they are no longer under any kind of supervision. I want a better understanding of the significance of the act among people who find that the label of “felon” they wear is a sentence unto itself, a punishment with no clear end in sight. It means they will have a hard time finding work and finding a place to live and – if court fines are outstanding – getting credit and a driver’s license. What is the right to vote in that context of survival?
And I meet a woman named C.J. who is among those whose voting rights were restored with the governor’s action. She says she’s glad, but voting isn’t among her highest priorities. As she sees it, the system is rigged and her vote inconsequential. Those in power, she says, will do as those in power are wont to do. She, convicted of a nonviolent felony, would much rather regain her right to bear arms.
And I meet a man named Jeffrey Gunn, who has been out for a spell, and who grew to hate telling people he couldn’t vote because he has a record. He says he was an inconsistent voter in the past, but the realization that he could again cast a ballot overwhelmed him. “Then it faded into being elated because I didn’t think it would ever happen so quickly.” And, as for the challenges of survival, well, he says, “those matters are out there and they are going to be out there, but, in the meantime, it helps me to know I can vote.”
And I meet Dawn Jones, who is married to C.J., and who is still on probation, so not yet eligible to vote again. But Jones helps me to see that the ability to do so, to again have voice in the shape of things to come, is a corrective to a process of dehumanization. It is a restoration, both real and symbolic, of the dignity lost when all that you are is reduced to a single word: felon.
Dawn Jones (photo by Tina Griego)
These are her words:
“I’ve been in Richmond since 1999. I was convicted in 2008 for forgery, uttering [passing a bad check], and obtaining money under false pretenses. What I did was cash a check for someone who didn’t have an I.D. I signed it and put it in my bank account. It was a personal check made out to someone I was dating at the time for work he was supposed to do and didn’t finish. I didn’t know anything about that. I just cashed the check because he didn’t have an I.D. I did five years and four months in the state penitentiary.
I’m 48 now, so I was 40 when I went in. I had never been in trouble with the law before, so it was very traumatic. I would have to say I was discriminated against because I have dual citizenship – I was born and raised in Germany – and because of that I was never given a bond because they said I would be a flight risk.
I was in my thirties when moved here, but I had been voting since I was 18, right out of high school – absentee ballot because we were in Germany. My mom was German. My dad was in the military.
I was released Dec. 16, 2014. I came home to absolutely nothing. My family is overseas. I lost everything I had materialistic-wise. I lost my mind, you could even say. I literally came out with the clothes I had on my back. I did 90 days in the Stellar House, which is a halfway house for women here in Richmond, and became a client of OAR.
I was able to secure a little, part-time job and I kept coming to OAR. And, one day, Sara [Conlon] walked into my computer class and asked me if I had a couple minutes She offered me a part-time job as a receptionist. So, I did that for an entire year. I know the entire GRTC bus line. I can get you anywhere in the city you need to go. I know all the jobs you can walk in and apply at with a paper application. I have a big heart and I’m very caring when it comes to people being in the same position I was in. It’s very scary when you first come home. And I can tell as soon as they walk through the door, by just their expression and the way they act, how much time they’ve done. And it’s sad that I can do that. It’s their demeanor. It’s the way they ask me if they can they look at the newspaper. If they can they use the restroom. That’s how controlled it is in prison. The fact they don’t know what a cell phone is or how to use it.
In the year that I did part-time, I continued looking for a job and I got a job with the Flying Squirrels bartending because that’s what I used to do. So, I was working at OAR during the day and Flying Squirrels at night. I did that for a year and then April a year ago, I was offered a full-time position here as a receptionist.
In that time, I’ve gotten married. I will be moving Saturday into my first home. I mean literally a home. I’m in a townhouse now, but my first home. I try to be a positive role model for people to know that you can do it, and if you have the determination you can be and do what you want to do.
I am not one of 206,000 who were lucky enough to have their rights restored because I am still on the stupid ‘shadowtrack’ system. It’s a phone [monitoring system] where you call once a month. It’s just an automated service. They ask you a series of questions: If your address has changed, if you’ve been in trouble with the law, if you are using any type of illegal drugs, etc. It’s very minimal, eight questions. I have been on it for two years and the person who oversees it has filed paperwork in Henrico Courts to have me removed from probation. Once I’m off, then my rights will be restored.
Having your voting rights restored is like a piece of the missing puzzle of actually fitting back into society. So, in my life, when I got out, my goal was first to get a job, that was most important. I did that. Then, I got a house. My next thing that I am working on right now is getting off of papers [probation.] I lost my driver’s permit because I still owe court fines. I did five years and four months and in five years and four months, those fines were accruing interest and, my god, they were like $12,000 when I got out, $4,700 of that was restitution – it was the amount of the check I cashed. Then, I went to court for 18 months before I was even sentenced. That’s $700 a whop. I have the fines paid down to $6,000.
So, my goal is getting my driver’s permit back and then my voting rights back. And then I can feel as though I am where I was and then nobody can take that away from me, and I will feel like I belong again.
You just feel like you want to be legal. Does that make sense? Even though I am a productive citizen, I have a job, a home, I am still an alien in some people’s eyes. At this point, I don’t feel like anybody else is better than I am. I just want to be treated the way everybody else is treated. I just want to be treated equally. I want people to see me for more than someone who has been in the court system and who has a felony. I want people to see me for me.”