“The things I encountered coming into the workforce after being released, it’s kind of like not simply black and white,” says Alfredo Cruz, who served more than 29 years of his 15-years-to-life sentence before getting out. “I had to come up here to work with Sister Mary and get over, get used to the new environment, get over those mental and psychological blocks.”

Sitting beside him, Souriyo Banphakounh, wearing glasses and a turquoise baseball cap, is nodding. The 33-year-old got arrested when he was just 16, spending 15 years in California prisons. “I was very fortunate,” he says in a soft-spoken voice. “And I got a parole date on the first try at the board.

“Coming out, trying to put together a résumé,” he goes on, “I’m sitting there in front of my computer, and there’s nothing to put down. There’s all these companies who want résumés. But mine just is blank. It’s empty. I got out March 5, 2015. It’s been two years and I’ve been doing odd jobs. There’s construction companies that gave me opportunities. They’ll hire me but, like, only gave me 10, 15 hours a week maybe at $15 an hour.”

Thurston McAfee, 58, served 37 years. He came out to a sober-living home that was a struggle in itself. “The hardest part, and the best part, about being free is bills, bills, and more bills and responsibility. You know, because we had to learn all of this,” he points out, looking around. “These things we didn’t know because it was all taken care of for us.

“My biggest issue was crossing the street, learning all these new stop lights,” he continues with a self-effacing chuckle. “Yeah, navigating the city. Finding out where everything was like DOR [Department of Rehabilitation]. I got around by bus and I walked a lot. Then I got a bike. And I’ve been looking for work for two years without much luck.” 

Re-entering society

Six men, ranging in age from 33 to 69, have left nearby computer stations to arrange their office chairs in a rough half-circle in the adjacent front room. This room has a musty, dank smell being on the bottom floor of a 2 1/2-story wood 1904 Craftsman’s-style house with a wide porch trimmed with white stones. It’s only 30 blocks south of Downtown Los Angeles and it’s also pretty dark in here, with the only light coming from distant windows. There’s a semi-threadbare blue-green rug on the floor and similar painted walls. The unused fireplace must have warmed a well-off post-Victorian family.  

The men are all ex-lifers, meaning they served lengthy sentences in California state prisons for committing violent crimes — mostly murder — before being paroled. And now most work or volunteer at PREP, the Partnership for Re-entry Program founded 15 years ago and still run by Dominican Sister Mary Sean Hodges. And this full-time ministry comes after being a parochial school teacher and principal for almost four decades.

The men work 30 hours a week going over and scoring correspondence courses like “Turning Point,” a program of self-help/self-development modules for inmates preparing for release. She pays some of them, with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles picking up the tab for the rest.

And they’re here on a recent Wednesday morning to hash out the formidable challenges facing “ex-cons” re-entering society after being locked up for decades. Especially finding decent work.

Soon, that dreaded final query on most job applications comes up.

“It’s the last box at the bottom,” Banphakounh, the youngest in the impromptu group, almost whispers. “It says, ‘Have you ever been incarcerated?’ And then they want to know the disposition: how long you stayed in prison. I put all that down, and I haven’t got called back.”

Knowing looks and nods go around the half-circle.

Cruz leans forward. “It’s worth mentioning that they’re not supposed to ask you if you’ve been arrested or in prison,” he notes with a quick laugh. “But then there’ll be a box that says, ‘Are you now on probation or parole?’”

That gets more heads going up and down.

McAfee says, “When I tell employers, ‘Well, I just got out of prison after serving 37 years,’ they’ll say, ‘OK, we’ll call you.’ And these are supposed to be ‘felon-friendly’ places! But I think the biggest issue with me is my age. I’m 58. And it’s like, ‘What can he do at 58? He has very little experience in the field we have an opening for.’

“But I’m a skilled clerk. That’s what I was in prison for years. And like Alfredo, I’m a certified addiction counselor. You know, I tried to get hired in that field as well. And they said, ‘Well, you need 2,000 hours of internship first,’ where you don’t get paid. Now in a world where you need money to make a living, how can you go to work for free for 2,000 hours?

“So,” he adds, “we have to find a way to navigate that as well.”

Age and heath

Dale Lozier, a 69-year-old locked up for almost a quarter of a century, says your age and health really matter a lot coming out of prison. As a veteran, he was able to get Section 8 housing. But his medical disabilities prevent him from working.

The same goes for Ramesh Pandya, 67, who got out about three years ago. He’s spent much of that time at PREP. The former machinist at Rockwell International Aircraft Company tried to find work. Not long ago, even at his age, he says he established a good relationship with a job interviewer in the film industry doing general labor.

“But the only problem was I did not tell him that I was in prison. The jobs I listed were all in prisons. Like Sister Mary says: ‘You need to know who I am.’ If I would have talked to him more? He would have hired me, I’m pretty sure,” he says in a melancholy voice.

“I had the chance, but I was too afraid to tell him the truth,” he admits. “So it just ended when he couldn’t contact the employers I put down.”

Walter Austin brings up another matter. A prisoner for 36 years, he hasn’t been applying for work because he only got out three months ago. And it’s taken him nearly that long to get his California ID and social security number. This afternoon he’s going to a workshop to try to find a job now that he’s finally got these documents.

“You can find minimum-wage work,” says the 58-year-old man. “But, I don’t know about the rest of Los Angeles County, but in this area minimum-wage work won’t pay the rent. And you can’t even afford to travel back and forth to work.”

Cruz looks across the half-circle at McAfee: “I’ve encountered, ‘OK, we’ll call you.’ I applied at a 99-cent store. And it was going great till it [the application] said, ‘Have you been arrested for a crime within the last seven years?’ And it’s true. By law they have to at least ask ‘within the last seven years.’ So you can honestly say, ‘No.’ But then that’s followed up by ‘Are you currently on probation or parole?’ That’s how they get around it.

“And there’s also the work history,” he explains. “So for those of us old-timers like Thurston, Dale, Ramesh, Walter and myself, we’ve been in over decades. And they want you to explain that gap in your work history. So that’s kind of a red flag to employers. That and the age. I’m 59. You’re competing with guys who are in their later teens.”

Banphakounh’s expression shows he’s experienced those challenges, too. “Even at 33, it’s hard,” he says. “Yeah, it’s still hard.”

‘Branded a felon’

How hard is it for former prisoners to find self-supporting work?

In 2013, the Leadership Conference Education Fund published a report called “A Second Chance: Charting a New Course for Re-Entry and Criminal Justice Reform.” It actually examined four barriers prisoners faced, making their return to society more difficult and recidivism more likely: high prison phone rates preventing inmates from staying in regular touch with their families; inadequate access to quality education; restrictions on voting and restrictions on employment.

The Education Fund’s report pointed out how, fueled by the “war on drugs” with its harsh sentences, our state and federal prison population swelled from 338,000 in 1972 to more than 2 million inmates today.

Every year, almost 700,000 are released from U.S. prisons. And about two-thirds of these once-incarcerated individuals are either Black or Latino, according to the Sentencing Project. Even more disturbing, if black men don’t have a high school diploma, they’re more likely to be living behind bars than having a job.

The Education’s Fund stressed that the disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color was indeed a civil and human rights issue.

Another big factor is how easy doing criminal background checks have become. One recent investigation found that more than 90 percent of U.S. companies use them in hiring decisions, up from 51 percent in 1996. But these checks often include arrests as well as convictions. And many arrests wind up being dismissed and are never adjudicated. 

‘Banning the box’

Sister Mary Sean arrives at the Craftmen’s house a little past 11 a.m., greets the guys individually, and quickly takes a seat in the half-circle. She has short white hair and is wearing tinted glasses. And she looks Southern California comfortable in a bright multicolored blouse over olive pants.

Cruz is saying how tempting it is to just fill in those missing years on the “previous employment” part of an application. And also, of course, not checking that damn last box. But on a recent job he was being considered for with a long nonpaying training program, he told himself: “Why waste all that time and energy? Somebody’s going to find out, and it would all be for nothing. Because what am I going to say?”

Then he mentions something else. “Because of our violent offenses, we’re a special segment [of ex-prisoners],” he notes. “There’s other people on parole who have nonviolent offenses, and they can work for Metro and other government jobs. We can’t because of the nature of our offense. Same with schools. So that’s a unique thing that applies to us.”       

McAfee is nodding. “We’re now a mark on society,” he says. “But we’ve done our time. We’re redeemable. We’ve shown that we’re redeemed. We’re better than many citizens in society right now. We’re safe drivers. We don’t steal. We don’t cheat. We don’t commit anymore violent acts. We help as many people as we can. We give back. And we obey the laws.”

After a moment, he has another thought: “Some people say about us, ‘Yeah, they’re doing real good. We appreciate them. And we would like to live next door to you. But we won’t hire you.’ Yeah, so there are thousands of ex-lifers home now who are disenfranchised. I’m just one of a thousand faces that are out here facing the same dilemma.”

“Another factor, and it affects finding a job, is the fact that so many of us come out and our families are gone,” points out Cruz. “You don’t have the support. So you have to settle for whatever job for the immediate needs.”

‘On the edge’

Sister Mary Sean and the men say they know how both the City of Los Angeles and California have “ban the box” laws that supposedly keep employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal past until the later stages of the hiring process. These statues are called “Fair Chance” initiatives.  And they have been enacted by more than 150 U.S. cities and counties in recent years.

But the woman religious says they just don’t go far enough. And the PREP workers concur. As the lifers pointed out, employers can easily get around these new laws. 

“So it’s a much harder struggle for ex-felons getting a job, getting an apartment,” she reports. “Very much so.”

The six lifers are all looking at her now.

“Many get jobs in PIA (Prison Industrial Authority) while they’re in prison,” she continues. “But they’re not the latest technology jobs. They’re more like contracted with outside prison places that aren’t so good. So they don’t get up-to-date skills.

“My desire would be that everyone comes out with a marketable skill. And before you try to get into the job field, you go to a tech college and update your skills to today’s technology.”

After some thought, the Dominican Sister of Mission San Jose says, “So I think most of the guys can get a minimum-wage job, but it isn’t really a sustainable job. It’s not going to get them ahead to the next step of getting their own apartment and going out on their own. They’re still on the edge. On the edge.”