April is Second Chance Month.  For me, the idea of a second chance couldn’t be more real. For some impacted by the criminal legal system, they were never given a first chance, never mind a second.

When I returned to the community, I was hopeful — for all of 2 weeks — before my money ran out and I couldn’t find a job. Each rejection pushed me deeper into depression. Every time I had to relive my crime and trauma in front of potential employers/strangers, I became further detached from life and community.

My predicament is like many. While prison is imposing, and there are a lot of changes needed, there is hope behind bars. There is an escape in dreams.  I was a teaching assistant for a degree business program. I helped people learn how to use computers, write business plans, create budgets, and even taught a class.  But most importantly to me was that I was helping people change their lives.

Out of prison and in the community, I felt stuck. I had two Master’s degrees but couldn’t even get a warehouse job at Amazon. I’m far from alone in this.  The economic loss for not allowing the 1.7-1.9 million lost workers due to criminal histories to fully re-enter the workforce is an astounding $78 Billion.

After 6 months, I gave up trying to find a job through traditional means.  My pastor got me a job helping BIPOC people transition out of homelessness into stable housing. Two months into my contract, however, I got a new Community Corrections Officer, who not only took my job from me but also church.

There are an estimated 44,000 legal barriers and rights restrictions for people with criminal histories, 30,000 of which are related to employment or occupational licensing.  

After a year-and-a-half of being in the community, I slowly started to make my own path. I contracted as a Program Director for an in-prison entrepreneurial education program, wrote grants for a reentry program in California, and eventually contracted with Yoga Behind Bars, where I am now full-time.

If I could sum up what a second chance means to me, it would be “purpose.” Unlike traditional jobs, I don’t have the ability to clock-out.  When I am not working for YBB, I am advocating for reform or networking with formerly incarcerated people across the country. And when I am not doing that, I am navigating legal barriers and constantly being reminded of my crime. It is not something I can clock-out of, so I turned it into my purpose. 

Currently, 50% of Yoga Behind Bars staff is directly impacted by the criminal legal system. Getting to this point is not easy, but it is worth it. Navigating legal barriers, hiring for impact over tokenism, capacity for support, and managing fears and stigmas are all things that can create hardships for both the organization and impacted people.  But in the end, a quote by Glenn E. Martin, a formerly incarcerated justice advocate, sums up why second chances are so important, “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but furthest from resources and power”.

In Healing and Power,
Anthony

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