City Paper is not for tourists
For many ex-offenders, overcoming their second nature is an obstacle to re-entering society. Chris Cole feels his first nature is the main challenge.
Cole once led a criminal life. Since giving it up—and even when he was living it—he developed job skills and an ability to advocate for himself in ways that often elude his peers. Some barriers are out of his hands though.
A survivor of child abuse, drug violence, and incarceration, Cole hasn’t worked in more than two years despite filing dozens of job applications. A sense of rejection and discrimination tests him every day as he wrestles with his survival instincts.
D.C. has weathered the societal costs of recidivism for decades. Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser said she would be proposing, among other reforms, to decrease waiting times for sealing arrestees’ court records from eight years to five and to seal such records automatically for non-convictions and cases that are not prosecuted.
But is that enough, Cole wants to know, to free him from a past he has paid for with prison time? “I done a lot of shit out there in the streets,” he says. “Why am I still even here?”
African-Americans comprise less than half the D.C. population, but almost its entire ex-offender community. Cole is one of thousands who could be affected by the mayor’s proposal. He has a unique story, and he tells it with no apology and no promise that it represents all he has seen and done.
Cole is 43 and stands about 5’10.” He purses his lips when he’s thinking. He grew up in Congress Park, near 13th and Savannah in Southeast. His father went into the military before he was born and was never a part of his upbringing. After he was born, his mother gave him to her godmother, who, he says, beat him with extension cords and switches—“the rubber ones that don’t break.”
In the mid-1980s, Cole started hanging around with boys who would mug and rob people up on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. He says he was caught stealing a car in 1986, at age 12. “I was from the ’hood,” he says. “It was dog eat dog.”
Cole discovered the market power of cocaine. If he came home with $200, he says, his guardian would demand $100. In turn, he took from others. Asked to describe himself as a teenager, he says: “Chris would probably rob you, stick you up, or shoot you. That’s how I was known.”
At age 18, Cole pleaded guilty to having sex with a 15-year-old and was sentenced to six years of juvenile commitment. (He also caught an armed robbery charge that year that was dismissed, and a murder charge for which he was found not guilty, he says. However, after his sex conviction was expunged, the six-year sentence went on his record as related to the murder charge, for reasons he says he cannot explain.)
Cole served four of those six years at a youth rehabilitation facility in Lorton, and lists his accomplishments there: a GED, a welder’s certificate, and six credits in the Community Conflict and Resolution Program. After he got out, he went back to drug dealing at 13th and Savannah SE.
Dealing drugs meant survival, but it also became a means to a lifestyle. That’s what Cole describes as his first nature. His second nature was to get certified in office computer operations and get a job as a computer lab assistant, earning $14 an hour. “You had a job to cover up what you did in the streets,” he recalls.
Cole admits his squandered chances. He got hired as a receptionist at the United Negro College Fund, but he got bored and quit. He hired on with the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and worked his way up to the legislative department, but when he felt the organization wouldn’t allow him to advance beyond that, he resigned. He was just 28. “It was the worst thing I ever did.”
Two weeks later, Cole was charged with a third degree sex offense involving a female acquaintance. He pleaded guilty and got five years probation. In 2005, he was found not guilty of cocaine distribution, yet pleaded guilty to heroin distribution and received 30 months in prison and five years probation. A D.C. Superior Court judge told Cole he’d send him away for 20 years if he ever came back before the court.
Cole came home in 2007. By then his body could no longer sustain a dual life. His friends were dead or in prison, or living a life he no longer wanted. “I come from a fucked up, toxic environment,” he says. “But I know what I can do. I’m comfortable with my abilities.”
Re-entry to society went well—at first. Cole says he earned college credits while in prison, and learned to control his emotions through cognitive therapy. He signed up with Project Empowerment, a city program that helps at-risk adults and ex-offenders with life skills, education, and job placement. But instead of seeking job placement, he designed a curriculum, wrote a proposal, and began teaching classes within the program.
The gig paid well at $6,500 per class. Cole taught two classes while he stayed with his grandmother and with his girlfriend’s mother. Then he got his own place. Things were looking up. “If I can’t do anything else, I know how to allow others to communicate,” he says of his teaching skills.
Cole had gone through a private contractor to secure the teaching gig, however, and about three months in, the city decided to no longer outsource its teaching services. Saddled with rent, bills, and bad credit, he started selling drugs again, until a local contractor arranged for him to enter a halfway house and come to work as a receptionist. He worked at the firm for six years and was its human resources manager, but in 2015, the firm let him go for financial reasons.
“It’s test after test after test after test after test…” he says, his voice rising as he accelerates his words. “You gotta prove yourself, to yourself. You know what works, and what doesn’t. But the tests keep coming.”
Cole hasn’t worked since leaving the human resources job. He says he has applied to 50 jobs and been rejected, and has filed approximately 400 claims with the D.C. Office of Human Rights alleging discrimination under the Fair Criminal Record Screening Amendment Act of 2014. GNC, Sodexo, Hooters, Chipotle, AARP—he has filed discrimination claims against them all, often upon receiving a credit or background check form.
D.C. law prohibits employers from requiring applicants to disclose their criminal background or asking them to give permission to an employer, or third party, to conduct a background check before an offer of employment is extended.
When a claim is filed, an OHR representative contacts the employer about potential mediation. About half of filed claims are settled, according to an OHR spokesperson. The rest get assigned to an investigator to find probable cause of a human rights violation. A three-judge administrative panel is responsible for determining whether to uphold findings and for levying fines against employers and approving settlements. Fines range from $1,000 to $5,000, the spokesperson says, depending on the company’s size.
There is no limit to the number of claims a person may file, according to the spokesperson. Cole estimates that 60 of his claims have been dismissed, 40 await mediation, 25 are under investigation, 20 have been settled, and the rest are pending. He has received about $16,000 in settlements over the past year-and-a-half, he says.
Meantime, he survives as best he can. He lives in a house owned by a friend who charges him $400 a month—when he can pay—and is not above shoplifting for food. He’s had job offers that he says devalue his skill set and do not pay a living wage. He knows little about the mayor’s intentions, but knows well that he has to get dismissed charges, not-guilty verdicts, and old guilty pleas off his record if he is to get back on his feet. “I wake up every day and I’m afraid,” he says. “What am I gonna do if I get sick?”
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue says society must progress beyond outdated perceptions and practices. Which is why, he says, the mayor will be proposing independent review of crimes that are eligible for record sealing and a discussion on the reasonableness of crimes that disqualify applicants from certain jobs. “The most pervasive issue is the long tail of arrests and convictions on a person’s life,” Donahue says. “It affects job prospects, credit, housing, driver’s licenses.”
There are also data to consider: If a person has been out of prison for four years and has not been re-arrested, the likelihood of re-offending is below 5 percent, he says. Older people are less likely to re-offend than younger people. “Making people wait eight years [to have their court record sealed] is too long,” says Donahue. “We gain little additional safety, and those additional years impose high costs on individuals. We’ve erred on the wrong side of this issue for too long. We need to move forward.”
Councilmembers David Grosso, Trayon White Sr., Anita Bonds, and Kenyan McDuffie have introduced the Record Sealing Modernization Act of 2017, which goes even further than Bowser’s plan by providing for the expungement of records altogether. City Paper did not reach them in time for comment.
Bowser’s proposal will fall short in the eyes of many. Tony Lewis Jr. is a community leader, workforce development specialist, and re-entry expert who chairs the D.C. Commission on Re-entry and Returning Citizen Affairs. He is familiar with Chris Cole. Lewis says that while the mayor’s initiative is a step in the right direction, it is rooted in practices, not policy. “If I’m a company that says no ex-felons can work here, that’s a policy,” he says. “And if that’s a policy that is not affected, then the [proposed legislation] accomplishes nothing.”
From Lewis’ perspective, the city should be doing more to hold businesses accountable. “This ain’t mom and pop stores,” he says. “These are companies that’ll reject you then pay to settle a claim to get you outta their faces. Chris is an example of that.” Returning citizens are uncomfortable as it is to expose anything about themselves, explains Lewis, so advocating for themselves comes even harder. “Chris is a special guy,” he says. “But there’s also a lot of people out here who can do the work. How many doors have to be shut in a man’s face before he says, ‘Fuck it.’”
Chris is still counting, but he says he isn’t giving up. “I look at myself every day and say ‘You did this to yourself.’ It’s easy to dig that ditch, but getting outta that hole? It’s so easy to revert to what you know. But I ain’t losing hope man.”