In Their Own Words: Former Prisoners on What They Need to Succeed

The challenges of life after prison, described by two people who lived through them.
A protester holds a sign calling on President Barack Obama to end to mass incarceration and invest in jobs and economic development. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Apr 28, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When Samuel Hamilton got his first cell phone at age 53, he didn’t know how to turn it on.

“The only concept of cell phones I had came from magazines or TV,” said Hamilton. “It was like a foreign object.”

It was the fall of 2014, and Hamilton had just been released from prison in upstate New York. After 32 years behind bars for a felony murder charge, he was more familiar with life in prison than with life on the outside. Hamilton was the driver and lookout person during a robbery in which the victim was shot and killed by his coconspirator. Though Hamilton didn’t pull the trigger, New York’s felony murder rule held him responsible for the victim’s death.

After appearing before the parole board 10 times, Hamilton got his second chance—but with that chance came a host of challenges. This week the U.S. Department of Justice hosted its first National Reentry Week to highlight the barriers to housing, employment, education, and public benefits faced by people like Hamilton who return to the community after incarceration.

“Too often, Americans who have paid their debt to society leave prison only to find that they continue to be punished for past mistakes,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Monday in Philadelphia. “Our failure to provide opportunities to reentering individuals represents an enormous waste of human potential.”

Through a series of events and announcements over the course of the week, the Obama administration aimed to highlight what is and isn’t working for the more than 600,000 people released from prison annually. Amid the week of speeches and program visits, TakePart spoke with Hamilton and Vilma Ortiz-Donovan, who spent six years in New York prisons, to find out what they think formerly incarcerated people need most.

“Prison doesn’t prepare you for anything coming home,” said Donovan, who did two three-year stints in prison for drug charges. “When you come home, you have all these plans and good intentions in your head. But unless you find yourself surrounded with good people, you’re doomed to fail.”

When Donovan, now 54, left prison for the first time in 2003, she was put on a bus back to New York City with $40 and told by a corrections officer that they’d “see her back here.” She returned to Long Island, where her family was. Her old friends—the ones she used and sold drugs with—were there too.

“There was no support other than my family, no programs, no one to help me look for a job,” said Donovan. “It was really, really overwhelming. I felt alone, and I wound up spiraling down.”

Though Donovan had experience prior to her time in prison as an executive assistant and special education teacher’s assistant, her job skills didn’t seem to matter once prospective employers found out she had a criminal record.

“Even when the interviews went really well, the minute they heard I was in prison, their demeanor changed,” said Donovan. “It turns into ‘We’ll call you,’ and then I’d never hear from them.”

Donovan “begged” her way into a receptionist position at a physical therapist’s office. After eight months, her relationships with the people she used to hang out with caught up with her, and she wound up back in county jail on a new charge.

Though New York is one of 23 states that have adopted legislation that prevents employers from asking about criminal records on job applications, “banning the box” isn’t all it takes to land a job if you’ve been in prison. Though the movement to ban the box aims to give formerly incarcerated people an equal shot at making it to the interview phase, Donovan’s experience illustrates the stigma that remains during the job search. Hamilton, too, was familiar with this challenge.

“Now the box doesn’t come up on the initial application, but oftentimes it comes up during the callback phase,” said Hamilton. “I know [formerly incarcerated] individuals who have received offer letters, but then when it came to the background check, the job offers were rescinded.”

On Monday, a coalition of more than 125 organizations published a public letter to President Obama asking him to ban the box on applications for jobs with federal contractors. Though Hamilton lauds the effort, he believes establishing opportunities for the formerly incarcerated will require a broader cultural shift.

“When [President] Bill Clinton signed the crime bill in 1994, it established an ideology that people do not deserve second chances,” said Hamilton. “The average citizen is not educated on what goes on in prison and the stigma we face.”

Hamilton is intimately familiar with the repercussions of the crime bill—called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Prior to the bill’s passage, prisoners had access to Pell Grant funding to earn college degrees while incarcerated, and Hamilton was in his second year of college classes in prison when the bill was signed. While numerous colleges and universities were forced to end their prison education programs, the program Hamilton was in, offered through Mercy College, continued to operate on a shoestring budget. But in 1995, Hamilton was three credits shy of receiving his associate degree when the then governor of New York, George Pataki, eliminated all state aid for tuition in prisons, and Hamilton’s education was disrupted again.

Ultimately, he was able to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degree in prison (in organizational management and theology) through privately funded programs offered by the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison and the New York Theological Seminary. Hamilton believes educational programming in prisons is essential.

“At the end of the day, most of the people who go inside will be coming home one day,” said Hamilton. “Would you prefer for someone to come home who didn’t do anything on the inside?”

Both Hamilton and Donovan were housed after their release and found work through The Fortune Society, a New York City–based reentry organization. Yet the transitional housing facility where Hamilton lives only has 60 beds and limited resources and can’t meet the needs of every person released in the city each year.

“The foundation of rebuilding oneself outside prison begins with having a safe place to do that,” said Hamilton. “For the thousands of men and women that come out every year, housing becomes a barrier.”

On Monday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro announced a $1.75 million investment in public housing authorities and nonprofit legal organizations to fund programs that help juveniles with criminal records after they’ve served their time. Juveniles, of course, are just one segment of the formerly incarcerated population. Earlier this month, HUD also issued new guidance to private landlords, barring them from automatically eliminating rental applicants with criminal records.

Even with access to employment, housing, and the supportive community of The Fortune Society, Hamilton and Donovan emphasized that the reentry process is a long, challenging road. That challenge lends them a vital perspective on the Obama administration’s latest initiative.

“At one point in my life, I was part of the problem because I committed a crime,” said Hamilton. “But now that I’ve transformed my life, I believe I’m one of many individuals who are part of the solution.”