Coming to the Table

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By Casey Coughlin

Vincent Oliver “cut his first deal” at age nineteen.  Now almost thirty years old he has spent one-third of his life in prison. When he enters Starbucks he looks out of place, his exposed do-rag and flat rimmed cap contrast against the khaki slacks and white button downs surrounding him. He doesn’t seem to mind and turns, coffee in hand, to the sea of middle aged men hiding behind silver Macs. He joins me at a large table secluded in the back of the café.

The closest I have ever been to a prison was as a kid, eating my Burger King lunch after soccer practice in the parking lot next to the MacDougall-Walk Correctional Institution in Suffield, Connecticut. The massive brick building lingered in the background as my brother and I threw rocks at the fence, trying to make one over the barbwire.

Vincent and I chat with the sounds of an espresso machine loudly working in the background until our other guest arrives, Walter Donne, the Human Resource Director of an electronics company in Connecticut. He wears a short sleeve collared shirt and a five o’clock shadow. He greets Vincent with enthusiasm and the two shake hands as equals. Vincent looks him in the eye like an old friend. I know the Bridgeport Professionals Association’s three-week job readiness class is behind that confident handshake. Here in Starbucks the two sit not as boss and employee but as respected individuals; the square wooden table is the only thing that divides them.

Ex-offenders have been a recent addition to Walter’s employee team. Stephanie Miller Urdang, a job developer at ReEntry Works, convinced Walter to consider employing a person with a criminal record a little over a year ago.

“The first time she wanted me to hire an ex-offender I said to her, ‘What are ya kidding?’ but that didn’t last long! She said ‘No, you just got to take a chance so come meet Errol,’ and after I met him she said, ‘If you love Errol you will love Vincent, these guys are my favorite.’ I met with our VP of Operations for his approval; he had experience [hiring ex-offenders] at his previous company. We have had continued success with the guys we have hired.”

He stretches back against his wooden seat and introduces us to the idea of the “entitled.” He describes them as the guys who have graduated from trade school and feel that it’s their right to have a job secured for them.  He tells us they don’t possess the dedication and ingenuity the ex-offenders have.

“So many kids come out ‘entitled.’ Let’s look at my lateness report- the ‘entitles’ are on the report.  The ex-offenders are dedicated. Their lateness numbers are minuscule.” He tells a story about Vincent, who taught himself how to weld when the company was short on help and facing a huge order. Vincent smiles at Walter’s praise and comments on how it’s all about getting the order filled for the customer.

“Employers have to be willing to give someone another chance.”

Walter nods his head in agreement with Vincent and adds, “Another part of this is, you know those ‘entitles?’ If they don’t work, I can’t call their mother.” He gestures towards Vincent. “But if one of these guys doesn’t work, I call Stephanie.”

Everyone laughs.

“I’m not kidding you. I’ve hired twelve ex-offenders, and I’ve had to call her three times. She calls me back a day later and says, ‘Everything should be okay now.’ And it was!”

I ask Vincent for any advice he might have for other ex-offenders looking for a job.

“There are so many things I would say, but [Walter] talks about dedication. You have to have it in you to go through the storms. You have to be pliable- able to bend when it’s called for you to bend. Even now at this point, I’m in a situation where I can make choices that aren’t good for me, but I won’t because not only am I dedicated to my job, but to my children and my family. So it’s not about me no more. And that’s what other [ex-offenders] need to learn; the decisions you make don’t only affect you. They affect those who love you and those who are around you.” He pauses, and looks up from the maroon laminated table top, glances at Walter and continues.

“I believe there are spiritual forces at work. That’s how I look at my incarceration; I mean ten years- that’s one third of my life in that prison. Some people don’t come back from that. But it helped me become the man that I am today. I am able to sit and tell my story with confidence that it’s not going to hold me back. I have made up my mind to not only do good for myself but also for my children. To be honest with you, I work for nothing; with child support and bills, I am better off not working. But I love my job, I love the people that I work with and I am going to continue to do it regardless, because it’s going to pay back in the long run.”

We all sit quietly, together, at the table.

 

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