Ex-inmates hope for help after leaving prison

By: By TAMARA LUSH, Associated Press Writer
By: By TAMARA LUSH, Associated Press Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Ex-convict Vikki Hankins had the misfortune of being freed from prison during the worst recession since the Great Depression. While serving an 18-year sentence for a nonviolent federal drug conviction, she was assured of taxpayer-funded food and shelter.

Now on the outside after her first offense, she lives in a motel room and struggles to find work.

Like thousands leaving prison amid the economic slump, Hankins could be helped by the Second Chance Act, a program approved by Congress to help nonviolent offenders get a new start on life.

Signed by then-president George W. Bush in April, the Second Chance Act is designed to help ex-convicts get jobs, housing and counseling. But congressional backers worry the act may not even see its first dollar as billions in taxpayer money are being shunted to the nation's economic bailout.

"I want to establish a life for myself. But where is my home going to be? What am I going to do for the rest of my life?" Hankins said.

Like many ex-cons, the 40-year-old wants a house, a job and a car. Since her release last spring, she has lived in Orlando-area motels and has been turned down dozens of times for jobs in fast food restaurants serving the Disney World throngs.

Potential employers have been scared off by her past, and she's one of many people looking for work in Florida. The state's jobless rate hovers above 8 percent, topping the national average.

Hankins does do administrative work with a group started by a retired federal corrections officer, called Advocate 4 Justice, which lobbies lawmakers to reinstate federal parole - particularly for nonviolent drug offenders. In exchange, the group helps pay her weekly motel bills and some basics such as toiletries and clothing. Still, she hasn't made enough for a car or a downpayment on an apartment rental.

"In many ways," Hankins said, "it's harder than being incarcerated."

Hankins, who heard about the Second Chance Act about the time she was released, is watching and waiting to see if its funding will be approved this year.

Lawmakers believed the Second Chance Act could help whittle down some of the $50 billion-plus spent on offenders behind bars. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2.3 million people in the U.S. are held in jails, state lockups or federal facilities.

The Second Chance law won wide bipartisan support in 2008. Lawmakers anticipated setting aside $165 million a year in grants to nonprofit organizations, religious groups and states to help prisoners re-enter society, but so far no funding has been approved.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Illinois, said funding for Second Chance wasn't part of the stimulus bill; instead, it is expected to be in the annual appropriations package.

Those who work with ex-felons say grant money from Second Chance would support programs already in place or fund new ones that would help keep tens of thousands of ex-offenders from going back to overcrowded prisons - saving taxpayer money in the long run.

"In this economy, many of these individuals are going to be left out, left behind," said Davis, who sponsored the Second Chance Act. "At the end of the day, they will be just as unemployed as before."

Backers say the Second Chance Act is needed now more than ever because money for state or community-funded programs is tight.

"We have to work really hard to make this happen," said Jessica Nickel of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. "These people are coming home to our community, and having a job and a place to live are critical if you want them to be upstanding, taxpaying citizens."

Kemba Smith, 37, of Washington, D.C., is a former inmate who, like Hankins, received a long sentence for a first-time drug offender.

"Having a record, especially a drug conviction, does limit one's ability to move forward. How long should someone's past follow them?" said Smith, whose sentence was commuted by a 2000 presidential pardon.

Upon her release, Smith was hired as an administrative assistant by a law firm that was familiar with her story. She has since become a motivation speaker and educator, and a Hollywood producer has optioned her story.

"Even though my past kind of haunts me, my motivation when I got out was to keep pushing forward regardless of what doors close in my face,"' she said.

But the chief of the federal probation office in Tampa, Elaine Terenzi, says not all ex-offenders have Smith's drive. Terenzi hopes the Second Chance Act funds will flow to ex-convicts who face enormous obstacles after prison.

"People who have served 10-, 15-year terms, many of their expectations are no longer feasible," Terenzi said. "Everything is so different."

Even those who served short sentences are discovering their criminal record is an employment barrier.

Donald Carter of Cincinnati thought he'd have no problem getting a job after three months' behind bars on a felony child support charge.

The 57-year-old had worked for years helping the mentally disabled, but spent months searching for jobs in and out of the social work field after his June release.

"I was so discouraged," he said. "That felony, it stigmatizes you; it makes employers put you in another category."

A tough economy didn't help either.

So Carter enrolled in a Cincinnati program that is already trying some of the concepts of the Second Chance Act and could qualify for funding under the law. Program leaders taught Carter interviewing skills, job-hunting tactics and wrote letters for to a judge who wondered why Carter hadn't found employment.

The program worked. Carter landed a job in December with a defense contractor.

"I probably would have self-destructed had it not been for those services," Carter said. "I probably would have just been another statistic."

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