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Ex-offender advocates foster success among returning citizens

Returning citizen Calvin Evans at Urban Ashes in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Rejection letters brought the darkest days.

While selling crack in Mount Clemens, Calvin Evans found himself at the scene of a deadly shooting in 1988. Two years later, he sat locked up for murder, still maintaining his innocence and finding no help from the courts. In prison he became a paralegal, filing appeal after appeal, but getting no closer to freedom.

“I kind of lost hope in the system,” Evans says.

“I just resigned myself to the idea that I would have to do this time, so I decided I had to be the best person that I could.”

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Calvin Evans served 24 years in prison before founding Exit Us to support other ex-offenders

A long, often lonely, 24 years lay ahead before Evans received parole. Now, his mission is to help others leaving Michigan prisons achieve success by preparing them to re-enter society. Evans’ new program, Exit Us, is part of a growing push across the country, through which activists, politicians and corporate partners are uniting to support returning citizens.

Attracting unlikely cohorts like former Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich and hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, one initiative, Cut50, aims to reduce half of America’s 2.2 million prisoners by 2025.

“Society says that once you are convicted you are always going to struggle. You are always going to have a hard time,” says Evans, 47.

While serving part of his sentence at Ojibway Correctional Facility, Evans met ex-offender Shaka Senghor, whose memoir Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison became a 2016 New York Times Bestseller. Evans, Senghor and three fellow inmates became “accountability partners,” holding each other to goals set in and out of prison. Besides Evans and Senghor, two of the partners were released and soon got “busy trying to deal with the day to day that life feeds them,” says Evans. The remaining friend was re-incarcerated.

“I had the support of Shaka when it got complicated,” Evans recalls. “Knowing that I had a friend who could guide me when no one else could, or no one even cared to try, I was able to say, ‘Look, this is what’s going on.’ So it became our support system.”

Evans says he wants to increase the chances others who’ve already paid their criminal debts can have quality lives, rather than suffering because of their past. Lack of opportunities, including work and affordable housing, are among the best known contributors to recidivism, or relapse into criminal behavior. The alternative is often unfulfilled potential.

“You become content with what little you have, because you’re not supposed to have anything,” Evans says.

Along with Exit Us board member Senghor, Brian McKinney and other supporters, Evans has designed a blueprint for peer-focused mentoring, ranging from drug counseling to job readiness. The Exit Us pilot effort targets Washtenaw County to train rehabilitated ex-offenders who’ll groom new returning citizens. Yearly, 300 ex-offenders return to Washtenaw communities like Ypsilanti.

“We understand that people respond to others who have experienced their condition better than they respond to people who haven’t experienced that condition,” says Evans.

In addition to Exit Us, Evans works as a manager for Pittsfield Township’s Urban Ashes, which hires ex-offenders to craft picture frames out of recovered wood.

“In this sort of setting what actually happens is there’s an allowance for growth,” Evans says, “and there’s an opportunity for people to see we are hard-working individuals.”

Gary Hendrickson

Gary Hendrickson

Support for returning citizens isn’t just a sympathy campaign. Business leaders like Gary Hendrickson say there’s a labor need ex-offenders can help fill. Michigan has 65,000 jobs available because of a lack of training, according to the Workforce Intelligence Network of Southeast Michigan.

“The records from the Department of Labor might say we have only 7 percent unemployment,” says Hendrickson, “but that’s misleading.”

There is a great need for skilled trades and Hendrickson plans to launch Welding Artisans Center in Detroit this year. Welding Artisans Center will buy a building this spring and begin training welders to become entrepreneurs, or pursue related careers, by year’s end. While the program will be open to others, Hendrickson has expanded his professional network specifically to include those who work with returning citizens.

The Iowa transplant says he has developed sensitivity to racial equity, including disproportionate incarceration rates of black and Hispanic men, since adopting a black son.

“I’ve never been involved in a more important project, and I’m learning there are so many people who are invested in this,” Hendrickson says.

Rebecca Dioso, vice president of human resources for Wixom-based Alta Equipment, enjoys telling the story of a past employee who performed impressively after being discharged from a correctional facility.

“His boss said, ‘I wonder where we can get another one like him,’” Dioso says. “I said, ‘I know exactly where we can get another one, Jackson Prison.’”

Supporting returning citizens not only helps individuals and the families depending on them, but contributes to the community’s well-being. “I’m a huge believer in rehabilitation,” she says.

Alta pays for returning citizens and other employees to attend community college programs.

Flip the Script, a Goodwill Industries initiative designed to provide re-entry support services, places clients with metro Detroit companies like Alta.

Jennifer Rincones, manager of Flip the Script’s women’s program, says her clients often face particular work challenges, including childcare, which are compounded when they have criminal backgrounds. Community reintegration coordinators help clients pay ticket fines, reinstate driver’s licenses, secure vital records, and offer referrals.

“It’s really a holistic, wraparound approach, because a lot of people who come home from prison don’t have that support,” says Rincones. “They’re probably couch-surfing or looking for a different place to lay their heads every night.”

Coming from a home where she witnessed domestic violence and drugs, Rincones understands, personally and professionally, how crime can impact women’s lives. Her classes average 15 to 20, who attend for eight weeks and often advancing into jobs that range from fast food to call-center staff. Michigan Department of Corrections, JPMorgan Chase, and Verizon Wireless are among financial supporters.

“We’re doing great things here,” says Rincones.

SUPPORT FOR RETURNING CITIZENS 

A variety of services and programs are designed to assist Michigan ex-offenders, including:

DETROIT

Flip the Script

For information visit http://www.goodwilldetroit.org/programs/flip-the-script/ or call (313) 557-4848

GRAND RAPIDS

Community Re-entry Fellowship

For information visit http://www.cjcministry.org/reentry-fellowship/ or call (616) 494-4925

FLINT

Re-connections

For information visit www.re-connections.org or call (248) 207-8125

LANSING

Change of Hearts

South Church of the Nazarene

321 West Holmes Road

Meetings – Thursdays, 6:30 p.m.

KALAMAZOO

Helping Individuals Re-enter Employment (HIRE)

For information visit www.goodwillswmi.org or call (269) 382-0490

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