11 June 2010
When Robert Ervin came home from prison in 2007 he was dependent upon the community to assist him in getting back on his feet. But like thousands who have committed crimes and served their time, Ervin found employers reluctant to hire him. This practice of discriminating against offenders, which falls disproportionately on Black people, is as harmful and deliberate as the segregation and Jim Crow laws of the past.
"The mass incarceration of Black people has created a new caste, not a new class," said Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" and an associate professor of law at Ohio State University. "Once labeled you're trapped in a second class status where you can be legally discriminated against…, barred by laws and customs from integrating into society. We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it."
Ervin, who was once addicted to heroin, served five years for possession of crack cocaine. It wasn't a violent crime but it was a "felony", a distinction that means he can't receive federal college loans, food stamps or public housing and in some states he would not be able to vote.
Nearly 650,000 people are released annually from prisons in this country and that number is expected to grow as sentences are reduced and people are released early from correctional facilities to save money, according to the Re-entry Policy Council of the Council of State Governments. Over 7 million different individuals are released each year from jails. But the council notes that a "tight job market and few employers willing to hire someone with a criminal record" means "many former inmates are likely to end up right back behind bars.
"That anyone is able to overcome this situation and a history of criminal behavior would be surprising," the Council of State Governments report says.
But the truth is that few people do overcome the wave of prejudices flailed against people with criminal records. Most people fail, often because no one is willing to give them a second chance. Ervin, however, is different. He has made it, of course because of his own determination, but also with help from his family, his church and the man who would become his boss at Chicago American Manufacturing.
"I didn't find a job the whole six months I was in the halfway house," said Ervin, now 45.
His wife Yvette, he said, "was there to encourage me to be strong and wait on God."
For the first time in his life he looked to God and his Baptist religion to sustain him. He said he was "saved" while in prison and began taking Bible studies, eventually organizing a study group. He had been in a gang since age 14 but at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist, he joined a group called the Mountain Men and found a brotherhood of men who loved him without judgment.
Pastor Marshall E. Hatch said New Mount Pilgrim already had a strong prison ministry that included services in prison and programs for children with incarcerated parents..
"We're in the city so the issue of incarceration and reentry and reintegration is one we deal with all the time," said Pastor Hatch. "We take very seriously the idea of creating an open community that embraces all people and we believe strongly in redemption."
Yvette Ervin was attending the church while Robert was away and the church's prison ministry sent him monthly "spiritual care packages"-the "Daily Bread" publication, a church bulletin and a newsletter written by inmates and staff members of the ministry.
When Ervin joined the Mountain Men he was surprised to find a group of brothers he could relate to.
"Fellows be missing that," said Ervin, who was stabbed in the arm and shot in both legs during his 26 years as the gang member. "You think everyone thinks like you-- about selling drugs and making money. Then you meet guys who are may not be from your background but they've been through some things too and they use God instead of drugs."
Ervin needed the moral support of his new brothers as he dealt with the frustration of finding a job. "I went to a lot of job interviews-at hotels, apartment houses, on a ship at Navy Pier, at Domino's. Nothing came through."
Finally, his brother called to say he had found work and that the boss needed one more person. Ervin's brother advised him not to mention his record, but Ervin said, "I'm a Christian. I can't lie, so I told him that I'm on probation."
He was hired to run a robot machine at Chicago Manufacturing, where he has since been promoted.
Today, he and his wife have a 17-month-old son, Khaleb. Ervin is an ordained deacon at his church and is building a street ministry in which he counsels young people. He visits juvenile detention centers, offering his personal testimony as encouragement.
In his case, it didn't take millions of dollars to help him succeed at turning their life around. It simply took people willing to love and support him and an employer willing to give him a chance. That boss, Arturo Sosa, decided to hire Ervin in spite of his record. Sosa doesn't think he did anything particularly noble and was too busy to talk about his role in Ervin's life.
Of course, Ervin was instrumental in his own success.
"Robert is quite extraordinary," said Pastor Hatch. "He has been such an inspiration. He works in the youth ministry, teaches Bible class and is an ordained deacon. He and another guy named Herman, who was once in a rival gang, met in the Mountain Men and realize they may have shot at each other in another situation.
"Robert is an example of what can happen. He is respected--and respectable."
Ervin is on probation for three more years. No one doubts he will make it through with a clean record. "I talk to friends. A lot of them are still out there," Ervin said. "They talk about me in a good way now. Some of them can't believe it. I give them hope.
" I was in a gang for 26 years. I tried church and they hugged me and everyone shook my hand. I feel loved at church. People in gangs are just searching for love."
Caption: Robert Ervin and his son Khaleb, who was six months old in the photo. He is now 17 months old. Ignore that it says "Detroit." He lives just outside Chicago.