Second Acts in DC Lives
When Donald Zimmerman went to a federal prison in 2004, he had already started changing his life. He had begun avoiding people he knew from DC, most of whom had been adversaries. Now, in the fifth year of his return, Zimmerman is living a very different life than before prison.
Leonard Sipes, senior public affairs officer for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), which oversees parole and probation for DC Superior Court, asserted during a 2011 “DC Public Safety” radio interview: “I’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people ... who have been incarcerated for serious crimes ... who are now responsible parts of the community. But the average person doesn’t see that.” Sipes’ guest, Eddie B. Ellis, a former inmate of federal prisons who addresses reentry issues through speaking, a guidebook, and CDs, agreed.
Two Thousand Annually
Every year more than two thousand people return to DC from federal prisons. Statistics, Sipes said, show half will return to prison within three years. Yet, half manage to stay out, many never returning. Their success stories receive little attention in favor of stories about the high recidivism rate.
Sipes and Cedric Hendricks, CSOSA’s associate director overseeing legislative and public affairs, urge that more public attention be devoted to understanding how and why people avoid returning to prison. Reentering the community is difficult, particularly for DCers who end up in federal prisons often far away from their families. Hendricks says that about 30 percent of people returning to DC from prison are “housing challenged” owing to non-existing or fractured family relationships. Those who return to their families may soon leave from resentment over their past behavior or problems such as finding work. Many employers will refuse to hire people with a criminal record, even years after they’ve been released.
Curtis Watkins, director of the National Homecomers Academy, which helps DC “returning citizens” through mentoring and community involvement, claimed that the supervisory system for ex-prisoners is bureaucratic, sometimes imposing stringent reporting requirements that may require missing work. While admitting that housing and employment are important to a successful reentry, Watkins said what matters most is the inner desire to change and to accept help from those willing to extend it. Fortunate to have worked in good jobs before being sentenced to a Virginia prison 36 years ago for robbery, Watkins returned to DC and found work, but was “on the fence” due to continuing use of alcohol and drugs. Wise counsel from the executive of the trade association that employed him helped Watkins steady his life.
“Homecomer” Donald Zimmerman
Zimmerman said his parents were involved with drugs, but he benefitted from a close relationship with his grandmother. “I knew my rights and wrongs.” Because he had a son, Zimmerman said he had started changing before his four years at FCI Morgantown. He sought the friendship and counsel of older prisoners whom he respected for being wise.
Returning to DC in 2008, Zimmerman was fortunate to have a home and was able to work in a trucking company and as a cook. He now works as an electrician. But there were trials too. Even though Zimmerman found work after prison, CSOSA imposed onerous reporting requirements. A misunderstanding over an old warrant led to him spending over 40 days in the Prince George’s County jail. Zimmerman credited the assistance he was receiving from Watkins and his parole officer with helping him through the ordeal.
Faith is a cornerstone of Zimmerman’s current life. He acknowledged it requires a willingness to accept authority – an acceptance often lacking in those who return from prison. Zimmerman worships at the Temple of Praise Church at 700 Southern Ave. SE. Zimmerman volunteers with the National Homecomers Academy, advising young people to avoid his mistakes. Volunteering proved helpful in stabilizing his life between jobs. Married for a year, Zimmerman and his wife are raising three children.
Entrepreneur Andre Marr and Returning Citizen Thomesena Kenion-Foster
Andre Marr, president and CEO of A&E Heating and Air Conditioning LLC, on Capitol Hill knows first-hand the importance of second chances. He’s been given one and he provides them.
Caught up in the drug trade, Marr had been in and out of the criminal justice system for over 20 years, finally changing his life in 1996. “I was sick and tired of the way I was living,” he explained. Obtaining effective drug treatment, revitalizing his religious faith, and learning about heating and air conditioning (HVAC), helped to solidify the changes. After working for an HVAC company, he established A&E in 2000.
Marr has hired employees under CSOSA supervision. “For the most part, they’ve done both parties [A&E and CSOSA] well.” Besides punctuality, consistent attendance, and good personal hygiene, Marr seeks the “right attitude.” Some prior knowledge of HVAC also helps.
Because it’s challenging to find work in this zero-tolerance era, Marr knows it’s “downright impossible” to reenter society successfully without the support of “friends, family, and community.” He has formed a fledgling nonprofit called Product of the Product, to teach HVAC to at-risk kids and people returning from prison. The organization’s name, Marr explained in a 2010 “DC Public Safety” interview, reflects his belief that you should not ask younger people “to do something that you’re not doing yourself.”
One of Marr’s hires is Thomesena Kenion-Foster, a project assistant at A&E. Kenion-Foster’s life seemed to be a constant cycle of drug use and lawbreaking, prison, reentry attempts, and returns to prison. Released in April 2011, she now has several factors working in her favor. Her CSOSA Community Service Officer is helpful, and Marr is an understanding employer willing to have her comply with CSOSA requirements for meetings and drug tests.
“The difference is that in other jobs my past seemed like it was sitting on my shoulder,” said Kenion-Foster. Employers, looking at her background, offered her limited options. “I did not have the opportunity to explore my talents,” she declared.
One telling example of the changed work environment occurred when Kenion-Foster was sent to jail in Virginia for an old charge, owing to a miscommunication between DC and Virginia. Eventually the problem was resolved, but she was fortunate to have an employer “who understands the processes” of the criminal justice system, because “most people who miss their jobs for ten days would be fired.” Now, Kenion-Foster is studying for an associate’s degree in construction management. She stated determinedly, “I’d like to become a project manager.”
Stephen Lilienthal is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, DC. More information about hiring people who have returned from prison can be found at “Hiring People on Supervision” on the CSOSA website, www.csosa.gov/partnerships/hiring-supervised.aspx.