Parolees looking for a second chance are finding it more difficult than ever
Thu, Sep 10, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Jacob Kepler
Many years ago Phil Lacasse was living his own version of the Las Vegas dream. He made a great living doing palm tree service, house to house. Then he got waylaid by drug and alcohol addiction. Then he lost his job. Then he picked up a gun and started doing robberies to support himself. “I was so spun out I couldn’t physically work,” he recalls. “But I had an addiction I had to feed. And the only way to feed it was to take what I wanted. And I did.”
Then he got busted for felony possession of a handgun and sentenced to eight years. “I was in a cage, surrounded by violence every day and having to live violently,” he says. Lacasse, who’s 38, is not a big man, but he talks fast and exudes a crackling kind of energy. I met him in July at the West Las Vegas offices of the Urban League. He’d just gotten out of prison on parole, having served seven years and two months in federal penitentiaries in Colorado and Pennsylvania. He arrived at McCarran International Airport with $20 in his pocket. He was staying at the Las Vegas Community Corrections Center, a halfway house behind Circus Circus. Counselors there told him about the resources at the Urban League.
Lacasse was looking for work. He was looking for a permanent place to stay. He was looking for anger-management classes. He was trying to secure visitation rights to his three kids. “I’m a violent person,” he explained. “I lived as an animal for so many years. Now I come out here, and you can’t be that way. And people disrespect you out here and they don’t even know they’re doing it. Where in prison, where I was at, if they disrespected you, you take a knife, run it through ’em, and that’s the end of it. Or they run it through you, you get jumped, whatever.” Lacasse says he’s been on both sides of those exchanges in prison.
He was, he said, “overwhelmed” being on the outside. He was used to following rules. Now he was trying to make heads or tails of a cell phone. “I got a lot of choice today. I can go to Walmart and buy different-colored clothes. Shopping is a fucking adventure to me, because I can buy whatever I want. If I want a steak I buy a steak. What kind of steak? It doesn’t matter.”
If he wasn’t able to find a gig it would be back to prison to finish the remaining 10 months on his sentence. He has two kids, 7 and 9, whom basically he’s seen only in pictures. He didn’t want to let them down. “I have to do what I have to do. I have to swallow my pride. I have to swallow my anger. I have to ask for help. And it’s hard. It’s difficult, but it can be done.”
They come out with no social security card, no driver’s license. With $20 in their pockets. They come out and return to families that, often, were not very functional when they went in. They come out and find their sweetheart has found somebody else. They come into a real world that really doesn’t give a shit they’re back. They come out with no resources but an unrealistic sense of how easy it will be to land a job.
In a recession where unemployment in Nevada is hovering near 13 percent (among the highest rates in the nation), where each week brings news of more layoffs, and where home prices are close to hitting bottom but seem never to quite get there, the plight of ex-felons hardly seems a high priority. According to the state’s Division of Parole and Probation, there are currently more than 18,000 parolees or probationers in Nevada. But it’s precisely at times like these that the state’s social-service system, generally regarded as weak, takes the spotlight. With recidivism rates in the state hovering around 67 percent (about consistent with the national recidivism rate), and the attendant costs of continuing to house prisoners, their success or failure at finding jobs, at re-entering society, becomes more than just a concern for bleeding hearts.
“We’re gonna spend money on people and they’re gonna screw up and go back to prison,” says Ron Fletcher, who runs Southern Nevada operations for the state’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, or DETR. “But if we save one, or two, maybe we’ve turned a life around that’s going to save society a lot of money. There’s a real savings to society when we are successful.”
“I’ve seen a lot of parolees come here with hopes of mainstreaming back into the community, but they run into obstacles,” says Colin Webb, a lieutenant with the state’s Division of Parole and Probation. “There’s a lot out there. But the individual has to be hungry to go out there and knock down some doors.
There are programs throughout the city. The Urban League. Nevada Partners. Job Connect, which is run by DETR. The Department of Corrections runs the Casa Grande House, a prison-to-work program for inmates still serving their sentences. And for those motivated to pull their lives together, these programs can give them the breaks they need. But the long-term success or failure of inmates leaving DOC is difficult to gauge.
“The labor market is real poor right now,” Fletcher says. “With 13.1 percent unemployment rate, when an individual without the baggage of former-offender status is having a tough time getting a job, we know how tough it is when you have a prison record.”
DETR runs three Job Connect offices in the Valley; the largest, on Maryland Parkway, is visited by 2,000 people a week—perhaps a few dozen recent ex-felons come through. The program doesn’t have a stand-alone, self-funded program for re-entering prisoners, but the program “makes an effort to reach out to the offender community.”
Ex-cons looking for work are always going to face an uphill climb, and never more so than now. Employers are concerned about their appearance, lack of work history, poor social skills and the inability to show that they’ve changed their ways. Why take a chance on a felon when there are plenty of hard-working people in the job market who’ve kept their noses clean?
“Folks in prison don’t have a clue about the labor market,” Fletcher says. They think the city is awash in construction jobs paying $15 or $16 an hour. “You’re not getting a construction job that pays $15-$16 an hour. You’re probably not getting a construction job at all.”
Michael Fletcher (no relation), a prison re-entry case manager at the Urban League, sees business tightening its belt. Resources are shrinking. “Our guys are getting chopped off. There are less and less resources available to our guys.” Like inexpensive dental work. Like mental-health assessments and counseling. Services that used to be free are now offered on a sliding scale. Services that used to be offered on a sliding scale are now offered only at their regular fee.
But Fletcher knows the bind his clients are in. If programs are going to be cut, doesn’t it make sense to cut them for ex-felons before you cut the ones for children, or for single moms? “I’d want my tax dollars to go to kids, too.”
Lacasse is aware of the usual dilemma ex-cons face in the job hunt. To tell or not to tell. If he tells potential employers he’s just of prison, he figures he won’t get the job. If he lies, he worries about getting found out, then fired. “I’ve done my time,” he says. “I don’t understand why they should look at me and discriminate against me. I’m a good guy. I’m a hard worker. I just want a shot. Anything to prove … hey, look, I’m not going to steal from you. I just want to work.” He says he interviewed at Home Depot, and the guy seemed to like him, until Lacasse explained about his criminal record. Then the guy turned cold and told him there wasn’t a spot. “What do you mean you don’t have a spot for me? You wanted to hire me five minutes ago.”
Lacasse says there are lots of disappointments, from not knowing how to really use the Internet—he says he almost punched through a computer screen at the library—to the logistics of getting around town on the bus. He still owes the state of South Carolina quite a bit of money for fines, which continued to accrue while he was in prison. It’s only $900—but it might as well be $50,000 as far as he’s concerned.
But Lacasse carries on like a survivor, and by mid-August, he thought he had lined up a nearly full-time job cleaning pools. He got it through a friend at Narcotics Anonymous. “I feel good. I feel all right. I wish things would be moving faster. I wish I had a full-time job, a better job, but right now you have to take what you can get. It’s not like I really have a lot of options ...” He even bought a bicycle to get to work, though he wasn’t certain how he was going to make the rounds for his job.
Another ex-con, John Williams, got out June 24. (He asked not to be referred to be by his real name.) His story is not unlike Lacasse’s. Williams served seven years, three months for possession of firearms. He has two kids, a 15-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy. Until this summer he hadn’t seen them since 2004. “I was happy to see my kids, too, man. I got the sentimental part out of the way before I even made it, though, so I could show that strong side of me. You got to be strong out here.”
Every day he says he puts in applications. He shoots for six or seven. He tells the truth on his applications. A few times he knew he could have gotten the job because they needed somebody. What’s he going after? Clothing stores, construction, security, Starbucks. Fremont Street Experience. He wants a job as a garbage collector, or he wants to go into business for himself, selling clothes, then helping at-risk youth. He went to community college in prison and is trying to get his associate’s degree in business. He has some business ideas. He just needs some money.
Williams’ kids are staying with their mother and grandmother. He’s trying not to lean on his family too much, because they’re struggling, too. “It don’t really make a difference to where it helps because my family has to take care of what they have to take care of, and I can respect that, and I’m a grown man, and I have to do everything on my own. Which I expect to do. It’s better that way.”
They’ve taken him to register with Parole and Probation as an ex-felon, retrieve his birth certificate and get a Social Security card. “But basically I’ve got to try and get out and do it on my own. I’d rather do it that way.”
One of the more innovative programs in the state is Casa Grande, which the DOC opened in January 2006; since then this transitional facility has housed 2,920 inmates, both men and women. “For inmates to go out and work in the community while they’re still incarcerated is a new idea,” says Suzanne Pardee, spokeswoman for the DOC. Inmates are carefully screened for the volunteer program—no violent criminals or sex offenders can participate—and inmates, after a short grace period, are expected to find work and pay $18 room and board per day to stay at the facility. (They’re also expected, obviously, not to walk away.)
So far, of that total, 2,051 had a job by the time they left the program. Most of these jobs were in food service and construction. Another 119 were discharged without a job and 750 were sent back to prison as “program failures,” for a variety of reasons including walking away, disciplinary actions and because some decided finding and keeping a job was simply too tough.
The program began with inmates who were close to release, but now it’s not uncommon for inmates to enter the program with more than a year left on their sentences. Still, DOC doesn’t track people after they’ve left the program—there’s no way to know whether those inmates who walked out with jobs held onto them or returned to prison. While few states have anything like Casa Grande, DOC is not looking to expand its operations. As is, the facility is still under its capacity of 400.
Ron Fletcher has mixed feelings about whether special programs solely for ex-cons should be funded. DETR doesn’t have a stand-alone program for ex-cons, and on balance Fletcher sounded as if he thought that were a good thing. He thinks ex-cons are better off when they’re thrown into the same service pool as everyone else, so they can get a sense of the competition they face on the job market. “I think sometimes it’s good to sit in a lobby with a banker on one side of you and a construction worker on the other side … and a bartender next to that.”
By early August, Williams’ searching had turned up a part-time job as a janitor at Las Vegas Athletic Club. He works weekends and makes $190 every week. A quarter of that goes to the halfway house. A bus pass is another $50 a month. Not really enough to get back on your feet, but probably better than nothing.
Williams was disappointed by the Urban League, which “ain’t what I thought it was going to be. They put it out there like they’re helping, but they’re not helping.”
He was upset that the league gave him a meager $10 voucher to buy some used shoes from a thrift store. “I wanted them to get me a pair of working shoes. I don’t think nobody should be working in used shoes.” He got a pair after a friend loaned him the money.
John Collins, prisoner re-entry manger for the Urban League, says there aren’t any resources that help ex-cons get work clothing. “That’s kind of a crazy comment. We’re kind of the only place in town that will try and help you get a voucher.”
But Williams was still working the streets. He’d been to job fairs at the Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood, and there was a lead for a gig in a warehouse, but nothing came through. A few weeks ago I caught up with him on the north end of town as he hustled for another job. It had taken him an hour, and several bus rides, to get from the halfway house up to the corner of Rancho and Alexander, a mile or so past Texas Station casino. There Williams spent his morning at Gaylord Security, an alarm-installer looking to hire sales people.
He was wearing black jeans, black shoes and white-striped polo, buttoned at the top. He came out of the meeting irritated. He needed a sheriff’s card at this job, and because he has a criminal record he won’t get one. His mood improved for a moment when a blonde came out of the same meeting, wearing a black dress and carrying a pink purse, heading toward a car with Illinois plates.
“I didn’t know they made ’em like that in Illi-noise.”
From the alarm store, he had to get over to his mom’s place to pick up some money from his brother. Then he was headed up to a Job Connect office in North Las Vegas. A week earlier he had applied to the kitchen-steward program at Nevada Partners, but he needed $400 in tuition, and a health card. Nevada Partners sent him to Job Connect on Maryland Parkway for the tuition, but Job Connect turned him down. He wasn’t sure why, but he was going to try his luck at another branch.
As he stood waiting for the bus, he told me a little about his days before prison, but they amounted to a simple story: He was a gang member. Trouble maker. Fuck-up. Before prison, finding work, when he was so inclined, which wasn’t all that often, was easy enough. Now, it’s been six applications a day since he got out in late June. Seven interviews. And one part-time job that pays next to nothing.
The bus came. He started the long ride to North Las Vegas. On the way he mentioned some of his other issues. DMV won’t give him a driver’s license until he pays money he owes to Child Services. He’s leaning on his brother, but his brother has trouble, too.
We traveled down Lake Mead for 15 minutes, past his old West Las Vegas neighborhood, past Mario’s West Side Market, a small convenience store at the corner of MLK. It used to be—hell, still is—his favorite hangout spot. “I get my strength from here. Tells me where I’ve been, where I’m going.”
We passed by Nevada Partners offices and Williams changed his mind about Job Connect. We got off and spent a half an hour bouncing among different staffers as Glover looked for an explanation about why he was turned down. Finally someone explained to him that Job Connect had turned him down for the kitchen-school tuition because he already had a job. There were other programs at Nevada Partners that might be able to help him.
I asked him what could be done to make things easier for ex-cons. “If I had anything to do with it,” Williams replied, “I’d do it like Nevada Business Service used to do it. Nevada Business Service used to have programs where they would pay for the place that you work at. That would give a person a chance to go out there find a permanent job on their own. They’d be working, have income come through programs Nevada Business Service had set up.”
Nevada Business Service, a workforce development program, closed several years ago, but its successor, Workforce Connections, helps channel money from the federal Workforce Investment Act to support job-training programs.
When I called him last week he said the tuition had come through and he would begin the culinary program in October.
I called Lacasse last week, too. Things were up and down for him. The pool-cleaning job fell through. He says he ran into the guy who had promised to hire him at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and the guy told him, “I don’t know if I can use you.”
“Why?” Lacasse responded.
“I don’t have an answer.”
So Lacasse has moved on to another plan. He has a friend who’s an electrician who has another friend who owns a nonunion electrical company. “So he’s gonna get me in. He’s even making a letter of intent.”
On the (potential) upside, he’s managed to earn greater visitation rights to his kids, and he’s close to getting housing for himself and them, provided he can secure regular work.
The Urban League’s Michael Fletcher says Lacasse is doing “really well.” He’s on a waiting list for subsidized housing. But he has to prove he has a job to secure housing. Lacasse, he says, doesn’t call me until he’s made a horrendous mistake. Has he made one? He did punch a guy in the face at the halfway house who stole his DVD player. He didn’t get the player back, but he didn’t file a police report, either. “I’m not a rate,” he says. But part of Fletcher’s job is to make sure one mistake doesn’t escalate into something bigger.
“He has such little time to get everything done. It’s hard to convince him he has to slow down.”
I asked Lacasse what he would do differently to give men in his shoes a better shot. “I’d spend some of the taxpayers’ money, and instead of warehousing them, I’d teach them to get out in society. I’d give ’em a trade. Go to HVAC school. Learn construction. Something. Some kind of program. Then when they got out I would create more Urban Leagues. More places that could help us. There’s not a lot of them. I’m lucky to find this.”
Many ex-cons are, says Lacasse, “violent pricks when we hit the street.
“It’s rough out here. It’s rough. It can be done. Anything can be accomplished. But a lot of people, what happens is, when they’re in my shoes, they come out and they get real discouraged. And they get real disappointed. And everything is happening at 100 miles per hour, and you can’t find work. And what happens is after a while they decide, Well, I’ll pick up a gun, I’ll sell some dope. I’ll pimp some broads. I gotta make a living somehow. And that’s the biggest thing that brings us back, is we try and we try and we try and we get out with good intentions, but when there’s nobody to help us, eventually you’re going to go back to becoming what you were. Change comes with help.”