The Box Inside The Cage

by Clayton Hoyle.

Thousands of Maine residents are required to “check the box” when they apply for work or housing. Checking the box means admitting if you have ever been convicted of a felony. 

Many employers and landlords have prejudices against people who have to check this box. Ex-convicts are looked at and labeled as bad guys who are unable to do good because of their pasts. 

I spoke with Susan Carr, the Deputy Warden and Head of Educational Programs at the Maine Correctional Center, who offered her insights into prison life, ex-convicts’ struggles, and the person behind the prisoner.  

CH: What made you want to and how did you end up getting into this field of work?

SC: Well let me just tell you a little bit about my history because it’s pretty long and sorted. So, I went to college to be a social worker and I started working for The Department of Human Services where I investigated some pretty serious cases of child abuse. Seeing things from the victim side of things kind of took a toll on me. There was one case I investigated where the father had struck the baby in the head with something, and the baby had to have the top of his skull removed to allow for the brain to swell. So, after several cases like that, I thought maybe I didn’t want to be a social worker after all. 

So I ended up taking a job at the Maine Youth Center. Some of the teenagers there had been children that I had removed from their families as a DHS worker, so it all came full circle. At the youth center, I helped kids, rehabilitate, and helped them find a lasting meaningful place to land when they got out of the center. I made it my job to try to find the best home for them.

So later in my career, there was a job posting for the state of Maine working for probation and parole as a resource coordinator. The job was using contracts with community providers to do in-home services like family counseling, all sorts of risk reduction programming, which I enjoyed for a bit, but it got old rather quickly. 

After the resource coordinator position, I then became the manager of probation and I managed 12 probation officers in the central counties of Maine. I was doing that job, and this position here at the Maine Correctional Center came open. So I came to work here and when I went and walked around I noticed many people would call me Miss Carr, and I remembered them from the youth center because everyone else just calls me Sue, so it’s quite interesting how much they’re the same and haven’t changed, in many ways.

CH: That must be difficult to see the people you helped back then here now. 

SC: You know, it’s a conversation because it can be, you know, how are they still stuck like this? I take it back to when I worked at DHS and I took them away from their families and I thought that what I was doing was going to help them and it didn’t. Matter of fact in many cases, it made it worse. Is it better to leave kids at least connected to their family? I mean maybe their family’s not great, maybe things aren’t going so well but is it better to leave them connected to that family versus taking them out where there’s a great divide and disconnect where they’ll be probably gone for quite some time and in many cases not return at all, and have no connections? They’re connected to a foster family who is committed but there’s nothing like being able to call your mom at the end of the day.

CH: How does someone’s life change when they are brought to prison or a correctional center? 

SC: It depends on the situation, In this state of times right now, so many people come in with drug charges and drug addictions and that’s hard. A lot of them were just using yesterday or last week. So there’s a period where people need to come to grips with the time that they need to do here.

CH: So, are they coming to prison because of their actions while they were on drugs or because of illegal drug use?

SC: They are sent here because of the things they did. So, it led up to an arrest which ultimately resulted in a conviction. So Maine Correctional Center is just one of a few facilities in the state. We have Maine State Prison, and then we have Mountain View Adult Correctional Facility. Once we do your intake we do an assessment and we figure out which facilities have the programs that will best meet your needs. Mountview runs sex offender treatment programs and intensive inpatient substance abuse treatment programs. Maine State Prison has some inpatient treatment as well. We also have minimum custody facilities, so if you’re not here for a violent offense or a sex offense you could qualify to go to one of those facilities. If you are at one of those facilities you can go out into the community to work. So you can go out and earn a paycheck and save money, this way when you are released you can get reconnected with housing and get back on your feet so much easier.

CH: When they are filling out a housing application or a job application, once they get out are they required to “check the box” or say they are a convict on that application?

SC: They should because most employers are going to do a background check and when they find out they’ll probably fire you. So, in all of the reentry classes we teach, soft skills. So when you have a job interview, how are you going to prepare? You’re going to put a nice shirt on, maybe a tie, iron your pants. You’re going to walk into the interview and try to appear confident, and shake hands like you mean it. A lot of these people don’t have those skills. So we do a lot of practice with soft skills, how to show up, how to be on time, we teach all the basic skills right down to the nuts and bolts. We help them write a resume. You know when you check yes I’m a felon on that box, how do you explain that. They want to know what’s behind that because people come with an idea, they have prejudice about things. Either they try really hard to understand how did they get to be like this? How did that happen? How did they get there? What did they do while they were there? I would rather hear the story about what people did to try to improve the situation for themselves. I’ve heard a million stories In my time and it could happen to any one of us. People have this idea and they paint everybody coming out of prison as felons and sex offenders, who can’t change their situation and don’t want to change their situation. They prefer to collect welfare, nobody prefers anything, right. You have to learn to understand the situation, and the person, no one gets in that situation saying, yeah, I’m going to prison, I’m going to work my way into prison, It’s just not the case. 

CH: When someone gets out they’ve served their time and they’re allowed to live in society, do you think that people view them that way, or do you think they bat an eye and turn the other way? 

SC: I think at times it’s hard. Everybody’s got an opinion or an idea about what it’s like, but what they imagine it being is usually wrong. These people for the most part have had really bad things happen to them. I teach a lot of different classes and I try to help people understand by asking them to think about Christmas morning. So, you’re a kid and you came down stairs and all the presents are under the tree and you’re all excited you can’t stand it, you open them all up and everybody is crazily excited, these people didn’t have that. A lot of the times these people came out of their rooms, maybe their moms passed out on the couch, you know, from a night of drinking. Maybe there wasn’t a tree, they probably weren’t any gifts at least not many and certainly not the ones that they dreamed of having. So, you know, thank God that there are agencies that are willing to help people that can’t afford to get gifts but it doesn’t always result in that one favorite thing you dreamed Santa would bring you.

CH: So you find that having less money is something that you see more of, you’re not going to see somebody that has a whole lot of money, somebody who is able to live in a nicer area.

SC: That’s right, and I think it’s a cyclical that all sort of connects to itself. So, if you’re living in downtown tenements where a lot of prisoners get released, It all plays off itself. You end up hanging out with kids that you shouldn’t have been hanging. That’s when things start at a younger age, you get hooked up with kids whose parents, they’re not paying as much attention as they should, and you get yourself headed down the wrong track at an early age just based on where you’re located in a poverty-stricken neighborhood where other poverty-stricken families live. So, you don’t have the resources to get out of there and it  sort of mounds and mounds upon itself.

CH: You might have to steal something to survive which puts you in the correctional facility and then you’re stuck in this bubble. 

SC: Yeah and, you know, The guys that are leaving here they’re checking a box, they’re felons. Where do you think the housing is for these guys? They can’t just get an apartment, right. So the landlord’s going to have you fill out an application, and let’s say we’re both going for the same apartment, you check the box, I didn’t check the box, who do you think is going to get the apartment?

CH: The person who didn’t check the box. 

SC: Right, because landlords are not going to worry about the non-box checker. You know, he’s got his idea about what that box represents. That’s a bad guy, he just got out of prison, I can’t have him in the building there are kids there, but his offenses may have absolutely nothing to do with that. If you get to know them some of these people are reasonable humans that have just had bad things happen and they didn’t have the coping skills so it set them in a spiral that they couldn’t manage and they wound up in a bad situation that put them in prison.

CH: Right It’s not good versus bad or bad it’s more complicated than that. What do you think is the hardest part of being in a correctional facility?

SC: A lot of them have families that they love. Not being able to go home. Not being able to spend time with their kids. We run dads groups here and there are lots of benefits to it, but the one thing that the guys come away from when they finish the group is how to help support the people who are taking care of your children. How do you help them from here, what are some things you can do to support them, and so each one of them came up with their own idea about how they can do that. The most recent one that I thought was pretty cool was a fella who would call home every night and help his son do homework over the phone. At the end of the program when they’re done we allow them four hours with their child. We set up activities, we play in the gym, what’s really kind of touching is when you watch them all come in and the look on the kid’s faces how excited they are, you know these kids love their dads. Throughout the whole event, we’re busy clicking pictures because those pictures mean a lot. When I’m talking to folks about moving forward and how they are going to stay clean and how they are going to get solid and then you show them the picture of the look on that little boy’s face, you know, that’s what you need to focus on, that little boy is the focus.

CH: Do you feel rewarded at the end of the day?

SC: I’ll tell you when I feel rewarded, when I go to a Shop n Save and I run into people that have been here and they tell me how well they’re doing, that’s when I feel rewarded. On a day to day basis though, it can be hard to watch people stuck here. I mean don’t get me wrong we have men who are making the best of their time here. We have a college program that they can sign up for. The federal government won’t even give you a student loan if you’re a felon with drug convictions. So, we applied for The Second Chance Pell Grant, and we were awarded it. The men that take the college classes, my gosh you can watch them change. We had a graduation ceremony here, and close to 20 men graduateed, and  their families were allowed to come. What powerful day that was! We had tissue boxes all over the place because I knew what was going to happen. At the end a mom came to me and said, “I can’t remember the last time I was proud of my son,” and she was crying throughout the whole ceremony. We had a sort of a debrief after the graduation, and those men were on cloud nine with pride, and they were different men at the conclusion than they were at the beginning.

CH: Why do you think the federal government doesn’t give financial aid if they were convicted on drug charges? If they provided financial aid, wouldn’t that help us get more people out of that situation, and help our communities grow?

SC: Yeah, I think education would decrease some of these issues. If you have an education, you’re going to get a better job, if you have a better job you’re going to live in a better neighborhood, you’re going to be around better people, have better opportunities.

CH: Once they’re released do they come back?

SC: There’s a return to custody report on The Department of Corrections website. It’s hard to define recidivism properly because you can get released from a DOC facility into the community and be doing fine but you get pulled over and arrested because your car is not registered and you wind up in county jail. So, if the state considered that recidivism I think that the data is abysmal. So we call it a return to custody which means they came back to one of our facilities. 

NOTE: For a summary of the return to custody report see the link in the text. For a full report check this link, full return to custody report

CH: Was there anything else you wanted to say?

SC: It’s been something that has been sort of troubling to me for a long time that checking one box keeps you stuck in the same box you’ve always been. I don’t understand the notion of not getting to know the person instead of the prisoner,

CH: Would it be powerful for you, in general, to see that box go away?

SC: It would be, and there was a movement. Erica King, who works for the muskie Institute, did a whole bunch of research on the notion people have that juvenile records are sealed when you turn 18 and how they actually aren’t. So, if you were juvenile and you committed a felony offense and you’re 18, you think finally I don’t have to check the box and you go and apply for a job at Lowe’s, you’re like, my juvenile record is sealed, I’m done with that business I’m moving on. I’m going to a job, I’m going to save up money and I’m going to go to school. So, you don’t check the box and you had a felony as a juvenile, it’s still going to show up on your record, so Lowe’s is going to fire you and you’re going to start all over again back in the same box. You know, there are times when you need to know, and it’s about safety. If someone’s got a serious history of sexually inappropriate behavior with children, then people need to know about that safety issue. We wouldn’t hire them at a daycare, we wouldn’t want them working in a school, we wouldn’t want them running a playground area, those are the things that I’m okay with if there’s a box for that when safety is concerned. If there were only a question, “do you pose a safety risk?” it would be a different question then, are you a felon. You can be a felon for one thing that has absolutely nothing to do with people.

Imagine if you got yourself in trouble in some way. You know, even when you go golfing, you can ask for a mulligan. Let’s say you shoot and you just divot the grass and your ball rolls two inches, and you’re like shoot, I want a mulligan, well we don’t get mulligans in life. It’s a sad day when I’m signing paperwork so that someone can get a hotel room because we can’t find anywhere that will take them. That’s not a way to be released from here, after you’ve done a sentence and you’re done, you know you’ve served your time, your debt to society should be paid but you’re in a hotel with bedbugs.

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