Would you hire an ex-felon? Consider this.
Kalamazoo resident Samuel Hunter discusses his life in and out of prison with Battle Creek Enquirer reporter Dillon Davis.
Hunter, 48, was released from prison two years ago and now is a team leader at Portage-based Bowers Manufacturing. Dillon Davis/The Enquirer
The question hit Samuel Hunter hard. What would your mother think of you now?
Even at about 6 feet tall with a sturdy build, it crumpled him. He removed his protective glasses, sunk his head and wiped both eyes with a hand before returning eye contact.
"Man, that’s the hardest thing for me right now," he said, seated near the coffee table of his Kalamazoo apartment while his pregnant wife, Banah, milled around the kitchen. "My mom died and I was in the penitentiary. I was in the penitentiary for taking two lives and that’s not what she wanted. For a long time, I felt like I let my mom down. I wasn’t what she wanted me to be."
Hunter, who also goes by Muhammad Abu Bakr Abdullah, has been a free man for about two years now. Before that, the 48-year-old spent 25 years of his life incarcerated for second-degree murder and arson. He told a room of about 40 people at Battle Creek's First Congregational Church last year that he'd set fire to a Wayne County home of a person selling drugs in his territory, unaware that two women were inside at the time.
Twenty-five years of that decision consumed his life. The rest, he'll be marked as a felon. He and others who hold the title have struggled to find work, their mistakes raising red flags to potential employers.
A June 2016 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that prison time and felony convictions can have "a lasting and profound effect on future prospects for employment." Statistics show ex-felons often lack formal education and have numerous barriers to return to the workforce. Be it the long gap in their job history, a lack of references or simply the box identifying them as a felon, numbers show all can be disqualifying.
Hunter was never interested in being a statistic. But to know him now is to understand who he was then. Unfortunately, employers didn't always make the distinction.
These days, he's almost unrecognizable.
'I didn't make it my prison'
It was pretty rough in the beginning for Portage resident Ahkir Hunter. He, like Samuel, landed in prison on a second-degree murder charge stemming from a killing when he was 20. He recalls himself as "a young gangbanger" with little regard for himself and even less for others.
In his decade and a half in prison, he met Samuel, became disciplined under Islam and studied the teachings of a Detroit-based nonprofit organization, Chance for Life, as well as graduating from a culinary arts program.
Still, upon release, there wasn't much for him.
"I’m 36 and I’m a young, black man with a murder," he said. "So, I’m like, ‘Ah, I’m not gonna get too far.’ At the same time, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to make it."
For most ex-felons, there are few clear paths to the workforce. In their study, researchers Cherrie Bucknor and Alan Barber wrote that overall employment rates in 2014 were about a percentage point lower than the general population compared to former prisoners. For men, the study found employment rates were about 1.7 percent lower than the general population.
The employment rate is about 7 percent-8 percent lower for men without a high school diploma.
Of the 1.43 million held in federal or state prisons in 2011 within the United States, about 57 percent of them lack a high school diploma or its equivalent, according to the most recent findings by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Bucknor and Barber's research found that there are up to 2.9 million former male prisoners with less than a high school degree.
Related data from the United States Sentencing Commission on recidivism — or the tendency for a past convict to reoffend — found that almost half of offenders released in 2005 were arrested for a new crime or for a violation of their parole within eight years of their release. Almost 32 percent of those people were reconvicted of a crime and about 25 percent returned to incarceration.
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Bucknor said there are known barriers to return the workforce, some of which are related to race.
Her study found that there's "disparate sentencing" between white and black people, as racial minorities are more likely than white people to be arrested and more likely to face stiffer sentences. According to Bucknor, black men suffered a 4.7 to 5.4 percentage point reduction in their employment rate compared to between 1.4 and 1.6 percentage points for Latino men and 1.1 to 1.3 percentage points for white men.
"There are academic studies where they go and put resumes out," Bucknor said. "They’ll put a white person with a felony conviction or a black person with a felony conviction. They’ll have people go out and do interviews. They’ve found that especially, there’s one that found that whites – former convictions or prisoners – in the study got callback rates that were higher than blacks with those records.
"I think there's a lot of that going on."
Ahkir Hunter, who also goes by Antonio, saw the divide, though he believed it to be related to the type of felony on his record. He said he'd watch body language shift, positive language turn dismissive, chances disappearing the moment he disclosed the truth. His first shot came via Pancheros Mexican Grill in Portage. Hunter told the restaurant's general manager about his ServSafe certification, demonstrated he knew how to run a kitchen but cautioned him. "I'm a felon."
"He looked at me and said, ‘I’m not the one to judge. I’m all about giving second chances,’" he said. "He gave me that opportunity and hired me. Never, not one time looked down on me or put it in my face."
Today, both Ahkir Hunter and Samuel Hunter (of no relation) work at Portage-based Bowers Manufacturing Co., a custom aluminum processor.
Ahkir Hunter said he's interested in furthering his education on the outside. He's planning on attending Kalamazoo Valley Community College later this year to study welding to advance his career prospects. For now, he's grateful for how he used his incarceration to allow a chance of success on the outside.
"During the struggle for these months, I realize what you do in there will affect you out here," he said. "Whatever you take in there, and you put your mind to it, you know, I made that my college.
"I didn’t make it my prison."
To ask or not to ask?
One way to get a foot in the door is not to face the question — at least not right away.
Versions of Ban the Box, an initiative to remove the opportunity for felons to self-identify as such on job applications, have been implemented in communities throughout the United States. Michigan Works Southwest Director of Talent Solutions Chris Walden said there's a push to make Ban the Box a common practice for employers in Calhoun County.
"It's a huge advantage," Walden said. "The biggest point of view is employers get a chance to screen applicants based on knowledge, skills and abilities versus criminal background. Too often we see employers pass on highly skilled individuals because they have a singular or multiple background issues in their past.
"Ban the Box allows them to look past those and see the person as a total concept of what good they could bring to the table versus focusing on what issues they have had in the past."
Walden worked with Samuel Hunter on numerous mornings at the former Michigan Works building on Hamblin Avenue in Battle Creek. It became a second home to Samuel. He'd ride the bus there to get in before 8 a.m. to tune up his resume, to work on computer skills, to become acclimated with the modern workforce.
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"I just wanted to prove that I’m not a statistic," Samuel Hunter said. "I have an education about myself. I have an integrity about myself, you know?"
Walden said Samuel Hunter is an excellent example of what's possible in hiring ex-felons, though he believes he's hardly the exception.
Jennifer Cobbina, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, said ex-felons tend to leave prison and become "stuck doing these lower-level and low-paying jobs." Cobbina said a criminal record tends to usurp job qualifications, regardless of a person's ability or however much time has elapsed since their incarceration – though data shows the chance of reoffending greatly decreases over time.
Ban the Box opens a window that some might not otherwise have, she said.
"It’s simply delaying when the question is being asked," Cobbina said. "Instead of asking the question right up front, on an application where oftentimes people are screened right off if they have a felony record, at least the person with the felony record has the opportunity to be interviewed and sell themselves."
There are, however, unintended consequences of removing the question from applications. She said employers tend to zero in on other details such as a sporadic work history or a lack of qualified references. Cobbina said it ultimately tends to negatively impact young, black people, as employers are left to make assumptions about a person's background.
"Essentially, if you tie up employers' hands where they can’t ask the question right off, there's different ways to get at that," she said. "It ends up hurting a population who has not been incarcerated because of trends because employers do not have access to that right away."
The greater change
Seated in Samuel Hunter's apartment in early December is about 100 years of combined incarceration. With him are Ahkir Hunter, Kentwood resident Dante Rogers, Lansing resident Antoniese Gant-Bey and Detroit resident Brian X.
In the binder of Battle Creek resident B.D. Alexander, the years of incarceration are almost incalculable.
Alexander founded a company called O.T.I.S. Vision Group, or OVG. It's an urban outreach consulting firm seeking to connect with incarcerated citizens and their families. Each month, Alexander spends time communicating with as many as 30 inmates in an effort to provide encouragement or to lend an ear to stories that otherwise would not be heard.
The end goal, he says, is to ready outgoing felons to return home – and, ultimately, to the workforce.
"Many people get out of jail looking for opportunities but are not always prepared for the opportunity when it comes," he said. "It’s essential to not only work with the individual but their loved ones to build up that support system to see and make sure they’re getting into a proper environment, that their lifestyle is conducive for that, that they have contact with their children.
"If you can find a reason they want to have a job, it becomes an easier way to help an individual."
Education behind bars can lead to better outcomes on the outside. That's at least how it's worked for Samuel Hunter and others. Hunter, who had been a leader of a gang and his religious group, found solace in the curriculum of the Chance for Life program. He still has the thick binder that details concepts like job skills and conflict resolution as well as some more traditional educational material.
"I wanted to lead, but there was no one leading in a way to help people get out of what they were doing, man," he said. "If I’ve gotta spend the rest of my life in here, then I’ma spend it for helping people do better than I’m doing."
He came into contact with hundreds of inmates through the program. Brian X, who served a little more than 18 years for assault with intent to murder, armed robbery and a felony firearm charge, found some critical lessons through a religious-based study guide called "Self-Improvement: The Basis For Community Development."
"The more and more I began to implement that process, the greater the change I began to see in myself," X said.
His first shot at the job market came as he took an asbestos removal class. It required a laptop, the ability to type and for him to be in the right place at the right time, which he was for the next eight months as he attended college as a free man. Today, X is a paralegal at Hatchett, DeWalt, & Hatchett, a law firm in Pontiac, and a trainer and vice president at LUCK Inc. in Detroit.
He said the key for many incarcerated citizens is increasing educational programming, or at least funding the system's successful programs, to lead to better outcomes.
However, he said too few of the programs follow through in promises to assist ex-felons upon reentry to society.
"It's like a newborn baby," he said. "I've been gone for 18½ years. I don't even know how to walk. Now, you're telling me to get up and run. Because you have that existing, unfortunately, guys do become comfortable and it becomes what they know — not because that's what they want to do — but it's what there is."
As for Samuel's mother. Her name was Lois McKinley. She'd visit him from time to time at the Mound Correctional Facility in Detroit to check on him, to give him a taste of anything familiar to get him through his days and nights behind bars.
On one visit, Feb. 11, 1995, she came to bring a box of clothing and send along her love before returning to her home in Coldwater. Three days later, she died. Her final letter to him came a few days after that. He remembers it well. It reads, in part, that she loves him, as only a mother could, and that she wasn't mad at him and that she wishes him well.
Twenty-two years later, he's determined to be the man his mother wanted him to be.
He's married now and his wife recently gave birth to a baby girl, Aqeelah. His apartment is a little cramped these days, though he's soon venturing into the housing market. At work, he is a supervisor of second-shift packing at Bowers by way of Battle Creek's WKW Roof Rail Systems, which closed last year.
Hunter also shares his story as a public speaker in forums all over Michigan as he did during last year for Bridges to Cultural Understanding, a project of the Battle Creek Community Foundation.
He wants people to know what he's done, even if that process is uncomfortable for some.
"I’m OK with dedicating myself so people know who they are," he said. "The way you do that is by helping people. I always mention them, you know? I always mention them. They’re real. I don’t think I’ll ever get my mind wrapped around to the point where they’re not a part of my life but I’m not gonna be stagnant and let it hold me from moving forward. In my strive to go, I’ma take them with me."
What would your mother think of you now?
"She knew I had the potential to do that because I’ve always had the drive to lead. I just led wrong," he said. "But I do, I think my mom is extremely happy. She’s extremely happy right now. I want to keep it that way."