American Douglas Lindsay left prison last November -- after 19 years and 28 days.
He had been given a life prison sentence for selling the drug crack cocaine. President Barack Obama reduced his sentence last year.
Lindsay is one of 306 people who had sentences for nonviolent crimes reduced by the president, who calls the United States “a nation of second chances.”
Lindsay told VOA he knows many former prisoners have a hard time finding work after their release. “I was lucky,” he said.
Lindsay’s younger brother helped him get a job at a local pasta producer near his brother’s North Carolina home. He now loads big boxes of pasta for shipment to stores.
Douglas Lindsay was 28 when he was sentenced, and 47 when he left prison.
At the time of his arrest, he had completed a college study program. He was hoping to marry and have children.
“I had all the dreams of a young man - marriage, children, a good job and that house with the white picket fence,” he said.
Lindsay said he got his lifetime sentence when others arrested with him claimed he was their leader. That wasn’t true, Lindsay said. He was a “nobody” in terms of drug sales, Lindsay said. But those who said he was a bigger player received short jail terms and got Lindsay the longest possible sentence – life.
“No, I’m not bitter,” Lindsay said.
What is the biggest change since he went to prison? “Technology,” he said. There were no smart phones in 1997. “Now everyone is spending all their time looking down at their phones,” he said.
The criminal justice system, which Lindsay recently left, is now the center of a major reform effort.
The U.S. Congress is considering bills to reduce required long prison sentences for non-violent crimes – mostly for selling drugs. The required sentences were set by federal laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s.
President Obama stopped the federal government from asking people seeking government jobs if they were ever jailed for a crime. Now that question can only be asked when the government is ready to make a job offer.
Last month, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an order giving voting rights to over 200,000 ex-prisoners. That leaves only three U.S. states that block most ex-prisoners from voting.
Obama explained the current changes this way: “Now, plenty of people should be behind bars,” he said. "But the reason we have so many more people in prison than any other developed country is not because we have more criminals. It’s because we have criminal justice policies, including unfair sentencing laws, that need to be reformed.”
According to the U.S. Justice Department, over 2.2 million people are held in federal, state and local prisons. About 650,000 people are released from prison every year.
Most need jobs.
In 1988, Marshall Shackelford needed a job. He had been in prison since 1984. When he got out, he took over care of his two children – ages 4 and 7.
Shackelford found a warehouse job at Mays Chemical in Indiana. “That job was just so important to me,” he said. “I had to take care of my children.”
Over the years, Shackelford worked his way up to warehouse supervisor. And Mays Chemical continues to employ ex-prisoners. Shackelford said Mays asks people with a criminal history to find a person respected in in the community to 'speak up for them.'
“This does two things,” he said. “It makes them develop a relationship with someone who is respected in the community and to live up to the recommendation that they got for the job.” He said ex-prisoners working at Mays have done as well or better than other employees.
Michael Santos was released from prison in 2013, after serving 25 years for selling cocaine. It would be hard enough, he said, for people released from prison to find jobs – even if there was no 'discrimination.'
People returning after long sentences in prison find their friends and family back home have moved on. And they come home often without any money, and “without the skills needed in today’s job market,” Santos said.
Santos now heads a business helping people entering and returning from prison.
Molly Gill is with a group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said reducing sentences for non-violent offenders has won support from both conservatives and liberals because it saves money and “it is the fair thing to do.”
But she wishes a bill under consideration in the U.S. Senate would do more to “reduce sentences” for non-violent crimes. As she notes, those coming home after long sentences “have the hardest time finding jobs.”
The National Center for Victims of Crime said it is important the damage done to victims and their families not be left out of reform efforts. “Victims’ rights must be at the core of all reforms,” the group said in a statement.
Devah Pager teaches sociology at Harvard University in Massachusetts. She has looked at the problems facing people after they are released from prison.
In one study, she had people apply for jobs, all with the same experience, except some said they had been convicted of a crime. Those that listed past crimes got called back only half as much as those who did not list past crimes.
In another study, Pager looked at promotions for people who entered the U.S. military. She found people who had criminal records move quicker to better paying positions than those who did not.
In her opinion, the military did a good job making sure those with criminal records could handle military service. And Pager said it is possible people who served time work harder -- grateful someone gave them a chance and not ever wanting to return to prison.
I’m Bruce Alpert.
Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
crack cocaine – n. a very powerful form of the drug, cocaine
pasta – n. a food made from a mixture of flour, water, and sometimes eggs that is formed into different shapes (such as thin strips, tubes, or shells) and usually boiled
probation – n. a situation or period of time in which a person who has committed a crime is allowed to stay out of prison if that person behaves well, does not commit another crime
recommendation – n. the act of saying that someone or something is good and deserves to be chosen
core – n. the central part of something
apply – v. to seek a position
grateful – adj. feeling or showing thanks