Together we wrote a letter to the A.C.L.U. We were so naïve, we couldn’t imagine they would decline to help a kid facing death in prison. This was 1998. Three years earlier, John DiIulio, a political scientist, published his essay “The Coming of the Super-Predators” in The Weekly Standard. DiIulio predicted that there would be 30,000 more juvenile robbers, murderers and rapists on the streets by the year 2000. That DiIulio was no oracle didn’t matter. The Republican Party made prosecuting children as adults part of its national platform. Some Democrats embraced this idea as well. Hillary Clinton infamously said of juveniles in gangs, “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators.’ No conscience, no empathy, we can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” Still, each day made it plain that we were children in an adult prison, and we hoped the A.C.L.U. would fight for Keese; instead, they mailed him a form letter declining to provide any assistance.
By my 24th birthday, I had called five prisons home. One, Red Onion State Prison, was a high-security facility patrolled by armed guards and built in a mountaintop crater on an abandoned coal mine. I went to the hole five times, including 30 days for cursing and 10 for being punched in the eye. I sat on a cell floor and read Ernest J. Gaines’s “A Lesson Before Dying,” from start to finish; cried while reading Edwidge Danticat’s “Krik? Krak!” I read every book written by Richard Wright, all of Steinbeck and most of Alice Walker. I discovered the poetry of Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman and Agha Shahid Ali, and wrote 1,000 bad poems. I completed a paralegal course and became a bootleg jailhouse lawyer. I taught myself Spanish to speak the language of men I met from seven countries whom I’ll most likely never see again. And once, I turned my back on a man being stabbed. I’d seen and heard enough to understand how prison ruins everyone: prisoners, guards, family, the ground it’s built on. I left prison convinced that the third of my life lost to maximum security wouldn’t haunt me. I was wrong.
On March 4, 2005, eight months before my 25th birthday, I arrived at my mother’s home with the funk of prison, the lye soap, still clinging to my skin like a felony conviction. Twenty-four hours before that moment, I’d been at Coffeewood Correctional Facility on a weight-pile bench-pressing 295 pounds surrounded by men serving decades. My mother hugged me, then held me at arms’ length to see my face. I returned a man with a scruffy beard who spoke too loudly. Though she had visited me often, I could see her taking in the disappeared years, as she tried to find the boy who left so long ago in the body of the man before her.
My mother’s townhouse looked vacant. “I wanted to surprise you,” she told me. Remnants of the life I’d left threatened to burst from boxes on the floor, waiting to be moved into a single-family home she had just purchased — a place with a backyard that needed a son to mow it. A place where people whose children don’t go to prison lived. My mother worked at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. She was also a reservist in the Navy who served active duty in Iraq after Sept. 11. She saved for around 25 years to buy the single-family home that awaited me on my release from prison.
That first night home, Marcus picked me up from my mom’s house. We hadn’t been free together since more than a dozen officers had pointed their guns at our heads in a parking lot near the Pentagon City mall where we were caught. Marcus now worked at Duron Paints, a store on 14th and Clifton in Northwest Washington, half a block from Ben’s Chili Bowl. Duron’s employment application included the question, “Have you been convicted of a felony over the past seven years?” Our crimes were almost a decade old. Marcus checked no. Still needing to explain his thin employment history, he reinvented himself as a recent college student who had nearly earned an associate degree. He never mentioned that he received the college credits while incarcerated at the Brunswick Correctional Center. I came home lacking even that. Living in one jail and five prisons, I was never offered a single opportunity to further my formal education. I came home with far more sense than I had the night a pistol nearly ruined my life, but not a single thing I could put on a résumé.
Marcus hooked me up with an interview at Duron. The interviewer, a black man in his 30s, asked me questions about my life. Everything I said that morning was a lie — I talked about moving to Virginia to be with my grandmother, about pursuing a career as a writer. I knew the truth wouldn’t get me employed: 24 years old, eight years in prison, no job experience. I walked out of my interview with an entry-level job. But most people with criminal records cannot sidestep their felony convictions. A month later, two black men entered Duron job hunting. They confessed their stints in a Washington jail to the manager. When they left, applications in hand, someone made a joke about ex-cons. Laughter followed. I knew they’d never be hired.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “felon” once meant a vile or wicked person, a villain, wretch or monster, and was sometimes applied to the devil or an evil spirit. No wonder once the word is associated with your name, everything becomes more difficult. Unlike Duron Paints, most employers ask applicants if they have everbeen convicted of a crime. This question, known as the box, condemns many with criminal records to joblessness. In 1998, Hawaii passed the first legislation barring public and private employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history before a conditional employment offer. Five years later, All of Us or None, a project created by people with criminal records, started what became known as the ban-the-box campaign. Since then more than 30 states and the federal government have enacted varying fair-hiring practices through legislation and executive orders. Under some, criminal-history inquiries must wait until a job offer is made; others preclude denying employment solely based on the existence of a criminal record; 11 states mandate the removal of criminal-history questions by private employers.
Still, discrimination persists. In a July 2018 report, “Out of Prison and Out of Work,” the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal-justice public-policy think tank in Northampton, Mass., wrote that formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate “higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.” In recent years, the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund joined a class-action lawsuit against Target claiming that, by preventing “applicants with arrest or irrelevant conviction records from obtaining employment opportunities,” the company had discriminated against African-American and Latino applicants. This past April, Target settled for $3.74 million.
State and federal licensing regulations often block people from entering certain professions before they ever touch an application. The American Bar Association has documented more than 25,000 state restrictions on occupational licenses. A felony conviction restricts access to professions as disparate as teaching, purchasing precious stones and metals, becoming a private investigator or operating a funeral home. Many careers — for example, firefighting, athletic training and dentistry — can be threatened by even a misdemeanor conviction.
Whether you can vote after a felony conviction depends on where you live. Some states permanently disenfranchise felons; others require that they complete their prison sentence and any term of probation or parole; only Maine and Vermont let all citizens vote, imprisoned or not. In Virginia, felons cannot vote without having their rights restored by the governor; in Maryland, at the time I returned, I had to wait until I’d gotten off probation. Today in Maryland, a person can vote the day he or she walks out of prison.
[Read about the ballot measure to restore the vote to people with felony convictions in Florida, which could enfranchise 1.5 million — more than any single initiative since women’s suffrage.]
By the time Marcus was out of prison for eight years, he had started a tech company called Flikshop. Through its app, Flikshop allows people to mail cellphone photos as postcards to people in prison, transforming how loved ones communicate with one another. But when he applied to rent an apartment from a private property developer, the fact that he was a small-business owner with excellent credit didn’t outweigh the felonies we shared. People in public housing fare worse. Brian Gilmore, a Michigan State law professor who was a tenant attorney in Washington during the late 1990s, says that after Congress passed President Bill Clinton’s 1996 Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act, which made it easier for public housing agencies to evict tenants for drug use or criminal convictions, he frequently represented clients who were removed from public housing under the new policy. By 2002, the Supreme Court had taken it a step further, ruling in the case Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker that public housing authorities could evict tenants for the drug-related activity of household members or guests, even if the tenant had no knowledge of the criminal activity. Though not mandatory, these policies are still in effect today.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and Higher Education Amendments, two other Clinton-era policies passed in 1996 and 1998, respectively, made it more difficult for people with felony drug convictions to receive food stamps, public assistance and college financial aid. President Barack Obama relaxed some of the restrictions on accessing Pell grants, and only a handful of states continue to enforce the bans on food stamps and public assistance. These policies become another punishment, disastrous for people coming out of prison, struggling to remember how to be part of society — one that seems to want them to fail.
In May 2005, two months after I was released from prison, I walked into an adviser’s office at the University of Maryland. I told him I wanted to start college as soon as I could, that week if possible. He stared, as if I’d lost my mind, as if he were waiting for the punch line. “Young man, we’ve chosen the class of 2009.” I didn’t understand. “Oh, that’s cool, I want to start now, not 2009.” I’d left prison with enough money for bus fare and a fast-food meal — but without the knowledge of how to enroll in college. It had taken me nine trips to the D.M.V. to get my license, each time learning that a different thing was needed: proof of residence, Social Security card, birth certificate. I’d just learned to search for things on the internet and had barely set up an email account.
I told the adviser the story that I wanted to erase: carjacking at 16, prison, recent release. Outside his office, the university spread out into a vast landscape of green. He suggested that I enroll at Prince George’s Community College. After a semester, or maybe a year, he said, I’d be ready to transfer to Maryland.
A week later, my Aunt Pandora took me to a gospel concert at Bowie State University. Karibu, an independent African-American bookstore with multiple locations in the area, had a table set up outside the concert hall with stacks of books, many familiar to me from my prison reading: “The Destruction of Black Civilization,” by Chancellor Williams; “Under a Soprano Sky,” by Sonia Sanchez; “The Miseducation of the Negro,” by Carter Godson Woodson. I talked to Yao Glover, the bookseller, for an hour about literature. “Where’d you go to school?” he asked. It was the first time outside prison that someone thought me college-educated. I didn’t have an answer, and so I told the truth: “Man, I just got out of prison.” Yao turned out to be one of Karibu’s owners. Days later, the manager at the Bowie location called and asked if I’d be interested in an opening there. By summer’s end, I had enrolled full time in Prince George’s Community College and had a full-time gig at Karibu selling black literature to strangers.
On Sept. 19, 2005, I rushed from an 8 a.m. class to open the bookstore. “Good morning, welcome to Karibu,” I said, instinctively, when the bell announced the day’s first customer. Terese Roberson smiled. She wore bluejeans, a black T-shirt and black New Balance sneakers. Also a student at the community college, she had come to the store to buy Mario Azevedo’s “Africana Studies” for her African-American studies course. We talked for a good minute. I read her an elegy that I’d written for a friend murdered in high school. I was afraid to ask her out. For six months, I thought about her without once seeing her face in the halls of the college. Then, during the next semester’s final-exam period, I remember running into her three times in a week. The third time, I persuaded her to have lunch with me.
After our first couple of dates, I began wondering if I owed Terese the story of my time in prison. I’d come home believing that keeping quiet about what I experienced was best. Nearly every password I created back then reflected that thinking: 1Silence, NeedSilence, WantSilence, as if muteness could save me. But by the time we went out, I’d become accustomed to confessing that I carjacked a man. Often, with potential employers, with schools, my criminal record would come up early and derail future conversations. With Terese things were different. Maybe because I didn’t act as if the penitentiary had swallowed a third of my life. She looked at me as if she knew the telling pained me. And I think, maybe, my sadness was part of the reason she answered the next time I called.
Two years later, Terese and I prepared to graduate from Prince George’s Community College. I’d cross the stage as an Honors Academy scholar, a program that provided its members seamless transfer to several local universities, including Howard, the historically black university in Washington. I was completing an application, expecting to be a Howard Bison, until I got to this question: “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime?” The question made me stop. I feared that my enrollment was already in jeopardy. A few weeks later, Dr. Melinda Frederick, then the coordinator of the Honors Academy, and I went to Howard to sign my enrollment papers. An admissions officer paused when we told her about my felonies. She told us that in the past, Howard had at times declined to admit students who had criminal records. “But don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll get back to you shortly.” They never did. Recently, more than a decade later, I called to find out what happened. Howard says its records list my application as incomplete. When I asked if there were a policy to decline admissions to people with criminal records, a university spokeswoman said that applications by people with criminal records are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
I applied to the University of Maryland and was admitted with a full-tuition academic scholarship. Terese, pregnant with our first son, Micah Michael-Zamir, was accepted at Towson State University. After my two years at Maryland, I was chosen by a group of deans and administrators to give our graduation’s student commencement address. Before more than 15,000 people — classmates, professors, friends and family members — I told the audience that I had served eight years and three months in prison. I made my criminal record, even in the middle of an accomplishment, visible — brutally permanent. A tattoo. That’s how I saw it. And if I was going to be scarred, I wanted to reveal it myself.