Formerly incarcerated people are building their own businesses and giving others second chances
As he prepared to leave prison for the second time, David Figueroa decided he was going to walk away from the Chicago street gang he belonged to since he was a boy and build a better life for himself. “I wanted to do the right thing this time,” he says. “I wanted to get a job. I wanted to get married. I wanted to have children.”
He knew finding work would be hard because of his criminal record. “It was a very scary moment,” recalls Figueroa, whose hands, fingers, arms and chest were covered with gang tattoos when he left prison in 2005 at the age of 29. He thought at the time: “Wherever I go, I will be looked at as a scary person.”
Figueroa grew up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, notorious for its violent street gangs in the ’80s and ’90s. He wanted out, and he hoped to work in construction. But doors began slamming as soon as he filled out job applications. “Every time I checked the box that asked whether you were a convicted felon, I never got a call back,” he says.
While looking for work, Figueroa got help from a community-based organization that offered ex-offenders classes in life skills, including anger management and financial literacy. Not long after that, a construction company hired Figueroa, and he stayed there for several years.
But then he injured his back after falling off the roof of his home and spent nine months recovering. Figueroa was able to return to his old job, but he had lost his seniority and sensed he was not wanted anymore. “I could see the writing on the wall,” he says.
Rather than face the prospect of looking for another job, he decided to create his own business. Pulling together his savings, Figueroa launched a home renovation company in 2014. He promised himself that he would employ others with criminal records, offering them opportunities he never had. “We all have done something we regret,” he says.
He decided to name his company Second Chance Renovations.
CREATING THEIR OWN PATHS
Formerly incarcerated people like Figueroa have a difficult time separating themselves from their criminal histories, which makes getting jobs a struggle. Even when they’re eligible to get their records sealed or expunged, most don’t go through the process because they are either unaware of how to do it or lack the legal help they need to get it done.
For example, a study in an upcoming Harvard Law Review found that only 6.5% of people in Michigan legally eligible for expungement obtained it within five years of eligibility. For those who don’t pursue expungement, the accessibility of their records makes it harder to find employment, even in states that have “ban the box” laws that prohibit certain businesses and government agencies from asking about convictions on job application forms. (Those employers are still free to perform criminal background checks on their own.)
According to “Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study” by J.J. Prescott and Sonja B. Starr, professors at the University of Michigan Law School, those who got their records expunged were more likely to stay out of trouble and get steadier and higher-paying jobs than those who didn’t.
“There can be lifelong consequences for not only a felony conviction, but also for a misdemeanor conviction,” says Lucian Dervan, chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section and an associate professor of law and director of criminal justice studies at Belmont University College of Law.
The ABA Criminal Justice Section has for decades supported efforts to remove the many barriers that prevent people with criminal records from moving forward with their lives. This past January, the ABA House of Delegates passed Resolution 109B, which supports the expungement and sealing of records for nonviolent convictions. “Affording these individuals a way to expunge or seal their nonviolent convictions recognizes both the accomplishments of the individual in building a life free from further contact with the criminal justice system and the need to reduce the collateral consequences of a conviction,” the resolution’s report states.
Rather than face continued rejection, some formerly incarcerated men and women are taking another path. They’ve decided to create their own businesses, drawing on their intelligence and street smarts while also committing to help formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet.
David Figueroa grew up with a single father who had to raise six kids on his own and wasn’t very good at it, he says. His memories of his dad, who had a construction business, are not happy ones. He remembers him as verbally abusive and often angry. Figueroa’s oldest sister took care of him and the younger siblings. Figueroa says he was a good student but had a behavior disorder that landed him in trouble.
Like other troubled kids seeking connections and a sense of belonging, Figueroa joined a street gang when he was about 11 years old. “I started selling drugs. I ran away from home when I was about 12½ years old and never went back,” he recalls. “I learned how to steal cars at an early age, so I would steal cars to sleep in.”
He didn’t want to go home to his angry father. “I would sleep in gangways, and I had a couple of buddies and would stay over at their houses a couple of nights a week to take showers,” he says. “That was the life I chose. I didn’t want to go back home.”
Figueroa’s path led him to prison twice for drugs, weapons and aggravated battery convictions. The last time he was arrested, some detectives visited him at the Cook County Jail. “They took me back to the station for a lineup and put a murder charge on me,” he says. Prosecutors offered him a plea deal, but Figueroa refused, he says, because he didn’t do the crime. He went to trial and was found not guilty.
Figueroa doesn’t dwell on his past, nor does he hide from it. But he doesn’t ask those seeking jobs at Second Chance Renovations to explain theirs. He asks applicants about their future goals instead. “I don’t look backwards,” says Figueroa, who’s strong voice still has echoes of the streets from which he came. He is tall and fit with closely cropped brown hair and a goatee. “I don’t care what you’ve done in the past.”
New employees start at $12 an hour, even if they have no experience. If they consistently work hard and show promise, they get a raise. After they get their first paychecks, the workers are responsible for buying their own basic hand tools. Figueroa provides power tools.
Figueroa teaches his recruits skills in construction, carpentry, drywall installation, window replacement, hanging doors, painting and more. “I love to teach. If I can tell that you’re someone eager to learn, I’m patient,” he says. “I tell my guys: ‘I want you to work so hard that you go home so tired that you have no time to do nothing else but go home, eat, spend some time with your kids and go to bed so you can do it all over again tomorrow.’ ”
His goal is to help employees develop habits they may never have had. “I’m really hard on my guys for the first 30 days because a lot of them don’t have any work experience,” he says. “Sometimes it’s very hard to get these guys to commit and understand this is not a game.”
Not long after Teresa Hodge went to federal prison to serve a nearly six-year sentence for mail fraud and money laundering, she began planning her future.
Hodge listened to a lot of women talk about their dreams of pursuing a better life once they got out. But for most, they remained dreams. “I learned from the women who were in and out just how challenging it was for them to connect with the hopes and dreams they had while in prison,” she says. “It was as if prison provided a moment of clarity—a place to plan and figure out life and to determine how to start over—and yet somehow there was this huge disconnect from that vision and desire to actually being successful.”
The women spoke of the difficulties getting a job, finding a place to live, reconnecting with family. “What I heard was lots of despair,” Hodge says. “I kept seeing that over and over in prison: the spark in someone’s eye saying, ‘I’m gonna make it,’ and then the return of someone whose light had been dimmed by the reality.”
Hodge thought about this a lot. She had advantages going into prison that would serve her when she got out. She had been an entrepreneur and had a loving family. But she recalls feeling very frightened and ill-prepared before she began serving her sentence.
“My experience prior to incarceration was watching television,” she recalls. “I was filled with fear. I was afraid I was going to be shanked. I was afraid to go in the shower. I was afraid I would get into fights. I would be harmed by guards. I just didn’t know what to expect.”
Her fears were not realized, and she connected with many women at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. (Martha Stewart served time there.) Hodge listened to their stories. “I was unaware of mass incarceration and its impact on society as a whole.”
Hodge shared what she learned with her daughter, Laurin, and together they discussed ideas about how to help women make a successful transition home from prison. “I wanted to take the stories and the experiences that I heard, and I wanted to try to clear a pathway for people who were choosing entrepreneurship because they had no other alternative.”
Laurin, then a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, submitted a business plan in a universitywide competition. That plan eventually led to Mission: Launch Inc., a Baltimore-based nonprofit that initially was created to teach financial literacy, technology and entrepreneurship to previously incarcerated women to help them become self-sufficient.
“We felt as a family the effects of incarceration,” Hodge says. “We felt through the power of entrepreneurship, through the power of work, that people would have an opportunity to reconnect with their communities, be productive citizens but more importantly, reestablish family connections.”
The organization, which launched in 2012, has since expanded to include both women and men and offers leadership training, technical assistance and help getting access to capital for budding entrepreneurs. “For a lot of people, they turn to entrepreneurship out of frustration. Many of the people I met in prison are extremely resilient, and entrepreneurship is about being resilient. The ability to survive and to have drive, to maintain hope and maintain courage while you are in prison is certainly a strength that can be used,” Hodge says.
One of Mission: Launch’s latest ventures takes a deeper and potentially a more fair-minded look at people with criminal records by allowing them to be evaluated by more than just their records. It’s called R3 Score, and it’s a score and a report based on an algorithm that quantifies criminal history with other factors such as education, volunteer work and other aspects of a person’s life. People are evaluated on a scale of 300 to 850, much like a credit score. An R3 Score might be used in applications for occupational licensing, bank financing, commercial contracting or other opportunities.
Hodge says it gives a more rounded picture of the people trying to rebuild their lives—so that they’re not judged solely by their criminal pasts. Paraphrasing a familiar line from public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson, Hodge says that people are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. “It was in prison that my humanity was brought to another level,” Hodge says. “I saw the women who I was incarcerated with as humans, as other people who were deserving of a second chance.”
Hodge created her own second chance, but she will always be reminded of her past. “The hardest thing I had to do was to forgive myself. The hardest thing I had to do was to move forward in spite of this—knowing that some people were going to judge me harshly, potentially for the rest of my life,” she says. “For the rest of my life, I may always have to get over that hurdle that is the life sentence for people with a criminal record after they serve their sentence in prison.”
Marcus Bullock has been out of prison for 15 years now, and by all accounts has been a model citizen. He’s a successful businessman. He’s been featured in the Washington Post, in Forbes and on NPR. Yet he still has trouble renting an apartment because of his criminal history. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Bullock, who grew up in Washington, D.C., was just 15 years old when he went to prison. He was convicted as an adult for carjacking, attempted robbery and gun charges. Like a lot of teens, he easily got bored. To pass the time behind bars, he studied for his high school equivalency diploma. He also took classes in business and computers.
“I knew I didn’t want to go back home and go back to the same neighborhood where all my friends were selling drugs,” he says. “I don’t want to put my mom through another prison visit ever again.”
He was released at age 22 and tried to figure out what he wanted to do. He took real estate classes and passed the licensing exam. When he took the results to get his certificate, a clerk said, “It looks like there’s a problem with your background. Are there any issues you want to tell us about?” he recalls. “My heart sinks to my toes. I said ‘Yes,’ unapologetically, “I’m a convicted felon. I made a mistake about 10 years ago. I was a kid.’ ”
“He said, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t get your real estate license,’ ” Bullock says.
It was a jarring moment that showed Bullock how collateral consequences can put a wedge between people with criminal records and their dreams.
“You talk about a high and low in the same moment,” he says. “Now I have to go home to my mom and tell her that all the classes I took, all the money we spent for school, all the books that I bought—all of that running and hustling to the train station, every single day. All in vain. Now I have to go back to square one where I had been turned down for every job I ever applied for.”
All signs were pointing for him to go back to the streets and sell drugs. Instead, he went looking for jobs. Bullock recalls filling out 141 job applications. Most of them were for retail or service-related jobs.
Then, he filled out an application at a paint store. “The question on the application was ‘have you been convicted of a felony within the last seven years?’ ” he recalls. His conviction was 10 years old by then, so he answered no and got the job.
But Bullock wanted more. “I want to create my own destiny instead of relying on someone else,” he says. “I’m naturally an entrepreneur, I sold candy in school.”
He started by building his own painting and remodeling company. From there, he worked to develop a business plan drawn from a phenomenon he observed while in prison. Every day he saw that mail call was the best part of the day for him and his fellow inmates. Getting something, anything, in the mail was like gold. He could see that communicating with family members helped instill hope about the possibilities of life on the outside. But not many inmates got letters. Social media had shifted how people communicate, and sending letters and photos was not as common as it used to be.
Because inmates are not allowed access to social media, Bullock saw an opportunity. He created Flikshop, an app that allows family and friends to take photos and write messages that are then printed on postcards and mailed to registered correctional facilities across the country for just 99 cents each.
His company was a hit, attracting investors and grants, including $50,000 from Unlocked Futures, which is affiliated with John Legend, the Grammy-winning recording artist and criminal justice reform advocate. (Hodge’s Mission: Launch also received a $50,000 grant from Unlocked Futures.) Bullock now has seven employees—many of whom are formerly incarcerated. “In our company, it’s frowned upon if you haven’t been to prison, which is interesting,” he says with a laugh. “The people who haven’t been to prison feel isolated among the community because they don’t get the jokes, they don’t get the humor.”
He wants to help erase the stigma formerly incarcerated people feel, especially when applying for jobs. “People don’t need to feel shame coming in the door. They talk about which prison they went to, about common friends and complaints, and they can be themselves,” he says. Bullock sees his company as a springboard for employees to move on to bigger and better jobs or to pursue their own entrepreneurship. “They can leverage up and learn about business and marketing,” he says. “If we do this right, we’re changing the world, we’re changing the narrative.”
He knows there are challenges as soon as people walk out of prison, challenges that are likely to follow some for the rest of their lives. “It doesn’t matter how many companies I build, how successful we are, what tools we come up with, I still have to walk around with this stamp on my chest,” he says.
That stamp, for example, has kept Bullock from being able to rent an apartment in his own name in many places, even after going straight and succeeding as a businessman for 15 years. “It continues to follow me.”
Bullock frequently visits prisons to teach basic entrepreneurship skills to inmates. “I never tell them it’s going to be easy, but this is a first step,” he says. “Now, entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. But for those who want it, let’s give them an opportunity to provide for their families.”
Bullock is right, it’s not easy.
“Some of the barriers you face with entrepreneurship are not simply because of your past,” says Christopher Ervin, founder of the Lazarus Rite Inc., a Baltimore nonprofit that provides reentry and job-training services for formerly incarcerated people, including training for commercial truck driving. “It’s often because you have little or no credit history because you’ve been gone so long. You have debts. You may have child support to pay.”
In addition to his nonprofit, Ervin, who also is formerly incarcerated, launched his own commercial trucking company last year. He says that the term entrepreneurship may sound sexy, but the reality is getting down and dirty to build a small business and raising the money to do it. “You may have the greatest idea—but how do you get the capital to get that idea done?” Ervin says. “There is so much to do.”
That’s why as part of his talk, Bullock counsels inmates on rebuilding credit by establishing a small bank account, borrowing from it and paying it back to help build savings and finance their businesses. He wants to show them the possibilities. “We want to brighten the path,” Bullock says. “And that’s why I’m so passionate about what I do.”
On a recent spring morning, David Figueroa has assembled a crew of three—his foreman and two men recently released from prison—to work on a two-bedroom apartment in a six-unit building they’re renovating on the city’s far South Side. There are cracks in the walls and ceiling from water damage caused by a leaking radiator. The floors need refinishing, and the kitchen and bathroom need makeovers.
Figueroa spends days like these taking structures that have suffered from neglect and disrepair and shaping them into something better and stronger, much in the way he tries to help the men he hires.
One of his crew members is Harry King, 31, recently released from prison and living in a halfway house on Chicago’s West Side. King has taken classes in carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. “I wanted a trade, to learn something I could do,” King says. “I needed work. I wanted work, and David came from the same background as I do. It’s easy to relate to him because he came from the streets like I did—on the streets of Chicago.”
King is grateful for the second chance that Figueroa has given him. “He’s taught me new skills. I appreciate the opportunity he’s given people,” King says. “He’s opened my eyes and showed me that if you want to dedicate yourself to being something, you can. He goes above and beyond.”
King has two children, ages 8 and 5, and he is seeking custody rights. Figueroa admires King for his resolve. “He’s fighting for his kids, he’s fighting for his future,” he says.
“Everything is lining up for me,” King says. “I don’t want to go back.”
Helping men like King has given Figueroa a sense of purpose. “It feels good, helping them get started right away, helping them land on something stable, get a paycheck right away and not have to worry about going back on the street to hustle,” Figueroa says. “That’s the purpose of second chances, the whole purpose.”
Ending the cycle of mass incarceration, he says, must start with employers being open-minded about hiring people with criminal records and evaluating them for who they are. “People think they’re thugs, scum. But they still have kids. They still have bills. I think the system is rigged to keep a certain amount of people in prison,” Figueroa says. “I hate injustice. I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. I stand for justice. Everyone makes mistakes.”
Since being released 14 years ago, Figueroa has achieved the three things he set out to accomplish. He’s married, has children and has a job. He also had his gang tattoos removed by laser. “I used to be really heartless. I had no emotions,” he says. “Once I had my children, it completely changed me.”
He also recognizes that everything he’s done in the past has led him to where he is now. “Am I regretful of some of my actions? One hundred percent,” Figueroa says. “I’m not proud of some of the things I have done. Am I regretful of who I am? I’m not. I’ve had a lot of experience in life. I’m just grateful. I’m so grateful.”
ABA Journal Web Extra: “How to help people with criminal records break barriers to employment
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This article ran in the July-August 2019 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline "Resolved to rebuild."