York County probation officers offer ex-cons a helping hand

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJune 16, 2013 

JONATHAN MCFADDEN — Jonathan McFadden - jmcfadden@heraldonline.com

Timmy Thompson’s route to work is a 35-minute bicycle ride on Hwy. 21 in Fort Mill, and then a quick merger onto N.C. 51. He pedals his way to a home furniture shopping outlet in Pineville, N.C., where each day he loads beds, mirrors and cabinets into customer’s cars.

In the first six months after his release from prison, Thompson, 51, searched for jobs without proper interview attire. He visited at least five different businesses and companies looking for work.

As time passed and potential employers all said no, he increased his pace to eight job prospects a day.

“I was determined,” he said, but his criminal record held him back.

Finally, one place hired him: Black Lion on Park Road, where he works in the shipping and receiving department and does a little painting, as well. He has worked there for about seven months and is saving up for a car.

Thompson attributes his success to the York County office of the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, where agents gave him the khaki pants, black shirts and shoes he wears each day to work, and the bike that gets him there.

For more than a year, the probation office on Heckle Boulevard in Rock Hill has been outfitting ex-convicts with donated suits, shoes and ties so they can be interview-ready when looking for work.

The “Suit up for Success” program is the county’s effort to help fulfill a statewide sentencing reform initiative that replaces punishment for nonviolent crimes and minor violations with programs to change offender behavior.

A local recycling center donates bicycles that probation officers give offenders who need a ride to work.

“Our focus is to try and put some programs in front of them instead of always going straight back to the court,” said Dwight Burns, the county’s probation agent in charge.

When offenders leave prison, “a lot of them don’t have anything,” he said. “Some of them don’t have clothes.”

Others lack job-hunting skills and went to interviews wearing T-shirts and sagging jeans.

“For these guys, they have no concept of what’s important to wear to a job interview,” Burns said. “The main concept was giving these guys something to increase that appearance. We want to give them a sense of confidence, a sense of self-worth.”

“What we teach them is to put a belt on, tuck your shirt in, put on a shirt and tie, if you have one, or just a nice button-down shirt to present that positive image and kind of take away from that negative image of your crime or offense.”

The program is for men and women, Burns said, and the only eligibility requirement is that they’re unemployed.

At the probation office, offenders pick out their own clothes from a clothing closet that doubles as a food pantry and storehouse for hygiene kits of soap, toothpaste and deodorant – much of which is donated by the Alston Wilkes Society, which helps people just out of prison and others get back on their feet.

For offenders who come out of prison without any clothes to wear, probation and parole staffers give them new underwear, shirts, socks and jeans.

Local attorneys have donated business suits. Members of the Catawba Indian Nation brought in 14 bags full of clothes at one time. Burns once donated his own suit and dress shoes to a man who was unable to find a suit his size in the closet.

Lisa Collins, a recently retired assistant 16th Circuit Court solicitor, donated skirts, suit jackets and jewelry she had collected in her 27 years as an attorney.

“I’ve often thought that probation agents...truly had the keys to help someone rehabilitate,” Collins said.

She hopes the clothes will “give a little bit of bling, give a little bit of self confidence” to help offenders seek and secure employment.

Many of the people agents are helping make up the “middle ground” of offenders, said Peter O’Boyle, spokesman for the state probation agency.

“They don’t want to go back to prison, but they’re having trouble paying their (court-ordered) fee,” he said. “The easy thing for us in the past would have been, if they didn’t pay their fees and they didn’t pay their fines, tell a judge, present the case to them and let the judge decide.”

State probation officials are now undertaking a more “labor-intensive” work, O’Boyle said. In 2010, lawmakers enacted sentencing reform in an attempt to reduce the rate of recidivism among prisoners, and offer programs that will rehabilitate instead of incarcerate.

But with a dwindling staff and increasing demands, it’s not always easy for Burns and his team of agents. Within the last year, York County’s two probation offices in Rock Hill and York saw 19 staff changes. Some employees were promoted; others left for higher-paying jobs.

The county’s total staff is now down to five agents total and, as Burns put it, “we now have more office space” than agents.

In 2012, 751 York County offenders were admitted into probation programs and 108 were placed on parole, according to the state probation department. All told, 354 agents statewide handled cases for 17,662 offenders.

Each York County agent serves an average of 200 offenders at one time, Burns said.

State officials are trying to hire more agents, O’Boyle said, but competitive law enforcement jobs and low pay turn some qualified candidates away.

Just this year, the state Senate rejected the probation and parole department’s request for $1.4 million to hire 33 new agents because the department had money directors use to upgrade computer systems and supplement the next year’s costs.

Offering the programs is “time-consuming,” Burns said.

Still, the York County office has managed to maintain and become a leader in the state among county probation offices that offer sentence reform programs, said Tracy Swanson, a county probation supervisor.

The York County probation office also provides “employability” classes, during which counselors from the local office of the state Department of Employment and Workforce teach them about the obstacles they’ll encounter in the job market and how to best overcome them, Burns said.

Among 33 offenders who attended the class in April, 19 received jobs.

Janie Crosby, a 41-year-old mother of two boys, ages 2 and 8, was one of them. She works five days a week making milkshakes and limeades at the Sonic drive-in restaurant in Rock Hill.

“My résumé was jacked up,” she said.

Job counselors taught her proper interview etiquette, what not to put on an application and how to dress properly. When the time came for a mock interview in preparation for her real one, Crosby “investigated” how Sonic ran its business and even learned why its carhops wear skates.

The founder wanted the food to literally be fast, she said.

She was up front about her criminal history on her application, putting in the penal code instead of writing out the actual charge. She wrote out her whole street address and eliminated family members as references.

Crosby said she wants to work hard to show her sons how to work when they become older.

During a mock interview, Crosby “blew us away,” Burns recalled.

So has Thomas Hall, who couldn’t use a computer and had no clothes, shoes or socks of his own when he left prison.

Hall, 48, and in his second probation tenure, has gone to McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Bojangles’ and even a few car washes to find a job. He attends Bible study every week.

“It’s not all about locking you up now,” he said. “They’re trying to help you. You give them 100 percent, they’ll give you 200 percent.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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