Erik's Story

by Pam Kelley for the Charlotte Observer January 31st, 2015

If Erik Ortega were doing stand-up, this would be what you’d call a tough room – a class full of jobless people with criminal records. Many feel beaten down by rejections and ashamed of revealing their convictions, even during mock interviews.

Still, when Ortega speaks, the students in his employment readiness class at Charlotte’s Center for Community Transitions tuck phones in pockets and sit up straighter. At 5-foot-8 and partial to sweater vests, Ortega isn’t an imposing man. So maybe it’s his booming Bronx-inflected voice that gets attention. Or maybe it’s his message. “You’re greater than your records,” he tells them.

Each week, more than 100 people who’ve completed jail or prison sentences end up in Mecklenburg County. Often, they leave incarceration lacking basics such as transportation and clothing. If they’re lucky, they find housing with family or friends. If they’re not, they land in homeless shelters.

Some also discover Charlotte’s Center for Community Transitions, which has been helping ex-offenders return to society for 40 years, even before the war on drugs sent the nation’s prison population skyrocketing. Ortega directs re-entry programs; the employment readiness class is his brainchild.

Its curriculum, a combination of practical skills and motivational exercises, aims to change how students view and conduct themselves – not as ex-convicts, but as people with marketable skills. When these graduates succeed, everybody wins, including taxpayers. In North Carolina, an ex-offender who stays out of prison saves the state $29,000 a year.

Over 10 days, Ortega and co-teachers cover resume writing, proper dress, job-search strategies. Students learn how to explain their criminal records and why their email addresses shouldn’t contain words such as “weedman.” The curriculum draws from the latest criminal justice research. It also draws from Ortega’s own life.

Now 39, Erik Ortega was 19 years old when he was nabbed at JFK International Airport carrying a suitcase full of cocaine. He served 6 1/2 years in prison. Today, he’s a testament to the value of giving people with criminal records another chance.

‘They just ain’t hiring prisoners’

The class meets in the center’s offices, located until recently in a North Davidson Street warehouse. Enrollment ranges from about 10 to 20. Students may be on probation, in recovery for addiction or still completing sentences. Or they’ve been off probation for months, maybe years, and they can’t find work. Some are Charlotte natives. Some are new arrivals hoping for a fresh start.

Shaune Smith, for instance, came from Detroit in September, joining his wife and son. When Smith started class in November, he’d already applied unsuccessfully for several forklift operator jobs. His last conviction, for breaking into a vehicle, was more than six years ago, but several employers told him he needed seven years clean.

“I got a resume, a cover letter. I got all that,” he says. “They just ain’t hiring prisoners.”

Every morning, Smith, 45, arrives for class at least 15 minutes early. His lunchbox holds reading glasses and a bologna sandwich, which he eats around 10 a.m., because he’s still operating on prison time. People eat early in prison.

Smith grew up with a cocaine-addicted single mother. He has spent years incarcerated and says he’s determined not to return. “I’m tired now. Once you do all that time, you come to a point in your life, you just want to live life and have peace in your life.”

Erik Ortega reached that same point much more quickly, the first time a jail guard ordered him to strip, squat and cough. “I was one of those who had a real conversation with God: If you help me survive this, I’ll change my ways,” he says.

He’d gotten into drug dealing, he says, to supplement a meager income. He’d grown up in the Bronx and Washington Heights, become a father at age 15, and worked in a movie theater. He became a drug courier, flying with cocaine kilos to Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami.

In prison, he made the most of his time, teaching employment preparation classes to prisoners twice his age. When he got out, he figured finding a job would be a breeze.

But re-entry came as a shock. He slept on a cot in the hall of his mom’s apartment and depended on family for his wardrobe – two pairs of jeans and three shirts. He discovered that telling a woman you were just home from prison was, possibly, the world’s worst pick-up line. He couldn’t find a job. Even at McDonald’s.

What saved him, he says, was volunteering. He got an internship with a New York nonprofit that helps people with criminal convictions transition back into the community.

Ortega tells his classes: When you volunteer, you gain more than anyone else. “One,” he says, “it fills the soul. And if someone leaves and you’re there volunteering, who do they look at? And if you’re volunteering, can’t the supervisor write you a reference letter?” Volunteering, he swears, is the greatest hustle ever invented.

The scary part of the story

The November class quickly finds a routine. By 9 a.m., people are seated, having finished cigarettes and filled coffee cups. One class member periodically moves near a power outlet so he can recharge his ankle monitor, which he’ll wear until he’s off curfew.

Three students have just relocated from state prisons to the center’s transitional facility for women on Old Concord Road. They’re still serving sentences, but now have more freedom. One says it’s nice to ride in a car without being shackled. Tears well in another’s eyes as she describes the joy of being allowed to fry an egg in the facility’s kitchen. And the toilet paper: She can’t believe the softness.

As days pass, class members practice filling out job applications and learn not to include drug-treatment programs on their resumes. Instructor Ben June describes a federal tax credit that’s available to employers who hire ex-offenders.

Friday brings a key lesson: how to tell your story to an employer. Ortega starts by asking students to recall the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. “Our Big Bad Wolf is that criminal record,” he says. “It has teeth. Big eyes. It’s a part of the story that can be scary. But what’s the name of the story? Little Red Riding Hood. It’s not about the wolf. Your story is about ...”

“Coming out of the wolf,” one woman says.

Exactly, Ortega says. “Your story is about triumph. We have to be able to tell our story in a way that takes that employer from where we were to where you are.”

Ortega’s story

Here’s how Ortega’s story goes: The volunteer position he took in New York helped him get a paying job with another prison-related nonprofit. He also enrolled in college, renewed his relationship with his daughter and began dating Angelique Romero, now his wife. Theirs was an unusual courtship, given that Ortega was on parole and had to be home at 6 p.m.

Ortega moved to Charlotte in 2004 after Romero was transferred here. Initially, the Center for Community Transitions turned down his job application. Executive Director Myra Clark needed someone who knew Charlotte, and he didn’t. But she hired him after he gained experience in a program for high school dropouts. He likes to mention this setback because it underscores a favorite point: You can’t let rejection get you down.

Nearly 10 years later, Erik Ortega has been the recipient of a William C. Friday Fellowship for Human Relations, which aims to develop state leaders. He chairs Reentry Partners of Mecklenburg, a coalition of organizations working to help people with criminal records. He often shares his story at businesses and churches.

And yet every so often, the old wolf rears his head: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? The question showed up several years ago on an application to coach his stepdaughter’s soccer team. He checked “yes” and wrote a letter of explanation, just as he advises his students to do. The soccer association rejected him.

It took a face-to-face interview in Raleigh before the association reversed its decision. The hurdles proved worth it: His former soccer team members, now in college, still call him “coach” when they see him.

The dreaded question

When mock interviews begin the second Monday of class, Shaune Smith is first to volunteer.

He tells the interviewer that he has warehouse experience and he’s prepared to work any shift. “My best qualities are being on time, listening to the supervisor and trying to do good work,” he says. When he finishes with a thank-you and handshake, classmates applaud.

But that was the easy interview round. The dreaded query – Tell me about your criminal record – comes two days later. This is when a 47-year-old woman steps forward. Clark, the center’s director, asked that she not be named because she’s still finishing a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder.

She has a ready answer when June asks why he should hire her: “Because I’ll be an asset to your company. I’m dependable, a hard worker, reliable and on time, and I’m a people person.”

Then she freezes. She senses the criminal record question looming, and can’t face it. She returns to her seat, shaking her head, wiping tears from her eyes. “It was like I was back in the judge’s chamber or something,” she says.

Later, instructor Nikki Ellis tells the woman to keep practicing and not worry about crying. Ellis sympathizes. She served 18 months in a federal prison for failing to report fraudulent billing at her workplace. Sometimes, she still gets choked up when she talks about it.

Smith leaves class early. During a break, he has changed out of jeans and hoodie into a tie, dress shirt and pants, which he wears with black shoes and white socks. He’s off to another job interview.

A second chance?

As Ortega stands before graduates at the Nov. 14 graduation, inspirational messages flash on the whiteboard behind him: You know my name, not my story. You’ve heard what I’ve done, but not what I’ve been through.

“Has this been easy?” Ortega asks.

“No!” the room replies in unison.

“This is actually just the first step,” he tells them. “There’s not going to be somebody walking behind you singing the ‘Rocky’ song. But if you represent what you represented in the last two weeks, nothing can stop you.”

Statistically, odds for people with criminal records aren’t good. Two-thirds get re-arrested within three years of release.

But at the center, 59 percent of clients who complete the job readiness class and use its networking program find employment within a month. While nearly half of North Carolina inmates get arrested within two years of release, job readiness graduates do better. After two years, 63 percent of 2011-12 graduates had no new arrests.

When the Center for Community Transitions opened 40 years ago, it was a rarity. But as the nation’s prison population grew, so did the problem of re-entry. In 2004, President George W. Bush thrust the issue into the spotlight during his State of the Union address. “America is the land of the second chance,” he said, “and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”

Since then, there’s been a growing consensus – from both social justice and cost-savings perspectives – that society should do more to help ex-offenders remake their lives. Last year, the city of Charlotte joined the national “Ban the Box” movement, which eliminates the “Have you been convicted of a crime?” question on job applications. City officials want people with criminal records to know their applications won’t be disregarded.

Ortega longs for much bigger changes – more programs that treat mental illness and substance abuse, earlier efforts to prepare inmates for release and help them re-integrate with their families. Affordable housing also is a huge issue. It’s hard to keep a job when you don’t have a place to live.

A bulletin board at the Center for Community Transitions displays a monthly tally of clients who get jobs. In November, there were 27, including Shaune Smith, who got hired by a temporary labor agency a few days after he graduated.

Now he’s performing various jobs – pouring concrete, unloading trucks – for minimum wage, $7.25 an hour. He’d like a permanent position, but he’s happy contributing to his household and setting an example for his 15-year-old son. “It’s a good step for me,” he says.

Until he gets a car and driver’s license, Smith relies on his wife to drive him to the temp agency by 5:30 a.m. From there, he pays a co-worker $4 for a ride to the day’s job site. He still likes to arrive early, and he still brings a bologna sandwich for lunch. Now, however, he’s eating at noon. Gradually, he’s getting off prison time.