The Denver Post
Ronald Sena's troubles started with heroin, which led him to thievery and shoplifting and larceny, which led him to prison. He was 19 the first time he went in. For much of the next 20 years, he made regular use of the revolving door, accumulating a lengthy record of nonviolent crime.
That was all many years ago, but I'm laying it out first because Sena's past refuses to stay in his past and because his terrible choices will be all that matters to some readers, so I'll save them the trouble of reading further.
By 1994, Sena was a free man in the workforce. He worked continuously for the next 14 years — most of that for a cardboard-box manufacturer. He became Joe Taxpayer, drug-free, with a car and a bank account and health insurance. He screwed up twice in recent years with two arrests for drunken driving. One he disputes; the other he admits. The charges were reduced in both instances, and he pleaded guilty to driving while ability impaired.
To simplify: Sena spent almost 20 years in and out of jail, followed by almost 20 years of uninterrupted employment.
On Dec. 30, 2008, he was laid off. He's hasn't been able to find steady work since. He's 58. "How much consideration does an ex-con, an old ex-con, get?" Sena asks. "Zero."
This is not an unusual story. Especially not in this job market. An employer who can choose between a convicted felon and someone with a clean record is going to pick the clean record. That's just reality.
"When I last left prison, the associate warden came up, and he handed all of us parolees $100 each and a bus ticket, and he shook our hand and said, 'You've paid your debt to society,' " Sena says. "Well, that was a lie. I'm 20 years out and I'm still paying."
No matter what you think of Sena, he raises a point applicable to all who served their time. (And I have a cousin among them.) When is a debt repaid? How long out of prison is long enough?
"The haters out there are going to say, 'It's your fault you're in this situation.' Well, they're right," Sena says. "It is. I admit that. I should get the least consideration of everyone in society. That being said, then what? What am I supposed to do now?"
He collected unemployment and then fell ill, racking up more than $40,000 in medical bills he cannot pay. Thanks to his mother and siblings, he's not on the street. "I'll tell you how it goes," Sena says. "You lose your job, then your possessions, then your money, then your clothes. As you see, I'm on the last chapter."
What I see is a thin man, neatly dressed and clearly desperate. In our first telephone conversation, he told me he was thinking of committing a nonviolent crime to go back to prison. His voice was shaking. Bad idea, I said.
Bad idea, says Hassan Latif. Latif is a Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition board member and a case manager for Turnabout Inc., which helps ex-offenders find work. He's also an ex-con, on his seventh year out. He says Turnabout has been averaging 950 visits a month from ex-offenders, most of them living in halfway houses or still on probation or parole.
"There's actually a term to describe this situation," he says. " 'Collateral consequences.' It's the impact a criminal history has on people seeking employment. . . . What you are hearing from (Sena) is something we hear frequently. 'Just take me back.' But that's not a solution. They have to come back out eventually, and it's not like the situation will be that much different."
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Sunday, January 08, 2012
The Denver Post