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Life After Jail

Inmates apply for jobs, hoping to find work once they are out.

When Doniel Drake gets out of prison on July 13, he says that he plans to get a job and reconnect with his infant daughter. But he knows that it will be difficult to leave what he calls “a life of hustling,” where selling crack can bring anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 a week.

“Once you learn how to hustle, it’s embedded in you,” he said. “It’s like a bad habit.”

Drake has been in and out of trouble since he was first arrested as a 17-year-old, eventually dropping out of T.C. Williams as a junior to sell drugs around the public housing units near the Braddock Street Metro station. He says he’s been in jail seven or eight times — he’s lost count — and that his future is uncertain.

“I’ve never had a job before,” he said. “But this is my chance.”

Drake and several other soon-to-be-released inmates applied for jobs last week at the Alexandria Detention Center. The job fair was conducted by Offender Aid Restoration, a nonprofit organization that helps former inmates rehabilitate themselves to the outside world once they leave prison. Drake hopes to get a job in a bowling ally.

“If it turns out good, this will be the shock of my life,” he said. “And I’ll owe it all to this program.”

OFFENDER AID AND RESTORATION was formed in 1974 to help people like Drake. Its volunteers are in the prison every day of the week. Instructors lead sessions on everything from anger management to childcare. They help track down birth certificates and Social Security cards. As the inmates draw closer to leaving jail, they teach financial management and job-interviewing skills.

“We help them get their resumes ready,” said Gail Arnall, executive director of the nonprofit organization. “And then we bring potential employers into the jail so they can interview here before their release date.”

Arnall says that inmates face many challenges when they leave the restrictive world of jail, especially in a post-9/11 world where ex-felons are increasingly marginalized. With more nonviolent crimes labeled as felonies, former inmates face an increasingly difficult time adjusting to life outside jail.

“When we, as a society, act too quickly to label a crime as a felony, we’re putting a death knell in the job opportunities of nonviolent offenders,” Arnall said. “Most businesses won’t even consider felons. If you have a felony — even a nonviolent felony — you probably won’t even be able to get past the secretary.”

FORMER INMATES who have been helped by the nonprofit participated in the program, offering inspirational guidance and practical advice. Keisha Sanden knows how difficult it can be to leave the Alexandria Detention Center and find a new life. That’s why she makes a point of coming back to help others break the cycle of crime and punishment.

“I was an addict, but I had to disassociate myself with all of that,” Sanden said. “It’s not possible to use and go to work. That’s one of the things I came here to say today.”

Now that she’s leading a productive and sober life, she wants to give back. During a speech to the inmates, she told them her own story — falling into a life of crime, spending 17 years in and out of jail, hopelessly addicted to drugs and then using the services of Offender Aid Restoration to pick up the pieces and find a new life with a solid job and determined sense of self.

“Most of these inmates have substance abuse problems, so they need to address that first,” said Mondre Kornegay, commander of inmate services with the Sheriff’s Office. “They need to make a change from the inside out.”

But recurring drug problems are not the only challenges facing the inmates. When they leave prison, many of them will be facing a life of owning up to a felony conviction. Kornegay says that increasing concerns about security have created new problems for those seeking to make a new life for themselves after jail.

“Most people who leave here today probably will not be successful,” she said. “But you have to live for your successes, not your failures.”