By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Stephanie Hicks was ready for her job interview. Professionally and neatly dressed, resume in hand, and credentials for the job: a bachelor’s degree in human resource management and a master’s degree in management from Faulkner University. The woman interviewing her said, “I have three or four assignments I think you would be good for.”
“I believe in full disclosure,” Hicks said. “So, I replied, ‘I know we didn’t discuss this, but I need to tell you this is what’s in my record, this is who I am.’ The woman’s whole demeanor changed. Even the way she shook my hand at the end of the interview.”
It was the first time she felt the sting of the stigma of being incarcerated, recalled Hicks, who is the administrative director of the Offender Alumni Association (OAA) and is not your typical ex-offender.
“I come from a two-parent household, both retired from good jobs,” she said. “No issues or anything. It was my own mistake, and I acknowledge my mistake, but how often do I have to pay for my own mistake?”
Hicks, 47, was convicted of embezzling more than $90,000 in 2015 and spent six months in federal prison in Alabama for her offense.
“I thought I could handle it,” she said. “I had been in the military before. I had been in boot camp before. [Prison] was not boot camp, though. I thought I could make it. I came home in June 2016 and said, ‘OK, the bad is done. This is going to be the new.’ That wasn’t the case.”
Reentry Task Force
Hicks, from Leeds, Ala., met Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin in August 2016 at Railroad Park, where he and his mother were handing out campaign flyers announcing his candidacy.
“I asked somebody, ‘What do you think his chances are?’ They said, ‘He’s going to need a lot of support.’ But the more I started listening to him and analyzing him, I realized he had a chance,” Hicks said. “I contacted him via Facebook, and we talked around March 2017. I told him about the challenges I had as a former offender and the challenges I hear from other former offenders.”
That interaction led to the creation of the Reentry Task Force, announced by the mayor this month, which ensures that individuals recently released from prison receive the help they need. The group’s goals include finding members with firsthand experience dealing with incarceration and supporting families and communities affected by recidivism.
Hicks is one of the task force chairs, along with The Dannon Project Executive Director Kerri Pruitt and Birmingham Community Engagement Office Director Brandon Johnson.
“[Woodfin] said he would look at reentry as a holistic approach: housing, employment, mental health. But one of the things I asked was, ‘Can we please have someone at the table who has [the right type of] experience?’” Hicks said.
Reentry programs are often formed by people who have not experienced time in prison and have “book theories” about how a returning citizen should feel, she said. By partnering with an organization like The Dannon Project, Hicks is hopeful that the task force will produce results.
“Right now, we can’t afford to not put in the work to help our communities because [ex-offenders] need us,” she said.
Stigma Of Incarceration
The Dannon Project helps those returning home from prison restore their lives by providing supportive assistance and helping people successfully return to and remain in the community. The organization offers short-term training and certifications to previously incarcerated people.
Hicks, who is also a client of The Dannon Project, said patience is required when working with some ex-offenders: “When you have a 17-year-old who has gone to prison for 20 years and he comes home, what does he know? He’s stunted at 17.”
The stigma of incarceration is “a permanent reminder for me, but it’s also a permanent stigma for people who want to use it against me,” she said.
“People only look at the fact that you have a felony or that you have been to prison. They don’t even try to see past that. That’s the biggest challenge most of us have. It doesn’t matter, not your education or anything.”
Challenges After Getting Out
Housing is another issue.
“Some properties will say, ‘We don’t want you to have a history of drug offenses,’ and a lot of people have a history of drug offenses,” she said. “Then they might say, ‘Well, you can have a history of drug offenses, but it needs to be 10 years old.’ [Does that mean] someone who is fresh out has to wait 10 years for a home? They place these ridiculous barriers, and no one can say where they got this from. It’s a standard created by someone who thought it was reasonable.”
It’s a standard “created by fear,” Hicks said. “In order for us to get over the fear, we have to provide the opportunity. If you give them the opportunity, you lessen the recidivism rate.”
There’s also the mental-health piece, which is a significant issue among blacks.
“In our community, we believe in being strong people,” she said. “I used to be like that for myself. [I thought] that not being able to cope was a weakness, so I had to press past all these issues.”
Prison has an impact on more than just the offender.
“There are family members, friends, coworkers who care about you,” she said. “I don’t think people are hateful and mean when it comes to people who have gone to prison. I just think they don’t understand and aren’t educated about it because it doesn’t touch them.
“I am not the typical offender. I waited until I was in my 40s to do an offense. I spent my 45th birthday in prison, and that was not something that had been part of my family. I should not have to spend the rest of my life reliving my past mistakes, though.”
Being a ‘Safe’ Offender
Hicks said she is more approachable than the typical offender, however, and she gave an example.
“I present well. I don’t look like the typical former offender,” she said. “That pushes people to be more accepting of me. They may not be accepting of, say, Ray, who has a violent offense and tattoos on his face, but he may be a brilliant young man with critical thoughts.”
Many often do not feel threatened by Hicks when they find out she is an ex-offender: “People will listen to me more than [a former male convict],” she said. “He will be a novelty at the time, but I would be a sustaining face.”
There is a misconception for some that recently released offenders want to commit crimes once they’re free.
“That’s not the case,” she said. “Some end up in shelters, some end up on the streets, and they’re still trying to figure out their way.”
Food, shelter, and staying alive are often their greatest needs, which they fulfill any way they can. That’s why reentry programs are important.
“We need to share those success stories,” Hicks said. “They need to see that, ‘Yes, that man went to prison and got out, but he’s not on the street corner anymore. He’s doing something with his life.’ People need to see the success stories about these people.”
Serving time has changed her for the better, she said. As for the future, she is taking it slow.
“The old Stephanie was a planner. The new Stephanie is taking it day by day,” Hicks said. “I can say that my goal is to help those around me, because that helps me also.”