When Mike got released from prison, he had $40 in his pocket. He was to report to parole, participate in drug programming, and choose a behavioral health clinic to receive care management. The halfway house he was sent to gave him 120 days to find work and somewhere to live.
After three months and no job offers, he ended up homeless, living out of a tent in someone’s back yard. His care managers were not as helpful as he’d hoped. Welfare assistance provided him with a meager $350 per month, which is not enough to afford rent anywhere in the Buffalo area.
“It’s one dysfunctional system to another. That’s the way I see it,” Mike says.
Since his release in 2016, landing a job has been difficult. Mike has been to multiple interviews, but often the conversation stops at his criminal record. It also doesn’t help that he is only beginning to learn his way around computers.
“I get overwhelmed,” Mike remarks on learning all the new technologies – though, he adds, he’s a wiz on his smartphone now.
Mike did receive an offer at a coke manufacturer, but the opportunity didn’t pan out. Inside Tonawanda Coke, it’s about 120 degrees F, with coal burning at 5,000 degrees F. New trainees get to take a break in an air-conditioned area of the plant. Perhaps the temperature contributed when three days into training, Mike nodded off to sleep in front of his trainer. That was the end of that job.
Difficult as it is to land a job with a felony, one has to wonder how Mike let the opportunity at Tonawanda Coke slip through his fingers. Outsiders might write this off as laziness or indifference, but the reality is more complex than that. For Mike, the job was daunting.
“That was a big responsibility, ain’t gonna lie,” Mike admits. The job would have required 16-hour shifts, three days on and three days off. It’s possible he simply wasn’t ready for it.
When you have a criminal record, you don’t necessarily have the luxury to choose your professional career path. You take what you can get, as far as employment goes, and sometimes that means accepting opportunities that don’t exactly fit your passion. Other times, it means creating your own opportunities.
Mike has done the latter.
In prison, he earned his GED, took a college-level electrician training course (which his family paid for), and acted as a teacher’s aide in his prison’s electrical training program.
“If you can get the right help and guidance, it’s a good time to better yourself,” Mike says, referring to how important it is to make the best use of prison time.
Mike has started his own business with installing garage doors, home repairs, minor commercial work, and electrical work. Every day, he seems to be rushing around to get paperwork in place, market the business, and build his customer base. Transportation has been an obstacle in this endeavor. He first needs to repay some debts, pay for his license, and eventually save up to get his own vehicle.
For now, he works jobs around Buffalo to build his reputation and expertise. “If you do a good job for people, it speaks for itself,” Mike says. “Just be fair and straight with [customers].”
He has also participated in programs through the Center for Employment Opportunities. When participants at CEO show up to employment programs on time and demonstrate their work ethic, the organization is able to in turn advocate for them and help them find permanent employment. CEO has been an important resource in Mike’s job hunt.
Along with the tangible struggles of reentry, there is an entirely separate struggle to restore one’s relationship with society. Mike notes that “just communicating with people” has been the biggest challenge with reentry.
“I don’t know if that has to do with my time being away or not. It probably has something to do with it.” This includes repairing his relationship with his daughter as well as building new relationships that can add positivity to his life and help him move forward.
In addition to the interpersonal issues that can disrupt relationships leading up to a prison sentence, a decade away from loved ones can truly wear away relationships. Life presses on, for better or worse. Mike’s father passed away while he was in prison, and his mother was diagnosed with dementia.
“I don’t have anybody left. I’ve been home a year. I’ve got six sisters. I haven’t seen anybody. Nobody’s come to see me, nothing,” he says. Some friends and family have sent money, especially when times were so rough that he would have been happy to afford a bar of soap.
“My brother Dan, he’s the only one that’s actually helped out,” he adds. About a year after his release, Mike was able to find housing about a block away from his mother’s assisted living, so now he can visit regularly.
If he were to give advice to his younger self, Mike says he would tell him: “Slow down and pay attention to the things that are going on in your life.”
This is a piece of wisdom he applies to his life now. With every stressor buzzing around him, Mike finds peace through the presence of water. His love of water goes back to his childhood, when he built a fishpond in his back yard; when his father lived on Lake Ontario and they would go boating; when his mom moved him to the countryside in Canada and they had a pond in the back yard.
“When I need to get away, I get on my bike and bike ride from here to downtown, Canalside. I got a little place I like to go and look at the water,” he says. “Everything is hustle and bustle nowadays…Just things that bring peace to your life in general, no matter what it is, they come from just slowing down enough to bring peace to yourself.”