By Vivian Shipe
KNOXVILLE, TN — It is hard to return to normal life after any set back. Imagine the struggle to return to society after you have served time in prison or jail and have paid all your dues and are working to pay all remaining fines.
Imagine the struggle to be accepted, to find work and a home; to find support and resources after leaving the prison system. You are alone and don’t know where to even begin. It can’t be done without help. In Knoxville, on July 11th, help came in the form of a re-entry fair held by the Knoxville Area Urban League.
The name of the fair was intentional. Language is important. The words felon, even former felon just sounded too harsh for the job fair coordinator, Jackie Robinson, Workforce Development Specialist and Certified Psychiatric Rehab Counselor for the Knoxville Area Urban League. Mrs. Robinson said, “We need to be more forgiving.” When she was planning the fair, her mission was to have employers on site who not only hired those who had been in prison; she wanted employers who were taking applications and interviewing right there on the
spot. She achieved her goal.
There were fourteen employers at the RE-ENTRY job fair. It was held for two hours. From
the moment the doors opened at 3 pm, until the last person left at 5, the room was full of 50 hopeful attendees; all neatly dressed with resume in hand, ready to present themselves for that second chance to those ready to give a hand-up. The employers spoke one on one with the candidates, receiving resumes and taking applications or providing the online link to apply. The Urban League also had open lab computers available and offered assistance to help with those online applications. For those who needed help with record expungement and voter rights restoration; those resources were on site too.
The University of Tennessee Law Clinic was at the fair to help with expungement, the court process of removing a charge from a public criminal record. Their support at the fair included taking petitions for expungement and they offered go to court with the applicant.
This is but one step for re-entry and acceptance. Along with the clear record comes the need to have voter rights restored. The Knoxville Urban League was ready to offer that support also.
Many in Tennessee with past convictions who may be able to get their right to vote back are required to file a request to restore their right to vote. This is something that is not well known. Restore Your Vote, an organization dedicated to guiding “people with felony convictions” or “people who are formerly incarcerated” was also on site to help with the path to restoration. In Tennessee, whether a person has lost their right to vote depends on the date of conviction and crime for which they were convicted. There is also a defining date of May 17, 1981 which determines whether you have lost the right to vote and determines the use of the Certificate of Restoration process. That free help was also available at the job fair.
These support groups were also joined by C.O.N.N.E.C.T. Ministries and Knoxville Community Step Up, organizations who have for over a decade served as support systems for those formerly incarcerated and their families to stop recidivism and create hope by offering help in finding jobs, housing, paying fines, even getting their GED.
The denial of citizens who have past felony convictions who do not have the opportunity to fully return and reintegrate back into community is treating them as second class citizens. They have been cleared by Hebrews 8:12, they have been cleared by the court systems and, when allowed to, they work and pay taxes. They need support and organizations willing to not be judgmental and willing to see them as people and offer that hand-up.
At the Knoxville Area Urban League RE-ENTRY Job Fair, they got that hand.