One Man’s Journey with a Criminal Record
Before his secret was out, Chris Clennon was good at hiding it in everyday conversation. He'd gone to prison at age 16 and spent 18 years behind bars in Minnesota—a fact he tucked away, hoping to leave the past behind and follow his dreams. He wanted to be a solution architect in the IT field.
But his blueprint for that future was stained by his criminal record.
TOO WONDERFUL TO BE TRUE
After prison, getting a job in his field was "like swimming upstream, against the current," Chris says. And he understands why. Still, after more than a decade of proving he had changed for the better, he couldn't help wishing for a fair shot at a second chance.
Chris had taken every opportunity to study and gain skills in information technology while behind bars. He took his foundation in programming, database, and project management to the job market upon his release. With training, good work ethic, and the character to match, Chris worked his way up as a business analyst and project manager. Then a former client offered him a job as director of product development at a startup company. His career dreams were coming into focus.
"A company pursued me for a year and offered me more money than I had any right to expect," shares Chris. "They actually hired me, and I thought, I passed the background check! This is wonderful."
Chris discovered it was too wonderful to be true. The HR department had given him the nod before his background check had finished processing.
"I started the job on a Monday, and Wednesday they came to me and said, 'Sorry, we're going to have to send you home,'" Chris explains. There's no resentment in his tone, but a tinge of disappointment is unmistakable. After delivering the bad news, Chris' dream company let him pull together a list of references. He had many, but it wouldn't matter. The company required all employees to pass a background check since many of their top clients required it.
START THE CONVERSATION
Face-to-face with rejection, Chris knew he had a choice to make: be bitter … or keep growing.
"I thought God was opening a door for a job in IT," says Chris. "That experience would break me of the shame attached with a criminal background, and of not being willing to have that conversation. As a result, I just started having the conversation, whether it was with former employers, friends, neighbors—including a neighbor that I was very nervous of what he would think if he ever found out."
That neighbor across the street was a former police officer—the last person Chris imagined opening up to. When he decided to be honest, Chris discovered that this neighbor already knew about his past!
"He looked me up when he was first buying the house," Chris laughs. "And he didn't care. He trusted me for who I am today. He trusted me to watch his home for the weekend."
Before, Chris had plenty of tricks for dodging the awkward questions. Now he says he's done talking in circles. "I don't necessarily always volunteer my background," he explains, "unless I find that it's relevant or meaningful to the person I'm talking with. Now I'm glad to say, 'Oh, yes, that person was a Prison Fellowship volunteer when I was in prison,' or whatever the case may be."
Chris adds, "That conversation not only puts a face to former offenders—it's not just someone on TV covering their face, or someone you need to be afraid of—but it also opens up the conversation for someone to say, 'Oh, my nephew did time,' or, 'My sister is in jail.' There are far more people than you'd expect that have a loved one who's been in prison."
STANDING AT A CROSSROADS
Today Chris is self-employed as a licensed contractor. "It's kind of the cliché thing—get out of prison, go into the construction business," he says. He built a successful remodeling business, but he struggles with serious back issues that won't sustain physical labor for much longer.
"I'm currently at a crossroads," Chris admits.
Maybe he'll grow the business and hire other employees, or make another attempt at pursuing IT. He has also considered going into ministry or working for the Minnesota prison system. He already has six years’ experience as a volunteer in prison, with the rare privilege of speaking at the same facilities where he once served time. Looking down the road ahead, he continues to pray for direction.
As one of 65 million American adults with a criminal record, Chris is encouraged to know he isn't alone. He highlights Prison Fellowship's annual Second Chance 5K in St. Paul as a powerful occasion for prisoners' families, formerly incarcerated men and women, and other community members to come together and show support for second chances.
"This 5K is a cause that’s close to my heart," says Chris. "… and it's very public. This is going on the news, in a public forum, where we're saying, 'I stand by the person [with a criminal record].' … These are regular people. These are sons and daughters and brothers. And it's OK to not be ashamed of your past as long as you face it and are moving on with your life."
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