Shadow of a felony conviction

Reported by: Erik Avanier
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Updated: 5/22/2013 6:59 pm
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CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee(WDEF) - When a convicted felon does the time for committing the crime, it's called paying a debt to society. But through the eyes and in the minds of people who frown upon convicted felons, that debt is never paid.

For most convicted felons, being released from prison is the start of a new life on the outside. But with that new life, comes new challenges they didn't have before being convicted.

Connie Ray Edmiston,55, of Chattanooga knows this all too well. He served 14 years in prison for a drug charge.

"It's a serious struggle. But you have to be willing to battle with that struggle, Edminston said.

Once a person is convicted of a felony offense, that conviction shadows them for the rest of their life; making it very hard to get employed but not always impossible.

"Some people will give you the opportunity to actually show yourself. I had that opportunity, Edminston said.

Employment opportunity for Edminston who has a college education meant doing maintenance work at the Bethlehem Center in Chattanooga.

Despite the difficulty ex-cons face when applying for a job, there are ways to increase the chances of getting better results.

The first and probably most important step to take is being up front with an employer because nearly every job application will ask a potential employee if he or she has ever been convicted of a felony; a question that in some cases will automatically disqualify certain people from getting hired. Honesty becomes the best policy.

"If you're honest with them then you can explain the situation of your conditions but if you're dishonest with them, then there's nothing to explain."

Convicted felon, Charmane Goins served 15 years in prison. He like so many other felons had a rough time getting a job. Goins worked hard to take back his life and is now the director of business support services at Launch Chattanooga. He said newly released felons can't be too picky when applying for employment.

"Come out and don't have preconceived notions on what you think you should be getting. Get a job, work your way up and in the mean time you can look for a better job," Goins said.

Goins also suggest ex-felons develop a professional personality that could help employers look past an applicants criminal conviction.

"Just because you were in prison doesn't mean you should come out with an attitude or come out looking like you been to prison," Goins said.

Former prosecutor turned defense attorney, Jerry Summers says employers can legally reject a qualified convicted felon or take a chance that the applicant will become an asset to the company he or she is applying to.

"They can show a little bit of understanding and compassion for someone who may make one of those once in a life time mistakes. We're all human and lot of people make those mistakes," Summers said.

Legal experts also say strong references from a probation or parole officer can tremendously help increase the odds of an employer taking a chance on an applicant with a felony record.

Finding employment is one hurdle to tackle; obtaining a place to live is another. If an ex-con does not have family to stay with or already own a home; renting an apartment becomes the next option but it wont be easy with a felony conviction shadowing them.

Rental property manager Beverly Walden says when certain felonies involving violence, theft or burglary are discovered during a criminal background check, it raises a major red flag.

"We really have to think long and hard before we approve that application because we don't want to put our residents in in any kind of situation that could be harmful to them," said Walden.

Many apartment complexes are owned by companies that generally reject applications when a felony conviction show up during a background check. But there are ways to increase the chance of having that application accepted.

"If it was a long time ago, and they've been on there job for a very long time and they're appearing stable now then that's something to take into consideration," Walden said.

Apartment mangers prefer applicants with felonies to be up front about their conviction because it may give managers a chance to personally know the applicant and the circumstance surrounding the conviction rather than finding out about it when they run a criminal background check.

In some cases, a strong character references from people who can vouch for the applicant can turn a red flag into a green thumbs up on the application.

Another suggestion would be to rent from a private home owner who may care less about a criminal background check and more about whether or not an applicant can pay the rent on time every month.

The shadow of a felony conviction can also damage a person's social life. WDEF went around Chattanooga asking random people if they would ever date or get involved with a convicted felon. Here were the responses:

"I would obviously have to to know that person but I would probably say no."

"I would. I think everybody deserves a second chance."

"I'd consider it once I knew but you never know. Probably not in the long run."

"they might have changed so I would give them a chance if they were a different person."

"I would find out what kin of felony it was then make my decision."

"If I were just now meeting the person..No. If I were already dating the person, it would be situational."

Edminston who is now married and doesn't have to worry about the dating scene is not surprised by those responses.

"You have some people who feel like you can never pay your debt to society because you are a felon," Edminston said.

Attorney Summers says part of the problem plaguing ex-cons who are trying to seek redemption for the their crimes is politics.

"It's all part of the political system that we have. Legislators all want to be tough on crime and sometime with all do respect, they overkill," Summers said. He further went on to say,"I have people come to me who 30 years ago got a felony conviction and somehow it's still haunting them."

Public information on the internet and in the media may also make it harder for convicted felons to get on with their lives.

For example, Charles Ramsey; the man who was labeled a hero for helping free female captives from a house of horrors in Cleveland Ohio had his moment of glory tarnished when several media outlets began reporting he was a convicted felon.

Websites like went even further by writing an article that was more about Ramsey's felonious past rather than how he helped to save the lives of three women.

From felon to entrepreneur

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee(WDEF) - Ervin Rainey, 44, of Chattanooga is an example of how one man can turn his life around, despite having a felony conviction on his record.

Rainey owns Big Buff's 92 Bar-B-Que in Chattanooga. It's not a fancy restaurant in downtown Chattanooga but rather a room inside the Hope Center on the city's East side. It got the name Big Buff's for a reason.

"I'm 6'11. I like to eat," said Rainey with a big smile.

But there was a time when Rainey couldn't smile even after being released from prison after serving a four year stint.

For three years on the outside, Rainey struggled to get a job because of his criminal past that he always had to disclose on job applications. He recalled one incident where an employer did the unthinkable during a job interview.

"He said I see here you're a convicted felon. I said yes. He tore the application up in my face," Rainey said.

After countless attempt to land a job, he tried a different method when he came across the section of a job applications that ask about criminal history.

"Most of the time I left it blank. That way I wanted you to get to know me instead of knowing this paper," he said

Pressure was mounting on Rainey to gain legal employment and after countless failed attempts he almost lost hope in the chance of ever being able to get hired.

"I wanted to go back to the streets," he said.

Going back to the streets could have ultimately landed him back in prison which was a  chance Rainey was not willing to risk.

"I knew I had to do something and the streets were no longer an option," said the gentle giant with a stern face.

Rainey eventually got help from organizations like Launch Chattanooga, Hope and Glass House by taking classes on business ownership.

So far, that move has payed off and now that he's an entrepreneur, he sticks by some good advice given to him by an old man.

"He said if you ever find something you love doing, you'll never work a day in your life. And this is what I love doing," he said.

Hope Headquarters is allowing Rainey to set up his restaurant inside their building for one year, then he will be moved to a permanent location on Glass St.

Rainey said once he's fully established, he would look forward to hiring other convicted felons to give them a chance at success on the outside.

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