GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — There are proportionately far more black men in prison compared to white men, which the numbers have shown for decades.
That contributes to the challenges those men have when they get out of prison, which is often a continuation of the hardships that led to their incarceration.
The barriers in Kent County have changed over the years but are no less daunting.
Michael Norwood, 43, takes the bus to work every day to his full-time job at a factory in Kent County. As he walked along the path in a local park recently, he pointed to the squirrels and recalled a moment when he was sitting at a bench before work.
“They came out of the bushes and just walked up to me. I said, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ and I could have sworn they both kind of nodded at me. I felt it was a way that God was talking to me and telling me that he cared about me, that he was still watching over me, you know?” he said.
Norwood grew up in the Detroit area, with little money and a lot of struggle.
“I love Detroit, but going through job loss, losing your home and a variety of other things that was going on, I made a mistake and, you know, I moved forward and I feel like I shouldn’t be held back because of it, you know?” he said.
A non-violent felony charge led him to prison, where he was until 2018. It is often difficult for people with felonies to find a job, but Norwood found work two months ago, running machines. What he can’t find, is a home.
“Day after day, to go through something like that, mentally, it’s tough because sometimes I find it a little bit (inhumane). It’s hard to keep a smile on your face when you have to stand in line for an hour just to find a bed, take a shower, or wash your clothes,” he said of his daily routine.
Experience has taught him to worry about theft at homeless shelters, so he often sleeps on a bench in the park, his sleeping bag stuffed in a garbage bag and hidden in the woods with the hope that it’s still there when he gets done with work.
The fact that Norwood has a job puts him ahead of where many black men have found themselves after prison.
Deborah Clanton, a magistrate in Kent County for more than 20 years, noticed a pattern during her time on probate court. White men would come through and say they found employment more frequently than black men.
“I’d ask them, ‘How did you find this job?’ And they would often say it was through a family member or friend of a friend,” she said.
Clanton was raised to understand that as a black woman, she would have to get up earlier, run twice as fast, knock on twice as many doors and be prepared to hear “No” twice as many times. Her mother taught her that and she attributes that strong work ethic to her success, while acknowledging that many people don’t have the same support.
“If you don’t have that encouragement, somebody pushing you to keep going even though you’re getting turned down and just keep knocking on another door until somebody might say yes, then it’s easy to give up,” she explained.
Clanton added, “My education is not the same as yours. My bachelor’s degree is not the same as your bachelor’s degree. Yours is always more.”
She also shared a story of a job she applied for in Atlanta years ago, where the other candidate was woman who had no bachelor’s degree and no teaching experience.
“I had the teaching experience and the bachelor’s degree, but I didn’t get (the job),” Clanton said. “Plus, I came to the interview with a program to implement. Well, they didn’t hire me, they hired her, we all worked in the prison and they implemented my program, so that’s the way it works.”
A 2018 analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative supports what Clanton has noticed both personally and professionally. It compares unemployment rates nationally, broken down by race, in the general population, and the formerly incarcerated population. The analysis shows a disproportionately higher unemployment rate for black men who spent time in prison (although it was worse for black women), compared to their white counterparts.
“If we can’t help them, they’re going back in”
Clanton is a dedicated community activist, which is one way she knows Elijah Libbett, who has also worked to help people of color integrate into society after prison — a situation he understands from experience.
Libbett spent decades in prison on drug charges and worked a long time to get where he is today, running his own restaurant on the southeast side of Grand Rapids and the non-profit Urban Ministries organization.
He’s been out of prison for 17 years now and mentors people in his community in a variety of ways, including hosting meetings for the CLEAR program with Grand Rapids Police. CLEAR stands for Coalition, Leadership, Education, Advice, and Rehabilitation, and is funded through the Michigan Department of Corrections Offender Success Program.
“If we can’t help them, then they’re going back in. It’s that simple, you know, if you don’t have a job, your parole officer is on your back. Now we’re dealing with every parole officer in Grand Rapids and building relationships with them so that they understand what it is we’re going through,” Libbett said of how the CLEAR program is breaking down barriers that keep people from staying out of prison.
Numbers from the Michigan Department of Corrections show that in 1998, more than 45% of inmates released from prison ended up back in the system within three years.
With the help of programs like CLEAR, that number is down to its lowest level in state history at less than 27%.
‘Absurd’ cost to rent a room after prison
As much progress as state-sponsored programs have made with finding jobs for former inmates, finding housing continues to be a struggle. Federal law is one of the barriers as it bans three categories of people from admission to public housing. That includes people subject to lifetime registration requirements under the state’s sex offender registration program and those who are currently using illegal drugs, regardless of whether they’ve been convicted of any drug-related offense.
Public housing authorities may also deny admission to anyone who has previously engaged in a pattern of disruptive alcohol consumption or illegal drug use, regardless of when it happened, and those who have engaged in any drug-related criminal activity or other criminal activity, if the authority deems them a safety risk.
The organization 70×7 Life Recovery, based in Grand Rapids and Holland, is a unique staffing agency in the sense that applicants must have a felony to be accepted.
Ben Rosa is part of the organization and helps run CLEAR meetings in Grand Rapids. The name “70×7” comes from the Bible.
“When Peter asked Jesus, ‘How many times do we forgive somebody? Seven times?’ and Jesus says, ‘No, 70 times seven,'” Rosa explained.
He says they’ve found success in getting former inmates employment but are constantly working to solve the housing problem.
“We’re looking for landlords to help us fill this huge concern. We have landlords who charge between $700 to $800 a month for a room, not an apartment, but for a room for people coming out of incarceration. Now that’s just absurd,” he said.
Rosa hopes landlords will become part of the solution and believes that could make life better for everyone, not only for the former prisoners.
“If we’re successful in working with these individuals, with jobs and housing, they’re less likely to break into your house or do X, Y, Z and go back to prison and cost us $35,000 a year,” Rosa said.
The benefit to becoming part of a program renting to people with felonies could be more tangible than that, which landlords who have already taken the leap can attest to. Todd Wright joined the Offender Success Housing Program more than a year ago and has found it easier than renting to private families in certain situations.
“If there are eight people living in the house, it’s hard to get them out because they don’t show that they’re all living there,” he said.
The restrictions under the OSHP allow landlords to quickly evict anyone who doesn’t follow the rules, although the numbers MDOC released this month show that doesn’t happen very frequently.
The data from 2019 for the region that includes Kent County shows 80% of the parolees in the program who entered housing were successful.
Out of 413 participants, the department removed 74, and 339 participants successfully transitioned out of the OSHP to their own housing. Most of the 74 removals were for reasons that had nothing to do with the participants’ behavior in the home.
‘Give everyobody a chance, it really helps’
Wright has had a positive experience.
“I know that some of them have a checkered past but give people a chance. It’s hard to find housing in Grand Rapids right now, just do it. Give everybody a chance, it really helps them.”
Michael Norwood is still hoping someone will give him that chance. If it’s true that black men and women have to sprint when others are walking simply to get to the destination at the same time, then someone like him is sprinting a marathon.
He compared his experience to flying.
“When God comes down and puts wings on your back and you’re trying to fly, but somebody is trying to (hold you down). It’s like, ‘Let my wing go, let my back shoulder go!’, I don’t need all of that, you know?’”
Norwood has charisma and likes to talk and tell jokes. He said he often finds himself at the bus stop sharing his comedy, entertaining people, which is one of the dreams he has held onto, hoping to get on stage sometime. The goal is to focus on those dreams, rather than the nightmare he’s dealing with now of wondering where he’ll rest his head.
For information on how to become a landlord in the Offender Success Housing Program through MDOC, contact Angie Sprank at SprankA@michigan.gov.