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it's a beautiful day...
in the prison
by candy green gustavson
6.19.10
general

This week Bill and I had the privilege, again, of role playing job interviews with women who are incarcerated. These particular women are finishing a course preparing them for transition out of prison to, hopefully, finding a job. We do this about four times a year.
It's a lot of fun for us because Bill, in his working life, was, among other things a head hunter and it seems like I waited forever to work with these women.
It's one of life's ironies that I am doing this because I went through one of the world's worst interviews when I was just out of college as a Theatre major. It was 1969 in oily, polluted Pittsburgh, PA. I read in the paper about a job at the public television station. I made an appointment. The interview went well. The man liked me and I liked him. I remember he had a diploma from Yale hanging on the wall.
After we had chatted for a while, the nice man handed me a rather large folder and said, "Would you read this, please?" and left the room. I opened to the pages and tried to read the text, but didn't understand it. After a while, the man returned to the room and asked me what I thought about what I had read. I just kind of sat there and mumbled something about not knowing what to ask. End of interview. No call back--of course.
Each time we make the trip to the prison, clip on IDs and surrender locator cards, wait for barred gates to open, then close, and finally arrive in the educational wing, the teacher always gives us a little insight into the group before we begin. Usually the students are a mixture of abilities, education, backgrounds, skills and intelligences. The group this week was smaller than usual. They had started at 12, but we were to interview only six.
"Why did they leave?" Bill asked. The teacher, it turns out, had to let three go because they "didn't turn up on time, too many times." The other three had dropped by the wayside, preferring other activities or sleep to preparation for the work force.
"The youngest in this group," the teacher said, "is only twenty-one, a tiny thing. Two of them are competing for the highest grade--they're tied at 98%. I'm tired and taking time off before starting the next class." Who wouldn't? It's been over 100 degrees on most days here in Georgia for the past two weeks, hot as an oven and steamy.
On a recent "Antiques Roadshow," someone brought in an old book containing a record of prisoners being shipped to Australia and a new life. Their names, occupations and crimes were listed--Smith, a weaver, stole a sheep. Off to Oz! The book's value was that it presented a popuation, the beginning of a hearty nation, Australia's founding fathers.
Online today, in our nation, the public can view the crimes of the imprisoned. When I got home from the interviews, I looked up some of the women.
Their crimes? Similar to those in the Australian book: theft, aggravated assault, forgery. You do find yourself wondering how they will fare in finding a job in today's recession.
I have remained in contact with one prisoner who was released almost a year ago after 14 years in prison. Now, we are friends on Facebook and I can watch the story of her life unfold. Right now, it's looking amazing (http://ednamerle.wordpress.com). She has a home and three cats after marrying a man she first met when she was 11 and he was 17. I'm going to take some of the wedding pictures she's posted to the prison next time I go.
But, even before her marriage, she got a job at Barnes & Nobles--which makes me hope they stay in business for a long time--and has now been promoted. I asked her to tell me how the interview process went. Here's what she said:
"But, as far as how I found my job...Mom drove me to the front
door of Barnes & Noble and said, "Go in there and get an
application." So, I did. Took my time, all weekend, filling it out to
perfection. Included my felony conviction on the front page, and
attached a resume of all the stuff I'd learned and done while
incarcerated. The manager loved it!
It was an act of God as far as I'm concerned. I came home on
May13th, 2009, and on July 1st I was hired. I've since been
promoted to Head Cashier and full time status with a small raise
plus full insurance for me and my husband. Amazing since he just
had to have skin cancer surgery, etc.
Every time I walk in the doors to Barnes & Noble I smell the
wonderful coffee and see all those books, and I thank God for
everything He sends to me. I continually pray that I walk within the
path He has laid for me. The main thing is: Just do the next right
thing no matter what."

During our interviews with the women, Bill and I try to share our wisdom. Bill's wisdom is related to the realities of the job market and being willing to start off at a lower wage and prove yourself. Everyone loves an overcomer, he tells them.
For my bit of wisdom, I share the story of the job interview in Pittsburgh because one of the questions we are asked on an evaluation sheet for each inmate is: "Did she (the interviewee) ask for information about job duties?"
It took a number of years for it to dawn on me that when the nice man with the diploma from Yale handed me the folder, he was actually "offering" me the job. All I had to do was read it with some intelligence and come up with questions to ask--if only I had showed an interest in the job and a willingness to learn. That, I tell the ladies in the prison, would have set me apart from others.
Then I ask the women if they have ever heard of the "Mr. Rogers Show." So far, all of them have. We usually laugh and sing a few lines of "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" before I tell them my job interview with the nice man so many years ago was for a position on the "Mr. Rogers Show" when it was just starting out.
Life, for me, has been about learning lessons. I may have missed out on an opportunity to work with Mr. Rogers, but being able to share my failures with these women, who are my neighbors, is just fine.
And, after all these years, Pittsburgh is no longer oily and polluted!





ABOUT CANDY GREEN GUSTAVSON

late bloomer, fontanelle of the baby boomers...full of hope, believing in life-long learning, mentoring, doors opening...mother of four, grandma of one: I cultivate gardens in both hemispheres of earth and brain...

more about candy green gustavson

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