After three decades in prison, 56-year-old Mark Chase recently got his first paycheck, the first car he hadn’t stolen and a job that might give him a good life.
Not everyone coming out of prison had the advantages Chase had: a welcoming home, a wife and a trade. He'd been a mechanic all his life. He learned from his father and his grandfather. But he never gave himself a chance to use what they taught him. He ran with the wrong crowd. He wanted easy money and he wanted it fast.
But a few weeks before his January release from prison, Mark Chase saw a poster advertising a new mechanic’s training program at Vehicles for Change, a program that specializes in getting cars to people who could find jobs and keep them if they had cars. The VFC training program would be his ticket. He called Phil Holmes, the training program director.
"He told me the program wouldn’t start until March," Chase recalled. “He encouraged me to come in and detail. I didn’t want to detail I wanted to work on cars. However, you know what? I got to get my foot in the door. So I set up an appointment with him.”
Chase had only been detailing – polishing and cleaning cars until they looked new – for a few days when he got a break. The head mechanic, Mohammed Elzein, thought Chase had talent. But he didn’t have the tools. And he had no money.
His wife, a nurse, and her family lent him what he needed. A new world was opening. He got his first real paycheck. And a bank account with direct deposit. Soon he would have a driver’s license and a car – another first. The only cars he’d had before were the ones he’d stolen. He was discovering who he was.
"I always was a worker. I never minded working," he said. "However, I got deterred with my friends, the negative group I associated with; the faster money."
He didn’t have to work as hard in those days, but he’s “making good money now, doing what I love to do. In the mainstream,” he said.
Elzein said he thought Chase had the aptitude for the job.
"He seems quick with his hands. He has that gift. He can do it. He’s doing it right now…," Elzein said. "Everything is electrical now. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago. He’s been picking up fast. He’s an excellent student."
Chase knows he’s fortunate. His road back to the world outside prison is almost uniquely smoother than for most ex-offenders. He has a skill and a wife. And, at 56, studies show, he’s unlikely to re-offend. But all that might not have been enough.
Caryn Asian of the Job Opportunities Task Force, says a criminal record is "the barrier to moving forward," regardless of what support systems an ex-felon may have available.
"It boils down to what’s on paper," she says.
And there’s one more thing, says Nikki Zaahir, who works with Chase and other ex-offenders at Vehicles for Change; what’s in the ex-offender’s mind.
The ex-prisoner sees friends stymied by that criminal record. Why will I be any different, they wonder.
"I think the most difficult element is actually realizing that it’s possible," Zahir says. "You have to be able to see the possibility that you could actually have a career. Just getting the individuals to believe there can be something different."
Mark Chase more than believes. When he looks at his bank account, he knows. And he has some thoughts for others coming back to the world. “Some people,” he said, “are content to sit around and do time." If you’re not in that group, he said, "you have to prepared. If you don’t, maybe you’re really not ready."
Preparation, of course, begins while you are still incarcerated.
"The availability of job training is not what it used to be but it is there and you can get it. In a job interview, he said, “You have to sell the self you are."
You have to leave that negative self-image behind. "
If you think you can do better with the rest of your life, you have convince a potential employer of that."