On April 19, 2018, BreakFree Education sent out a newsletter entitled “Let the Fireman Out.” That newsletter chronicled the journey of Terrance, the first graduate of the Travis Hill School, as he pursued his education while detained at the New Orleans adult jail.
Travis Hill was founded in 2016 to provide transformational education to incarcerated youth in New Orleans. As recounted, 511 days after being jailed and charged as an adult, Terrance earned his high school diploma.
One month later, Terrance began serving his state prison sentence and was transported from the jail in New Orleans to Plaquemines Parish Detention Center, where he stayed for 11 months. Next, he was moved to the LaSalle Correctional Center, where he was held for six months. Then he was shipped to Tensas Parish Detention Center in northern Louisiana, where he stayed for nearly two years.
Terrance was released early in the morning on November 11, 2021. He hopped on a bus at 6 a.m. Eleven hours later he arrived back home in New Orleans. His grandfather picked him up at the bus station.
Terrance and I spoke recently. He’s 24 years old now. He’s working with a local commercial carpet cleaning and replacement company that seems to value him and isn’t judging his fitness for the work based on his past. But the work is not quite full-time, and the company doesn’t offer him health insurance or vacation days. He earns $14.50 per hour (the first job he got upon release paid him $8.25 per hour). He earns extra money working as a roadside assistance technician in the evenings and on the weekends. He also delivers food for a local catering company at times.
He’s got a car, a girlfriend and lives with his grandfather outside of New Orleans proper. He’s doing his best to save money. But his car is getting old and he spends a lot of money maintaining it; his insurance bill alone is $475 per month (the car insurance company says that’s because he is 24 years old and a single male).
With only a hint of bitterness, he told me about his experience looking for work since he was released:
- Working for a pizzeria, where he performed so well they considered promoting him from shift manager to a general manager, but told him that they would need to conduct a background check before he could move into that role. When it came back, not only was he not promoted, he got laid off.
- Completing the training and passing the exam to earn his commercial driver’s license, only to be told he couldn’t be hired because of the results of the background check. How he had great interviews (he believed), and received conditional offer letters from two retailers, but then got emails informing him that based on his background check, his offers were revoked.
Terrance’s experiences, sadly, are not an anomaly for returning citizens. A recent study showed that the overall employment rate of formerly incarcerated individuals over four years hovered between 35% and 38%, meaning that about two-thirds of that population were jobless at any given time; that those working were often in low-wage, highly transitory, short-term jobs, almost always without benefits.
I asked Terrance about his dream of being a fireman — the one he shared in his graduation speech back in 2018. He cringed slightly and replied, “They’re not taking me, not with my background — at least not now.” But mostly he seemed unfazed.
When I asked him what he’d want people who had read about him five years ago to know now, he was incredibly forthright: “That I’m doing well. I get up and go to work every day, I contribute to the community. I go to church on Sundays with my grandfather. That I’m out and never going back.”
I believe him. I believe he deserves better, and more, from us.