Interview with Louis L. Reed, a life coach and public speaker who has consulted for the White House and the United States Department of Justice on ex-offender reentry.
United States Census numbers state Blacks are approximately 12-13 percent of the American population, yet make up over 35 percent of those imprisoned at any given time. The United States Department of Justice says that approximately 600,000 former prisoners are released each year. That means about 210,000 of those released from prison each year are Black, and a large percentage of these newly released Black men and women are parents to young children. The jobs typically available to persons who have recently been released from prison are low-income and low-skill. No matter the level of education, it is difficult to prove your worth to an employer when your last job or home was behind bars.
Louis L. Reed is an expert in ex-prisoner reentry. He is the Chief Visionary Officer of Louis L. Reed Empowerment Group, which specializes in life coaching, addictions recovery support, offender reentry management, executive coaching, and relationship counseling. Louis has also consulted for the White House on the Ban the Box initiative, meant to persuade employers to remove criminal record checks from hiring applications. Today, Louis L. Reed shares with us some of his experiences and thoughts on ex-prisoner reentry and specifically the challenges faced by Black people once they come out of the criminal justice system.
You were at the National Reentry Conference that took place in Dallas a couple of weeks ago. Can you tell us some of the key points that were discussed?
At the summit in Dallas, essentially three points were talked about. Number one was about getting ministries involved in terms of increasing the level of involvement of the cleric community and having our churches become much more proactive in criminal justice reform, especially when you consider from a statistical point of view, that the majority of the individuals who are actually affected by our criminal justice system and those that are actually being shot down in our streets as we see in our media, happen to be individuals who are of color, who have family members who actually attend our local churches. So it was essentially a call to action to raise not only the awareness in the clerical community, but also to galvanize their interest and mobilize their action. We also talked about policy reform and we vetted a lot of different issues that are outstanding in our nation as it relates to our discriminatory practices around employability, as it relates to ‘ban the box’, as it relates to individuals who feel as though that they can’t continue their education because they have a felony conviction of some sort. So we talked about things from a policy and a legislative point of view and how we might be able to synergize our efforts to be able to have a national agenda that we can bring on a federal legislative level, and be able to unravel a lot of these current practices. Last but not least, we also discussed the need for individuals themselves who have been affected by the criminal justice system to be much more involved. What ends up happening is that – and I’ve witnessed this firsthand – you have the majority of the work being done by the minority of the people. You have individuals who are actually involved, those individuals who’ve actually been prosecuted, convicted, and who have received disproportionate prison terms, etc., being the beneficiaries of other peoples’ labor. By other peoples’ labor, what I mean is that the majority of these individuals who are being supported are supported by Black and brown women. And those women are at the forefront of a lot of the movements that are actually shifting to our criminal justice system in terms of the disparities in crack-cocaine sentences on a federal level, in terms of racial profiling, or Stop and Frisk in New York City, etc. So those were the three agenda items that we actually convened to discuss.
You consult with people who were incarcerated and you help them to socialize, to get jobs and to build new connections within society. Could you tell us more about exactly what you do and what kind of help you offer to people who come to you?
On a personal level – I guess on a business level – I have a re-entry consultation component to what we do at Louis L. Reed Empowerment Group. Essentially, what that means is, you have individuals who get involved in white-collar crime and don’t have a point of reference of criminality in their culture and or in their immediate family. So what they would do is reach out to me and say, “Hey, Louis! I got my hand caught in the cookie jar and it’s inevitable that I’m going to be sentenced. Can you help me understand what prison is going to be like? What can I expect from a sentencing point of view, from a day-of incarceration point of view, throughout the term of my incarceration and post incarceration?” So I help those individuals navigate through those questions and frame incarceration in a sense so that they can actually know what to expect. From a professional point of view, in terms of what I do in the City of Bridgeport, we identify individuals who are going to be released back to our communities ideally about 90 – 120 days out. We make contact with those individuals whether that is a face-to-face contact, by phone, by email correspondence or written correspondence. We conduct what we call a biopsychosocial. So I would do a composite of their entire history, I want to look at their biography, sociology, psychology, and I want to be able to say, “OK. As a result of the conversation that we’ve had, and based off of the information that I have extrapolated, this is what we actually came up with what your needs are. We do that in a 90 – 120-day time period from release. Once those individuals are down to about 30 days, we would send a follow-up letter to them and say, “We’re just following up based on our last conversation, etc. When you are released, this is the address that we want you to come down to and we want to be able to explore a lot of what we gleaned from your biopsychosocial.” Then ideally, when the individuals are released, they will come down, and if there’s an employment issue, we will help them to produce their resume, we will present them with the sort of skills that make them a little bit more employable and presentable to the employer. Beyond that, if there are some clinical needs that they need to have addressed we will make the proper referrals in that area. Many of our returning citizens actually are coming home to no address. So essentially, what that means is that they have ‘baby mamas’, as in the case of a lot of our male offenders, who are actually in subsidized housing. When they stay at those apartments, one of two things can happen. The ‘baby mamas’ or the girlfriends can get upset with them, and threaten to put them out. And if they don’t have a contactable address, especially those individuals that are on supervised release, that can trigger a technical violation. The other thing is that we don’t want individuals to put somebody else’s subsidized housing at risk, for example, lease violations, etc. So we try to help these individuals with housing assistance, and with some type of either permanent supportive housing or transitional housing assistance.
And what are the most important and the biggest challenges that you face in this field of work?
I think that the biggest challenges that we actually face are getting individuals to reframe their thinking so that they don’t adopt either the victim mentality or the mentality as to where they feel that they are entitled to something. I think that it has to do with a cognitive shift and a perspective shift. Individuals need to understand that, yes, you may have done something but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it defines who you are as an individual. The other thing is that you have to take responsibility for your actions. With a lot of our clients, we find that these individuals shift the blame and displace a lot of what they have actually done, and discharge it off to other people. I think that just from a ‘framing’ point of view, that is the biggest challenge that we have. I also think that a close cousin to that challenge would actually be employment. There is a stigma around individuals who have actually been incarcerated, and when you compound that with the fact that they very well may be Black or Hispanic, and then when you compound that racial factor with the individual being under-educated, and the individual having a certain type of felony, I think that that is another frustrating issue that we have as it relates to criminal justice reform and social acceptance with these people being placed back in our workforce.
With such a huge experience in this field, have you noticed any special issues or challenges that are confined to only Black people?
Yeah. I did some consultation with the White House on the Federal Ban the Box Initiative. I was among scores of other people that contributed our thoughts, and ultimately some of what we actually suggested, the president adopted and he enacted executive order for the Federal Ban the Box Initiative. I think that you have a lot of employers who discriminate not necessarily based on the Ban the Box thing, because we can take the ‘box’ off your application but you can’t change your name. We have names that are very ethnic. When you hear names such as Louis L. Reed, you don’t know if I’m white or if I’m Black. So when we have these individuals who very well either have ethnic sounding names, or present with a diction that may be associated with being an African American because of the inflection in our voices, etc., I think that that is another subtle form of work-hire discrimination and individuals are actually using that to screen us out. I think that that is very unique to us as African Americans. The other thing that is very unique to us as African Americans, is the stigma surrounding having a criminal history to begin with, from a law enforcement point of view. Because society feels that if you are Black, you are already stigmatized, there are already biases associated with you. Not only if you’re Black but if you’re a Black man with a felony, then those biases and discriminatory dynamics are even exacerbated. So I think that those two things are specific to who we are as African Americans. The third thing is, our education level is very sub-par considering our white counterparts.
Do you think the prison system changes people so much that they are unable to socialize after coming out?
I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post called PTSDR, and it’s an acronym for Prison Traumatic Stress Disorder Remix. And within that piece, I talked about how once you have been incarcerated for six weeks, an individual could be deemed institutionalized, because obviously, the first three weeks is about being acclimated to a behavior and the next three weeks is about a change to the behavior, etc. So if an individual has done a minimum of six weeks, there is a trauma that is associated with it. You are not only separated from your family, but your civil liberties are also stripped from you. The fact of the matter is that you are incarcerated and you are seeing individuals who are either participating in homosexuality, you are experiencing individuals who are being shanked, individuals who are actually racketeers and who are shaking other individuals down, or extorting people, etc. What that does is, when you have been exposed to something for such a long period of time – and the longer the exposure, the more you become part of the environment – when you get out into society, it’s very, very traumatic. You always think about if somebody is after you, if somebody is trying to play you, if somebody is trying to re-arrest you, and all those traumas are actually associated with your prison experience. The reason why I call it PTSDR, is because I wanted suddenly to have the association that we invented the ‘remix’, so typically when people hear the word ‘remix’, it’s affiliated with the hip hop culture. We spearheaded the hip hop culture and in it’s inception it was specifically our music. So the PTSDR is essentially saying that Prison Traumatic Stress Disorder is remixed specifically for Black people. This is something that we deal with. In our culture, there is no Clair and Cliff Huxtable that we can go home to at the end of the day and all of our problems are wrapped up by the last 27 minutes of an episode, it’s not the Cosby Show. We don’t go to clinicians, we don’t see therapists, because we feel as though either that’s something that white people do, or we feel as though this is just everyday life for us. There is an inter-generational error of thinking associated with the traumas that we’ve actually experienced and we don’t necessarily get help for it. So the PTSDR is a connotation to say that, no, this is something that is specific to us as people of color.
Many people use their time in jail to acquire an education so that they can better fit into society when they are released and also to be able to gain employable skills. Do you help them find a job after they come out of jail?
Yes, we do. I always glean from my own prison experience. It was when I was incarcerated that I was able to matriculate to university and I got my bachelors degree. And what I tell individuals is that in order for you to be competitive in a career, you need some type of college education. It’s not to say that a higher level of education is made for everyone. However, if you want a career, especially if it is short of you having some type of licensor or having to be certified in some type of trade or the likes thereof, you are going to need some type of collegiate documentation to prove to society your intellectual acumen to be able to function in this specific capacity. So we try to encourage individuals to re-enroll back in college and complete their GED at the very least. And not only that, but I reached out to our area universities and we are trying to get our three major area universities to actually scholarship some of the individuals who come to us for services at the city of Bridgeport Mayor’s Initiative for Reentry Affairs.
Before you leave, please tell us about your book, 9 Steps to Fall Up When You Trip Down: Converting Mistakes into Miracles. What is the main idea of the book?
The main premise of the book is that it’s never too late to convert a mistake into a miracle, irrespective of whether you have a criminal history or if you have a life history. All of us have one common denominator, and that common denominator in life is that none of us walks in between rain drops. All of us have actually made a mistake, all of us have actually done some regrettable things, and all of us have said some things that we wish we could’ve actually taken back, hence the term, ‘converting a mistake into a miracle’. So the premise of the book is, the next time we actually trip-down in life, we would be able to have the fortitude to fall up and recover from those trip-downs because we now are armed with information in being able to identify what it is that we have done, how we have done it, and refusing to actually go back and trip over those same situations as we have before.