In 1998, Ichard Oden committed a crime that got him sent away for two decades. He was 19.
He got out of prison in February. Today, he's a 40-year-old man with very little job experience.
As it turns out, Oden is coming back into society at a time when the economy is booming and attitudes toward people with criminal records are changing.
Unemployment in the Detroit metro area has fallen dramatically, to 4.4% from more than 17% just 10 years ago. Nationwide, it's dropped to a 50-year low of 3.6%. Many employers say they can't find enough workers. And for Oden and 20 million or so Americans with a felony record, that might mean a much better shot at getting a job and reintegrating into society.
In an increasingly polarized America, the reintegration of felons is a rare issue
The Obama administration launched the Fair Chance Business Pledge to eliminate barriers for people with a criminal record. Part of that initiative was "banning the box," the part of a job application that asks if prospective employees have a criminal record. Companies including Google, Starbucks and Coca-Cola signed the pledge. And so far, 35 states have adopted a version of the ban.
With the First Step Act, the Trump administration also has committed to improving the lives of people with criminal records, including offering better education programs to prepare them for release. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have made it one of their marquee causes.
Charles and David Koch, the billionaire libertarian political donors who have made contributions to Republicans have championed it. Mark Holden, senior vice president of Stand Together, an anti-poverty group funded by Koch, says now is the perfect time to change things.
"There's such a need for skilled labor in particular. That stigma's wearing off. ... When employers see ... there's people coming out of prison who have those skills, they're going to be willing to take a chance," Holden says. Companies can also get a significant tax break for hiring people who have been convicted of a felony.
But had Oden been released 10 years ago, this could have been a different story. People in Michigan still speak about the Great Recession with a shudder, like remembering a plague. Unemployment in the state peaked at just under 15%.
Back then, getting a job felt nearly impossible for most people, let along those with a felony record. Many people who have served time will tell you the sentence isn't really over when you walk out of prison. The stigma is something you carry for the rest of your life. It's harder to rent an apartment.
Companies shy away from hiring you. Robby Grant from Lansing, Mich., calls it "the other F-word": felony.
Grant knows all about this. He was a salesman for years but started stealing to feed a drug addiction. He was caught, and it ended up on his criminal record. No one wanted to hire him. "You kind of get to a place where you feel like maybe you don't deserve ... you aren't going to get a second chance. You are never going to get a chance to redeem yourself," Grant says.
He fell into a deep depression, and his addiction spiraled out of control. He was caught breaking into a house and was sent to prison in 2016. He ended up at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Michigan.
Grant's story is pretty common. Activists say difficulty finding employment is one reason why felons often fall back into crime: If you've been to prison, there is a 40% chance you are heading there again within the next three years. It's especially troubling considering that, as of 2010, 33% of black men in America had a felony conviction.
"We're creating a permanent underclass of workers who don't have the same opportunities as others," says Rebecca Vallas, vice president for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. The center is currently promoting the Clean Slate campaign to automatically erase people's records after a certain amount of years. States such as Utah and Pennsylvania already have adopted versions of it.
The tight labor market isn't just making employers more open to hiring people with criminal records: Many companies are visiting prisons to recruit inmates who will be released soon.
"I've been here 21 years. I never thought I would have seen this," says Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections. The state boasts a robust program called Vocational Village, which trains about 400 prisoners at a time, in trades including welding, machine operating and trucking.
Grant studies carpentry at Handlon's Vocational Village. If all goes well, he will be released in the coming months and will get a job doing carpentry. He says he's eager to be with his son. When he talks about it, he tears up behind his safety goggles.
Washington says there's a really good chance he will land a job, given that in just the past few months "about 95% of everybody who left Vocational Village had a job before they left."
While this is great news, the local carpenters union has raised concern over people coming out of prison and getting paid less than the $16 an hour beginners wage at nonunion jobs. "People are still being exploited," says Juan Ortiz, a representative of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights.
On a chilly, gray spring morning in Detroit, Ortiz is at a job fair for carpenters. It's packed with eager employers and prospective employees.
Chris Dickerson is a senior manager at Manic Construction, which provides wood framing for construction. "The projects just keep coming in," he says. "We just have to pass stuff up because we don't have the manpower."
Oden says he has loved carpentry since he was a kid. He remembers building treehouses and basketball hoops with scrap wood he found around his neighborhood without anyone teaching him how to. He smiles and shrugs when he says that in Detroit, that's just what you do: You build stuff.
As a teenager, Oden became part of the wave of crime that took over the city. His crime was a brutal one. He and several other men kidnapped and murdered someone
As the end of his sentence approached, Oden was given a vocational test. He laughs when he says it found he had a high aptitude for being a policeman. Less surprisingly, it also found he was fit to be a carpenter. He enrolled in the Vocational Village.
Despite the training, Oden was apprehensive when he left prison in February.
"I never pictured myself being in prison all the time," Oden says. "I always pictured myself being out of prison. So, prison wasn't in me. But being free was."
The day after he got out, he contacted the union. About a week later, the group sent him to a construction site.
He says when he got on the site, a manager asked him, "What can you do?"
"Whatever you want me to do," Oden responded.
He got hired that same day.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
About 20 million Americans have a felony record, and people with a prison record will tell you it's hard to get a job because companies are wary of hiring them. But that might be changing thanks to a tight job market. With more employers looking for workers, that means more opportunities for former felons. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: A few years ago, when Robby Grant was looking for work, he got used to doors being shut in his face.
ROBBY GRANT: Your resume is very impressive, but because of you being a felon, we're going to choose to go in a different direction.
GARSD: Grant had been a salesperson in Michigan for years. He developed a drug addiction and started stealing. It ended up on his criminal record. This was during the recession. In Michigan, unemployment had peaked at just under 15%. Grant could not find a job.
GRANT: You kind of get to a place where you feel like maybe you don't deserve. You're not going to ever get a second chance. You're never going to get a break to redeem yourself.
GARSD: He spiraled into depression and further into drug use. He broke into someone's house, which is how he ended up here at the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility in Michigan. He's been serving almost three years. When he gets out in just a few months, he'll be facing a very different job market. Nationwide, unemployment is extremely low. In Michigan, it's at 4.1%. Prison officials say companies are more open to hiring people convicted of felonies. And they're actually reaching out to people like Robby in prison about potential jobs in construction, furniture making and truck driving.
HEIDI WASHINGTON: I mean, I've been here 21 years. I never thought I would have seen this.
GARSD: Heidi Washington is the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, which boasts a training program called Vocational Village. It trains about 400 prisoners at a time. Towards the end of their sentence, they get certified in trades like carpentry and machine operating.
This is where Grant studies carpentry. It looks more like a high school woodshop than a prison. By the time he gets out, it's pretty likely he'll get a job. Washington says just in the last few months...
WASHINGTON: About 95% of everybody who left Vocational Village had a job before they left.
GARSD: That's no small feat. Difficulty finding employment is one reason why, if you've been locked up, there is about a 40% chance you'll be going back in the next few years.
REBECCA VALLAS: We're creating a permanent underclass of workers who don't have the same opportunities as others.
GARSD: Rebecca Vallas is with the left-leaning Center for American Progress. She says this especially affects communities of color - 33% of black men have felony convictions. The Center for American Progress is currently promoting the Clean Slate policy to automatically erase people's records after a certain amount of years. Reintegrating people coming out of prison is an issue that has created unlikely allies across the political spectrum. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have made it one of their main causes. Libertarians Charles and David Koch have championed it. Mark Holden, senior vice president of Stand Together, an anti-poverty group funded by the Koch brothers, says now is the perfect time to change things.
MARK HOLDEN: Now that there is such a need for skilled labor in particular, that stigma is wearing off. And it gets back to the whole idea that when employers see the need for more labor and they see that out there there's people coming out of prison who have those skills, they're going to be willing to take a chance.
GARSD: But just how big is the need for someone fresh out of prison? On a cloudy spring morning, I drive to a job fair for carpenters in Detroit. It's packed.
CHRISTOPHER DICKERSON: I don't care what your background is. I don't care where you came from. I don't care what color you are. I don't care as long as you come to work every single day and give me everything that you can give me.
GARSD: Christopher Dickerson is a senior manager at a construction company called Manic. And he is a little frenzied when he talks about how badly he needs workers.
DICKERSON: The projects just keep coming in. I mean, we have to pass some things up because, well, we just don't have the manpower to do most of the stuff.
GARSD: While he works on recruiting, I speak to one of his new employees, Ichard Oden.
ICHARD ODEN: I always wanted to be a carpenter ever since I was little because when I was younger, I used to build basketball rims, clubhouses.
GARSD: But things took a very bad turn in 1999. Oden was barely out of his teenage years when he was convicted of kidnapping and second-degree murder.
ODEN: I was in my 12th grade year when I got locked up.
GARSD: Oden spent two decades behind bars. As his release date approached, he faced the conundrum of so many inmates - a grown man with no skill set heading back into a city in dire need of workers. He was given a career test. It found he had a high aptitude for...
ODEN: Being a cop, but we know that was out the window (laughter).
GARSD: He also tested well for carpentry, which is what he studied at the Vocational Village. An entry-level carpenter can make around 16 bucks an hour. When Oden got out of prison in February, the next day he contacted the carpenters union. And about a week later, they sent him to the construction site.
ODEN: Of course, I was nervous (laughter) because it's the first time in 20 years, like, I'm in society.
GARSD: But Oden says he kept thinking about this thing, which was often on his mind while he was in prison.
ODEN: I never pictured myself in prison all the time. I always pictured myself out of prison. So prison wasn't in me, but being free was, so I always thought about that. So when I went to the job site and he asked me - he like, what can you do?
GARSD: Whatever you want me to do, Oden responded. He got hired that day. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Detroit, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.