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Shepherd’s mission: Department dedicated to re-entry of ex-cons

22nd January 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Media coverage decried former State Senator-turned-ex-con Derrick Shepherd attending a transition meeting with Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell at a local church. Subsequent speculation arose as to whether Shepherd would return to politics in her new Administration, and the negative blowback forced heavy denials from Cantrell. Nevertheless, the controversy unexpectedly ricocheted back in an unexpected way, turning attention to Shepherd’s major issue—the difficulty that felons released from prison have re-entering the workforce.

Speaking to The Louisiana Weekly, Shepherd noted the irony, “I was there on my own volition. I didn’t say anything at the meeting…I was just there to listen.” Of course, the ex-con former politician never expected the negative reaction which he received.

“I consider the Mayor a friend, I always did,” he confessed. “During the campaign, I had helped out, just as a friend of the Mayor. I attended many events, just on my own—not as a member of the campaign—many attended by elected officials. It’s interesting that it never became an issue. It’s interesting that this became an issue.”

“There was no big event. No, ‘I see Derrick Shepherd, I have to get out of here.’” Based on his past attendance, no legislator thought his presence was unusual or unwarranted, he observed, adding, “So the meeting wrapped up an hour and a half later. And, then next thing that I know, I don’t get a call from a media outlet asking about my attendance at the meeting. No, I just got a generic call [from The Advocate] asking me if I was participating in the Mayor-elect’s administration. To which I said, ‘Ask the Mayor-elect.’ And that was it. I didn’t even know that my attendance at the meeting was an issue.”

Amidst an awkward defense, a tide of media condemnation followed, yet a strange serendipity occurred as well. The former State Senator began to receive unsolicited telephone calls from ex-cons who had paid their debt, but could not receive employment no matter how hard they tried. It led Shepherd, himself a 2008 target of a money-laundering conviction, to launch a website called 2nd Chance NOLA, which seeks to “change the stigma of ex-offenders and demonstrate the power of gainful employment in turning around lives.”

The calls ranged across the professional spectrum, all lamenting that if Shepherd, a former State Senator, could not be redeemed, who could? In one case, a former registered nurse complained that she could not return to her profession—after a conviction related to her drug addiction cost her license permanently—despite her having completed her sentence and fines. As she put it, not only was employment as a nurse denied her, “I can’t get a job at Domino’s.”

However, of all of the stories that Shepherd has heard over the past few weeks, perhaps the most heartbreaking came from a former math teacher at Renew Accelerated High School. In 1997, as a troubled teenager, Larry Ford was arrested for robbery and drug possession. In the intervening two decades, he earned a teaching degree, and began instructing Geometry, Advanced Math, and Algebra I & II, at several schools, most notably Joseph Clark High School.

When Ford was hired most recently by Renew, he explained, “By the time my background check returned, I had been working there about five months…Once they do a background check, it takes several months for it to return back. But, you have to do sample teaching. Once I had done sample teaching, I was welcomed back. The students had voted me the most popular teacher.”

His tenure began late in the previous school year, and due to his popularity, Renew hired him provisionally at the end of summer vacation. It was two months into the Autumn when his background check finally returned. “I received a call, and they told me that I was being terminated due to my background. They said, ‘Something came up, and I had to be relieved of my duties as a teacher.’ It was very touching, because I had been with the students for several months, impacting their lives, impacting the classroom,” Ford lamented. “It just devastated me. I truly was hurt emotionally the most. And then hurt mentally.”

Most background checks only review the previous seven years of work and personal activity, Ford contended. He never hesitated to get fingerprinted, nor reveal his personal history, thinking his youthful indiscretion long past. After all, for 20 years, he had amassed an unblemished record both professionally and legally. “I had no idea that a mistake that I made as a teenager would even be an issue.”

The school leadership asked the charter board to allow Ford to stay on staff, despite the rules. “The principal begged them to allow me to remain due to the fact how I impacted the kids and was effective in the classroom with academics. She looked how to keep me because the Principal, the staff, the students were going to bat for me because of how I was impacting their lives.”

The students rallied around their teacher, one writing a letter saying, “Mr. Ford, just keep it in God’s hands. You impacted my life.” The Renew’s principal actually let Ford teach for another two days after his termination, so he could say goodbye to his students. In the aftermath, Ford admitted, “I became saddened and distraught.”

“My robbery charge was from two decades ago,” he noted. Never had he been charged with any crime that could suggest danger to students. “There was nothing ever sexual, or dangerous to kids…It happened years ago in my life.”

As news of his former felony circulated through the local educational establishment, teaching positions dried up for Larry Ford. He took temp jobs and even washed dishes to make ends meet. “It’s been very hard to find a job teaching again. I’m so passionate about teaching, and it just hurts. My life has been very unstable and challenging since my firing, Because I’m not too passionate about other line of work. My advice to potential employers would be don’t use a person’s past to determine their present or future.”

It’s the same message that Derrick Shepherd has postulated in the wake of the Cantrell controversy. “People have been reaching out to me, ‘Please help me get a job. I can’t get a job.’ I am challenging groups from Home Depot to the members of the local Chamber to GNO Inc. to take a chance on former convicts who have paid their debt to society—and are attempting to return to employment. “I’m asking not just legislators or the Governor, but the business leadership, ‘Help these people get a job!’”

“Either we are going to have a policy in this state,” Shepherd continued, “where we everyone gets thrown away or locked away forever, or you are forgiven, and told, ‘Go and sin no more.’”

“Driving here, we see guys hanging out on the corners. We see it in every part of this community. Now it’s even white people! It used to be just Black guys hanging out on a corner. Now it’s white people hanging out on a corner, jobless, lifeless, listless. Well, your grandmother told you a long time ago, ‘An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop.’ They will do something!”

“We live in this capitalist society. When a person gets out of prison, it’s immediately, ‘Buy this. You need these. Come on and go here. Drive this. Wear this.’ While we put them [back] in society, we are also telling these people that they have got to have it, but we are not going to give you the means to get it. To feed your family, to do whatever. No wonder the recidivism rate is over 56 percent. No wonder we are in a perpetual cycle of crime goes down for Friday, and it’s back up on Monday. We are in that cycle because we are not being true to ourselves. So my goal is to change the hearts and minds of decision-makers.”

Shepherd not only wants business leaders to embrace this message. He hopes for greater government action as well. The negative media attention has given Shepherd a platform to argue for the enactment of a local government agency where former convicts can receive help in re-entering society. “There needs to be a clearing house. What I’m advocating for the City of New Orleans to have is a re-entry department in City Hall where we can have a clearing house where, when someone comes out, there is a place for them to seek jobs, housing, or anything that they need. And, I’m also advocating that it needs to be in Jefferson Parish, and all of these other parishes.”

This article originally published in the January 22, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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