When one mistake haunts the rest of your working life

TheStar.com – Opinion – Ban on ex-criminals from certain jobs means that their punishment never ends
Published On Tue Jun 08 2010.  Gunnar Sewell

I have spent many years in universities and colleges, I have a teaching certificate, and I am bilingual. I come from a good family that tried to give me all the advantages, though I struggled with dyslexia that left me feeling frustrated and set apart.

In spite of my background, I’ve been on social assistance for about six years now. I’ve worked at a number of places for short periods of time. Most of them were jobs I got through temp agencies.

I found working in factories quite difficult because of the monotony. I tried to suck it up, swallow my pride and do the work, but at the end of the day I was tired and unhappy and hadn’t gotten very much ahead at $10 or $11 an hour (less the 50 per cent that the Ontario Disability Support Program would claw back).

I felt like I was doomed to go on living an empty and purposeless life in my basement apartment.

The reason I can’t return to teaching and can’t find a job commensurate with my experience and education is that I have a criminal record.

While in a drug-induced psychosis, I broke into a doctor’s office to obtain some pharmaceutical drugs. I take responsibility for what I did and regret it deeply. I have done time for this act.

It was never my ambition to be an addict. I found marijuana at the age of 16. It made me feel like I was part of the in-crowd.

When I moved to Montreal in 1988, I found cocaine to be much more popular, so I’d sniff a little and dance the night away.

I found other ways of using cocaine in the ’90s, and I knew immediately that I was in trouble. I started experiencing deep depression and anxiety, for which my doctor gave me medication.

I seemed to be getting better and left the Toronto District School Board in 2001 to follow my girlfriend down to Boston, and that’s where things went really sour.

I started abusing the sedatives that I’d been prescribed to come down off of the cocaine. When my parents came and got me, then dropped me off at the Wayside Recovery House in St. Catharines — with clear instructions not to contact them — I felt another kind of deep sadness.

It wasn’t long before I lost my place at Wayside, thanks to pills I got from a doctor in the neighbourhood, and my first act on discharge was to break into his office and steal more pills. A few hours later, I was behind bars.

I met some people in jail who had been arrested for stealing food from grocery stores. There were also a number of inmates suffering from psychosis who had been convicted for disorderly conduct, and repeat offenders for whom prison was their only stable home, as there is so little help or hope on the outside. The inmates who sincerely wanted to change their ways had a strong distrust of government programs that claim successful recovery statistics.

Our shame and labels do not disappear upon release. When does the punishment stop? I have no history of violence or abuse. But I am a criminal.

It saddens me there is no possibility of ever teaching in public school again, and that so many other opportunities are lost because most employers perform criminal background checks — a dark past continues to erode the present.

I believe the effects of employment on mental health can be measured primarily in terms of their influence on one’s self-esteem. When people feel there is a purpose in life, regardless of the source of that purpose, and that they are contributing to society, they feel better about themselves. Regular and meaningful employment gives structure to those who otherwise would remain lost and alone.

I truly want to contribute to society, to be an honest and decent citizen. My dream is to help the people on the street and those who have not been able to get an education.

I will go to any lengths to help addicts who truly want to find a better way of living. In essence, this kind of work will change my demons into a source of strength and wisdom.

My hope is that society, government and employers will look more to the individual who stands before them now, clean and sober and willing and able, and give us a chance to contribute fully to the life of the community.

This is the latest in a series of articles by members of the People’s Review of Social Assistance, a panel of individuals with lived experience from around the province who are conducting peer interviews in their hometowns and cities with a view to transforming a broken system. This project is supported by Daily Bread Food Bank and Voices from the Street. Gunnar Sewell lives in Toronto and is hard at work on himself and his future.

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