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From prison to chaplain: Ga. law helped free me from past. More ex-offenders deserve same.

After years of struggling to find a job, I was granted a pardon last year, and my records were sealed last month. I'm finally free. More states should do what Georgia has done for former offenders.

While more Americans are becoming aware of the problem of mass incarceration, few understand the obstacles former prisoners face once they have served their sentences.

I should know. I'm a chaplain now, but when I hit rock bottom, I spent months incarcerated, and then struggled for years in the system. My criminal record kept me from getting job after job for more than a decade.

But last month, my records were finally sealed thanks to a new second chance law that went into effect this year in Georgia. And while I had already been fully pardoned, I am finally able – for the first time in 16 years – to be free from my criminal past.

There’s more to do so that other former offenders can have the same chance. 

After release, my record followed me  

In 2005, I was arrested after withdrawing money and making fraudulent purchases using a card left at an ATM. I was going through a hard divorce from a man I had married at age 19, but I knew what I had done was wrong. When confronted by detectives, I confessed, and the nine charges were dropped to four because of my honesty. My sentence was four months in a women’s detention center and 10 years’ probation, though that was later dropped after a parole officer wrote a letter to the judge vouching for me. Yet little did I know the repercussions this moment of weakness would have for the rest of my life.

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The night before my incarceration began, my grandmother told me, “You’re going to do missionary work for the Lord.” I spent the next months with 50 women in a big room with bunk beds and little privacy. Yet it caused me to look beyond myself. I found opportunities to encourage inmates and corrections officers, and even sometimes found myself singing.

After doing my time, I came home and wanted to help others facing similar circumstances. I started catering, using what I learned cooking for 200 women in the prison kitchens. I went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration and a master’s degree in religious studies and divinity. I wanted to apply my new skills and education, but couldn’t find steady employment outside my catering business because of my criminal record.

I felt called to minister to the suffering, so I applied and was accepted to Emory University’s internship program for chaplains. I had paid my fees and submitted all the necessary paperwork, but once a background check revealed my past, I was suddenly on hold. 

I was hauled before a panel to answer questions while the board deliberated about whether to let me join the program. I waited, and prayed. Eventually, I was allowed to continue, despite being two weeks behind.

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By May 2018, I became a certified chaplain. I began working part-time as a chaplain, providing emotional and spiritual support to companies in Georgia.

Despite my accomplishments, my record followed me. At one point, I was being considered for a great job involving counseling in a juvenile justice department. I shared that there was a felony on my record, and they said it shouldn’t be a problem. But it was. A supervisor was prevented from hiring me, and asked me to apply again if I got a pardon.

Everyone deserves a second chance

I knew I was not the same woman who committed those crimes. So on my own, I sought twice to have my record expunged. But the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied the applications.

Then I found the Georgia Justice Project, a nonprofit organization providing legal help to anyone with a state criminal record. Because of the group's partnership with Koch Industries to do pro bono work, they were able to connect me to corporate lawyer Michael Davis. I was deeply encouraged by his guidance through a process that twice before had been like pulling teeth and ended in failure. Over the course of a year and a half, he met with me every three weeks, helping me gather necessary documents and draft my application.

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In August 2020, I got home from Bible study and was taking my dog out when I stopped by the mailbox and saw a new letter. I sat down, opened the envelope and saw in big bold letters “PARDON.” Even before reading the letter, I started crying uncontrollably. I thought of all the jobs I had been denied and the stigma of my criminal record. I felt free, like a burden had been lifted. A new future was now possible. Everything had been forgiven.

Then as soon as Georgia's new law (sealing certain criminal records) went into effect in January, my lawyer submitted applications to have all three of my records sealed – and last month, they were. I officially no longer have a criminal background. While the state forgave me for my crimes through a pardon, having my records sealed removes them from the view of potential employers.  

I hope one day to see a world where we don’t judge people who have served their time and have truly changed. Seeing so many doors closed can tear a person down to the point where they are not going to try again. I have seen what perseverance and the help of others can create, and I believe we must make it easier for people to start anew. Our criminal justice system is supposed to be rehabilitative,  but built into it is the assumption that people do not actually change.

California, Connecticut, Michigan and New Jersey are the only states to provide automatic expungement or sealing of certain felony convictions. Yet expungement contributes to higher wages for people with criminal records. Those who had their records expunged earned an average of 23% more the next year, according to a study published in the Harvard Law Review. 

For my one story of transformation, there are many others still seeking that helping hand. I encourage more companies to donate their time and resources to this important work. On a state or federal level, we must urge our lawmakers to pardon, expunge or seal nonviolent convictions after certain time has passed. Erasing the records of felony convictions five, 10 or even 15 years later can create many more stories like mine.

This year, I am grateful for the pardon system, for Davis and his company’s commitment to criminal justice reform and to finally be free of my past mistakes. Now I won’t be turned away from the chance to help other incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people find their way – just like my grandmother said I would.

Gwendale Boyd-Willis is a chaplain with Marketplace Chaplains.

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