Pamela Ingram has been honest about her past, yet it tends to sneak up on her.
She's written "will explain upon request" when asked about any arrests on job applications.
Most times she has not been asked. But she's been fired -- after being hired -- for her larceny, speeding and breaking and entering convictions after her criminal record was checked.
"It makes you feel like you want to quit," she said. "Even though you paid your debt to society, you're still being punished. It takes motivation away from you."
Ingram, 38, is among what criminal justice officials say is a growing group of Durham ex-offenders looking for work in a fragile economy. Competing against college graduates and those without criminal records for even the simplest of jobs, they're often shut out from employment. It's part of the reason why half of them end up back in trouble.
About 605 people with Durham addresses were released from custody between February 2008 and January 2009, said Jim Korth, ex-offender coordinator with the Employment Security Commission. Most of them learn employable skills while incarcerated, such as cooking and carpentry. But many employers don't want to take the risk.
"If I have to choose between you and the guy with nothing, I'm going to go with the guy who has nothing," Korth said, describing employers' mindset. "That's what you're up against."
Nonprofits like Triangle Citizens Rebuilding Communities, as well as the county and the city, have job-training programs for ex-offenders. These programs offer training in fields that don't require licenses and are more forgiving of ex-offenders. While they don't promise employment, most participants find work after completion.
One such program is giving Ingram a second chance.Fiber optics
The third-floor classroom inside the old Holloway Street School looks like a traditional elementary setting.
What stands out, sandwiched between two poster boards about U.S. presidents and fractions, are pictures of tools and fiber optic systems.
The 11 adult students are halfway through an eight-week program to become certified in installing fiber optic systems in homes and businesses. It's a growing field, said Victoria Peterson, executive director of Triangle Citizens Rebuilding Communities.
Peterson, who started the nonprofit in 2002, received a $148,000 grant from the Governor's Crime Commission to run the training program, which started in February. Students receive 160 hours of training.
Each participant has a criminal record and a true desire to change, Peterson said. Learning about fiber optics, telecommunications and job skills has improved Ingram's self-confidence.
"Being in this class, it gives me a sense of self-worth," she said. "Even a person like me can get a job. Not just a job, but a job where I can live."Project Restore
Larry Parker, 36, was tired of being a restaurant dish washer.
Having been in trouble for assault and drugs, he thought Project Restore would be a better alternative to his old life.
"I was lost in the streets," he said. "You're chasing false hopes and false dreams. This made me feel a lot better. I feel I can move up, do bigger things. Before, all you can do is look over your shoulder."
The county Criminal Justice Resource Center's 12-week program teaches construction skills, from building ramps to repairing roofs, and job-training skills. Participants learn interview skills and how not to think like a criminal. They get a $225 weekly stipend, but their pay is docked if they're late or miss class.
"It's about them realizing that they're responsible for themselves," said director Gudrun Palmer.
The program is currently in its fifth cycle. About 75 percent of graduates find work within three weeks but not always in construction.
Parker, who completed the program last year, and another graduate received jobs with the county's general services department. Others have noticed his life changes.
"I have people I don't even know looking up to me," he said.Brownfields
In late January, 23 people began the first of three classes in the Brownfields Job Training Program. Four are ex-offenders.
In the program, run by the city's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, participants are earning certifications in environmental fields such as hazardous waste operations and soil water testing.
The concept is two-fold, said Kevin Dick, economic and workforce interim director. Participants receive job skills and training, abilities that will help in the city's efforts to clean up the Pettigrew Street corridor for residential and commercial development.
"If we can train individuals, if more areas get their environmental problems assessed and handled, it puts those properties in a position to be cleaned up, which can increase development and the tax base," Dick said.Challenges & benefits
Each program addresses issues that are regularly talked about in local criminal justice circles. But each is either heavily or totally supported through grant funding, which leaves programs like Project Restore in an uncertain position.
"To do it on a regular and permanent basis we would need to have that permanent support," said Palmer, the resource center director.
Hiring ex-offenders can be profitable for businesses, said Korth, the ex-offender coordinator. Employers can receive tax credits and insurance benefits, not to mention motivated workers.
"Most people who come out of prison don't want to go back," he said. "They know that having a job and keeping a job is a big part of that."