Rebuilding A Life

Dow Jones Newswires

May 12, 2008

It costs to rebuild a life

By  Al Lewis 

Abe Aguirre, 43, has been in a halfway house since October, rebuilding his life.

Everything costs money, even his punishment.

He's got to pay for his stay at the halfway house. He's got to pay for his court-ordered therapy. He's got to pay restitution to the criminal-justice system that still holds the deed on his freedom.

Fresh from the Adams County Jail, Aguirre had no means. 

He quickly found himself mired in more than $2,000 in debt as he looked for a job.

He knew that if he did not find work, this debt would only mount and he might not make parole.

After four DUIs and related offenses, Aguirre is a felon.

Fill out any application and check "yes" under the ever-convicted-of-a-felony question, and see what happens.

"A lot of places won't even rent you an apartment," Aguirre said.

Across America, jails and prisons release 650,000 inmates a year. But the negative credential of hard time is practically a ticket back to the pokey.

About two-thirds of those who make it out return within three years, federal statistics show.

"What are you going to do? You've got to survive somehow," said Tim Welker, chief executive of Goodwill Industries of Denver. "You go back on the street and do what you're good at. ... And chances are, you've learned new skills in prison. ... It's a disastrous system."

Aguirre is a husky man whose arms still bulge from years of moving furniture. He walks with a limp and his face is scarred from an automobile accident eight years ago. This time, a friend was driving. None of Aguirre's DUI incidents resulted in injuries or accidents.

"I don't remember much," he said. "I woke up in a hospital. My femur bone went through my pelvis. They pulled it back through and reconstructed my pelvis."

Aguirre's parents died. He went through a messy divorce. He succumbed to alcoholism.

He does not want sympathy. He is willing to pay the price. He just needs a job to make the payments.

Last month, President Bush signed the Second Chance Act, which promises to allocate $326 million to states, local governments and nonprofits to provide vocational training, therapy and other services for freed prisoners.

It's a measure that should have been passed years ago, considering that the U.S. keeps more than 2.3 million people behind bars.

Aguirre found his hope at Advancement Plus, a job-training program provided by Goodwill.

It's set up to nurture those with employment barriers, helping them "get a job, get a better job and get a career," Welker said.

In January, Aguirre landed a job at AR Tech Inc., a Commerce City-based provider of asbestosabatement services.

He proudly dons his protective suit, respirator, rubber boots and gloves. Scraping asbestos-laden tile adhesive from commercial building floors pays considerably better than other gigs available to people in his position.

He's crawled out of debt. He was recently nominated for a "client of the month" citation at his halfway house. And the rhythm of his workweek keeps him focused.

"I've actually got more than $500 in savings now," Aguirre smiled. "I thank God every day for Goodwill helping me out."

In five years, where will he be?

"My goal is to be sober," he said. "Debt-free and sober. ... Five years from now, I see myself with a new hip. That's one of my biggest goals: to get insurance. And get a hip. I need a new hip, badly."

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