A felon’s fair chance
A Daytona Beach resident tells of his plight for gainful employment and the impact the city’s new ‘Ban the Box’ policy will have on others looking for work.
BY PENNY DICKERSON
The sun, sand and surf brought convicted felon Edward W. Barnes to Daytona Beach 20 years ago and he now calls Volusia County home. A native of Memphis, Tenn., he has served three separate sentences in the Florida Department of Corrections – all for burglary charges – connected to a crack cocaine addiction that plagued his adult life for more than a decade.
He paid his debt to society, said he has been successfully rehabilitated from substance abuse and helped champion the Fair Chance/Ban the Box policy passed July 1 by the City of Daytona Beach. But for Barnes, the new policy that eliminates applicant requirements to disclose criminal backgrounds during the preliminary phase of job applications is bittersweet.
‘So many barriers’
Barnes endured a journey to both find and maintain employment that is a cyclic narrative too many felons find themselves living. It includes homelessness, mental illness, transition and finally a policy like “Ban the Box” that is considered a beacon of light.
“There are so many men and women coming out of the prison system,” Barnes told the Daytona Times. “I had so many barriers to find housing jobs and re-establish my voting rights. ‘Ban the Box’ is significant for people trying to reinstate themselves and I just did all I can to tell my story in Daytona.”
In 1986, he received a Bachelor of Science degree from Tennessee State University in Health and Physical Recreation with a minor in elementary education.
For close to a year, Barnes was employed by the Dollar Car Rental service at the Nashville airport but left to pursue an opportunity to attend graduate school at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg (USM). In 1991, he earned his Master of Science degree in Coaching and Sports Administration, again with a minor in elementary education.
The aforementioned appear to be strong components in any man’s arsenal for success, but for Barnes, a series of traumatizing events stymied his consistent climb up the proverbial career ladder.
Two traumatic deaths
Barnes said that he pledged Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., in 1983, while a student at Tennessee State University. During the pledge process, a line brother died from alcohol poisoning, Barnes added.
For Barnes, it was a tragedy that left him traumatized although he never received formal treatment.
In another stroke of misfortune, a second fraternity brother died while Barnes attended graduate school at USM. More than just his “frat brother,” the man was a close friend who suffered a heart attack while playing sandlot football during homecoming festivities.
“I had a mental breakdown,” stated Barnes. “I couldn’t focus, started drinking heavily to feed the pain and then started using crack. My life spiraled out of control and I withdrew from (graduate) school and ended up on the psychiatric ward of Forrest General Hospital.”
The flagship hospital of Hattiesburg treated Barnes for depression; he was later released.
Work and woes
In what appeared to be the year of stabilization, Barnes met a woman in 1991 and the two moved to Louisiana, where he secured a teaching post at Booker T. Washington Middle and High School in New Orleans, which closed in 2011.
“I taught seventh-grade art and was head trainer for the athletics program for about six months,” said Barnes. “One day I came home and caught my girl in bed with another man and never went back to work. I drank and drugged my troubles away and became homeless in New Orleans.”
This phase of Barnes’ life marked the beginning of a transient life that took years to bring under subjection.
Homelessness and hitchhiking
Barnes moved back to Memphis in 1992 and was taken in by his sister, Angela Barnes, who is a career employee for the Nike Corporation. Despite the sibling love offered, her support still wasn’t enough to help Barnes kick crack.
“It was like a monkey on my back,” said Barnes. “I moved from family member to family member and the addiction just took over.”
The former teacher and coach lived life with his thumb in the wind and hitchhiked more than 2,000 miles in less than five months. He first headed North to Chicago where he located his fraternity brothers. Compassionate to his plight, they moved Barnes into their frat house and offered support as long as they could before purchasing him a bus ticket to Atlanta.
A life of aimless roaming and lack of closure from previous trauma led Barnes to attempt suicide. He tried to slit his wrists. Later, when a stranger talked him off a bridge and called 911, Barnes was admitted to Georgia Regional Hospital in Decatur.
“I was diagnosed with bipolar and paranoid schizophrenic affective disorder,” stated Barnes, who further disclosed that he was placed on the medications Haldol, Prozac, Cogentin and Lithium.
“I stopped taking my medication because I thought I was doing better,” said Barnes, who like many patients and addicts, started using street drugs again.
Brothers to the rescue
Within the same year, Barnes hitchhiked from Atlanta to Miami where he once again sought solace from his fraternal bond.
“I found the brothers at Florida Memorial University and they let me stay with them,” said Barnes, whose Miami sojourn was as brief as those in Memphis and Mississippi.
Once again, bags were packed and Barnes walked North. A stranger headed to Washington picked him up but when they reached Daytona, Barnes chose to stay and has never left.
“When I got to Daytona, I walked onto the B-CU campus and saw my frat brothers sitting under a tree,” related Barnes. “They walked me to the frat house on Charles Street where I stayed until I was introduced to girl. I moved in with her.”
Barnes said he never married but is father to four grown children.
Lied on application
In the latter months of 1992, Barnes managed to secure full-time employment at Ormond Beach Middle as a physical education teacher where he remained for a mere three months. He was employed with a temporary certification and working toward the acquisition of his permanent Florida teaching certification.
“I applied for employment with the Volusia County School Board and on the application it asked have you ever been convicted as a felon?” said Barnes, who responded “No” because he wasn’t convicted for his first burglary crime until 1996 followed by a second conviction in 1998.
“When I was in high school, my brother broke into a woman’s house and my mom convinced me to take the rap,” stated Barnes. “I got one-year probation for a crime my brother committed, still graduated from high school, but didn’t realize I had a juvenile record.”
The juvenile charge showed up during the Volusia County employment background check and because he lied, Barnes said he was suspended from his Ormond Beach position for one year.
Suspension to street crimes
Barnes couldn’t seem to catch a break. His residential, financial and employment instability led to crime and a third conviction in 2010, which resulted in a fourth conviction for violating parole upon his release.
Life beyond bars proved a battle as Barnes could not find employment in the most menial jobs or the fast-food industry.
“I remember applying for a job at Burger King,” said Barnes. “When they looked at the application and saw that I was a convicted felon, the application ended up in the trashcan.”
That cycle continued through applications filed at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and even positions in the manufacturing and warehouse industries. Barnes was almost ready to give up when he approached a manager at the Popeye’s Chicken on Ridgewood Avenue in Daytona.
Hired on honesty
“I met with the manager named Ms. Peterson and told her I had just gotten out of prison. I told her my whole story, ” professed Barnes. “I made some bad choices due to an addiction and did what the disease told me to do.”
Barnes was given an application and his employment was expedited. He said he started working that same day, Aug. 15, 2014, and left on good terms just last week.
Barnes, who is now on disability due to chronic arthritis and scoliosis, receives less than $800 per month, said he would love to work again to help others.
“I’m considering going back to work and would love to do substance abuse counseling at Reality House (transitional housing facility,” Barnes added. “I will have to give up my disability so when I go through the employment process, I’ll have to make sure my new income will adequately compensate me.”
While living in housing run by the Volusia/Flagler County Coalition for the Homeless on North Street, Barnes said he saw a flyer from Mykal Tairu, the local advocate for “Ban the Box.”
“I knew I needed to meet him and tell him what I’ve been through,” said Barnes, who has since joined forces with Tairu and shared his story with Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry, city commissioners as well as at the Senate and House of Representatives during the 2015 legislative session in Tallahassee.