After six years in Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, I was given $100 and sent on my way. I vowed I’d never return to drug use or jail. Some people told me, “Never say never.”
I understand their doubt: Colorado has the fourth-highest recidivism rate in the U.S. According to a 2019 Department of Corrections report, only one-third of the prisoners enrolled in the DOC’s reentry course completed it. In the last year, more than 10,000 people were released from prison. In Colorado, people with a criminal record face 247 occupational licensing restrictions that limit job opportunities. They face barriers to housing, education and other necessities.
Fortunately, I was released to a faith-based transitional home. I’d participated in Prison Fellowship programming, and one volunteer drove me to get whatever I needed on release day. Without her, I wouldn’t have made those appointments and errands.
Leaving prison was like stepping out of a time machine. I felt stuck in 1999, when job applications were paper. New technology created a huge learning curve. I didn’t have easy internet access. Navigating public transportation was a challenge, especially without a cellphone. I relied on food stamps and clothing banks. Following my parole requirements, I wore an ankle monitor and only left the house at certain times.
My first job after prison was at a fast-food place for $10 an hour. I took extra shifts and often rode the bus home at midnight. I struggled financially but was grateful for the job. Meanwhile, I was a house manager at a reentry home and took online classes to become an addiction recovery counselor.
After completing classes and 2,000 volunteer hours, I applied for licensing. I was off parole, living on my own, and serving a local ministry. I had several letters of recommendation, including from my parole officer. To be considered for the license, I had to check even more boxes: additional substance abuse classes, a year of meetings with a psychotherapist. The classes were two hours from my job, during work hours. So, although my plans were to become a counselor, it didn’t happen.
The hurdles seemed endless. Looking for my own place, I held my breath whenever I applied to rent and disclosed my criminal history. I longed to prove myself to my parole officer, my employer, my landlord, and others. But my felonies were like a permanent scarlet letter. Thankfully, one landlord gave me a chance. What if she hadn’t?
One in 3 Americans has a criminal record. They face social stigma and 44,000 legal restrictions in employment, housing, education, and other opportunities. I saw women at my transitional home succumb to the struggle; they relapsed or returned to crime feeling they had no options. It’s devastating, especially because nearly half of reentry providers nationwide have closed due to financial hardship in the pandemic.
Today I am nine years sober and work for an amazing company. They know my story — in fact, I met my boss while living at the women’s home. She is a mentor to me. Nobody leaving prison can make it alone.
I might not have overcome the barriers if someone hadn’t offered me a second chance. I’ve reached some level of normal, but the impacts of my record are often unseen. The stigma follows everywhere I go. Many family members still won’t talk to me, and although I understand why, it’s painful. These issues have fueled serious mental health struggles for me, especially throughout the pandemic. There’s a saying that goes, “Everyone you know is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Reentry and recovery can be a lonely battle.
Our nation just celebrated April as Second Chance® Month, raising awareness about the obstacles faced by people with a criminal record. We’ve made some progress. Let’s keep this momentum and give Coloradans hope for tomorrow. We all need more second chances. Without them, everyone misses out.
Kellie Thimmes has been off parole since May 2016. In 2019, she graduated from Colorado Technical University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Today she works as a senior consultant and education specialist and attends Red Rocks Church. She lives with her husband, Coleman, in Denver.