I asked Darnell Fields how it all started — that other life he lived before the one he’s trying to build now — and the answer sounded very familiar: He grew up extremely poor in East Baltimore; his father was absent, his mother was caught up in drugs and went to prison; Fields lived with his maternal grandmother. He had holes in his shoes, and hated going to school. When he reached the 10th grade, he dropped out and went into the street to work for drug dealers.
The drug dealers had money and cars and the company of women. “I looked up to them,” Fields says. And that’s how it all started, back in the 1990s in a part of East Baltimore known as Deakyland and notorious for gang feuds, drugs, shootings and death.
“People tried to talk to me when I was young, to set me straight,” he says. “But I had a hard head.”
Field’s criminal career lasted about six years, based on what he told me the other night. By the time he was 23, he was in prison with a life sentence for his role in a murder. Twelve years later, attorneys raised questions about the credibility of the police detectives who had investigated the case, and a Baltimore judge ended up reducing Fields’ sentence to 55 years with all but 20 suspended. He was released in May 2016.
That’s a turn of fortune most violent offenders who get life never see. And Fields certainly did not expect to be back in Baltimore at the age of 37. Before the deal that had him plead guilty for a reduced sentence, he assumed he’d spend most of his life in the state prisons in Hagerstown, Jessup or Cumberland.
But here he is, on time for our meeting, sitting across from me after a day of work, telling his story, an identification card hanging from a lanyard around his neck. He’s wearing a light blue polo shirt that shows his affiliation with Civic Works, one of several Baltimore nonprofits that helps ex-offenders prepare for jobs. Fields is part of a team working on the Baltimore Energy Challenge, a Civic Works project to outfit homes with, among other things, energy-efficient light bulbs and low-flow shower heads.
“We do four houses a day,” Fields says. He gets a stipend of $570 every two weeks and, upon completion of the Civic Works program, he’ll qualify for a scholarship toward community college or skills training.
Civic Works was not Fields’ first job since coming home. He worked for a year at Second Chance, the busy nonprofit salvage depot in South Baltimore that also helps people with criminal backgrounds move into jobs.
So Fields has kept busy since leaving prison, and he hopes his experiences with the nonprofits will result in full-time employment — despite the violent crime on his record, historically a major obstacle to a job.
Last week in this space, I published my phone number (410-332-6166) as a first-step contact for ex-offenders (or those still offending in crime-battered Baltimore) who want to change their lives. I noted that several companies in or near the city seem willing to hire the formerly incarcerated as long as their crimes were not violent, not too recent and did not involve children. That has been my experience with employers, and who can blame them for wanting to hire only those with nonviolent offenses?
But that eliminates a lot of men and women from ever finding employment.
There are three ways around that, from what I’ve seen.
A company can set time standards for hiring those with a violent past. That is, the older the crime — 10 or 15 years, for instance — the more open a company might be to giving a guy a job.
If a company is willing to provide mentoring and supervision for an ex-offender with a violent crime on his or her record, the chances for success increase. That requires effort above and beyond what most employers are willing to do. And yet, some have done it.
The other road to re-entry looks like the one Darnell Fields has been on: Enroll in a program, get some training, learn how to show up on time, meet the challenge you’ve been given — for Fields, it’s 900 volunteer hours at Civic Works — and the organization will stand behind you when you go out to find a regular job.
Fields contacted me because he’s looking ahead. Once he finishes up with Civic Works, he wants a job in heating and air conditioning, or in home improvement, specifically weatherization. He wants to get certified in forklift operation, too.
“I’m willing to learn anything new,” Fields says. “I cherish my freedom, like I’m supposed to. I’m not volunteering to the street again. I can’t do that again. I’m flying straight.”