ORLANDO – On March 28, 2008, Vikki Hankins did something she hadn’t done in 18 years: walk out of prison as a free person.
Convicted in federal court for distributing crack cocaine, Hankins had been sentenced to 23 years in federal women’s prisons.
She got released only after Congress lessened the penalties for crack cocaine. Now free again, Hankins had to face a stark reality: she had entered prison at age 21, got out at age 39, and knew next to nothing about the outside world.
“The first thing that blew my mind was the size of a telephone,” she said. “I said, ‘What is that?’ My sister came to pick me up and she had a cell phone. That blew my mind. I didn’t know about the Internet, either.”
The first time she went to catch a city bus, she also noticed something else that was peculiar.
“I remember people would walk past me, and I thought they were talking to themselves, and I didn’t know they had this little earpiece, the Bluetooth, in their ear,” she said. “I was kept off in this bubble for 20 years.”
Hankins was released from the Coleman Correctional Institution, a medium security prison in Coleman, Florida, and she moved to Orlando to live temporarily with her sister.
She lived there for six months while trying to do two things: get a job, and publish her autobiography.
At first, neither task was easy.
She had started writing the book, which she later called “Trauma,” a few years before she got released.
“While I was incarcerated, in my 15th year in prison at Coleman, I needed some understanding,” she said. “I had no clue as to how was it I went from being a person with a strong Christian background to being involved in illegal drug activities. I pondered that and wondered how, how. I needed some understanding. Next thing I knew I was standing in front of a typewriter. Actually, I started with pen and paper. I started writing my life story.
“I came to understand that I’d suffered from a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder from my mom’s suicide,” she added. “What prompted me to write was what happened to me, going from one extreme to another, going from a strong Christian background to this dark world of illegal activities. There was one strong factor, my mom’s suicide, and I was able to see that. I diagnosed myself through my writings.”
She left prison with the book, but first she needed to find a job. And Hankins started out feeling optimistic.
“When I was released, the economy was terrible,” she said. “Law abiding citizens were losing jobs. Home Depot was the very first place I went to.”
Home Depot had been on a list of bonding companies, meaning the federal government would insure inmates if the home supply company hires them.
“I was told that Home Depot had a bonding relationship, so I was very confident that Home Depot would hire me,” she said. “They told me I had to apply online, and it asked about criminal convictions. Needless to say, I did not get the job.”
That surprised her quite a bit.
“They asked me the question, have you ever been convicted, and the minute you put that on there, you’re doomed,” she said.
She next went to a 7-11 convenience store in Pine Hills.
“They had a big ‘We’re Hiring Now’ sign up there,” she said. “I went in and asked about the job and they told me I had to go online as well.”
After she acknowledged her criminal conviction online, “The response was, ‘We’re not hiring.’ ”
It got so bad that Hankins ended up living in a storage unit she had rented out.
“Because I could not find employment and could not make money, I ended up sleeping in storage,” she said. “My probation officer suggested I go back to prison, at least I’d have a place to eat and sleep. None of my relatives knew I was in that storage rental. I didn’t want to tell them that because they had pretty much done their service to me. Of course, it wasn’t legal for me to be there. Every morning I would get up and go out and catch a city bus and ride around all day looking for a job.”
Eventually, things started to look up. First, Hankins decided she wasn’t going to be discouraged by the negative response from publishers to her book “Trauma,” so she decided to self-publish it. Today, the book can be ordered online through Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.
At the same time, her probation officer decided Hankins had proven to be a model ex-felon, and he recommended that her five years of probation be terminated. Before he did, he called the general manager of a local Red Lobster restaurant and put in a good word for Hankins, who suddenly found myself gainfully employed.
“The restaurant industry is about personality, and I got the job thanks to this general manager,” she said. “It was great. I started out as a hostess, and then they promoted me to a server, and then they promoted me to a certified trainer.”
She was there for a year and a half, until her position was terminated. The explanation she was given, Hankins said, was that the company hadn’t known about her criminal background when she first applied.
“When the general manager hired me, everybody knew about my criminal conviction,” she said. “But there were things that were not appropriate in the way the employees were being treated at Red Lobster, and I complained to the CEO in Orlando, and they terminated me right after that, claiming they never knew I was an ex-felon.”
Hankins has challenged that firing, and said recently, “They have agreed to mediation.”
In any event, she didn’t wait around for the next job. Instead, Hankins decided to branch out on her own.
“I’ve started a publishing company, A4J Publishing,” she said. A4J Publishing can be reached by writing to P.O. Box 1101, Orlando, Fl 32802, or by logging on to http://www.a4jpublishing.com/contact_us.
“I’m looking for authors who have things to say,” Hankins said. “The reason I started that is it’s always something I wanted to do. So I said, ‘Ok, this is now the opportunity for me to venture out into publishing.’ I signed a contract with Ingram Book Company, one of the biggest book distributors in U.S. They have a sister company that deals with small self-publishing companies, and they told me if I could publish five books a year, we’ll do business with you. It’s self-publishing, print on demand. The author basically controls their works. From there, I’ve been pursuing books, books, books.”
Hankins has also gone back to college and will soon get a degree as a legal assistant, and she’s spoken at area schools to children about her book and her life story.
“When people read this publication, the hope is it will do for them what they did for me, enabled me to deal with the pain inside that needed to be released,” she said. “When I went out to Jones High School and different places, the kids wanted a copy. They don’t want to go down the road I did.”
Hankins also hopes to speak up for a group that she feels is misunderstood, and has no voice or champion today: convicted felons trying to become productive members of society, with no intentions of returning to any criminal activity.
“I’m quite ambitious and I still have goals at 42 years old,” she said. “My goal is to run for public office. I’ve grown to have a passion for helping people.”
And she plans to start by speaking out against a decision by Gov. Ric Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi to require those convicted of non-violent offenses to wait five years before their civil rights can be restored. That includes the right to vote, serve on a jury, and hold an occupational license.
“My mindset is I’m thinking, I’m only one person,” she said. “My aim is to speak boldly and very loudly about this. Because what that decision translates into for a person like me is no matter your good work, we’re going to wait around and see if you’re going to commit another crime. This is not just about me. People like me, they are interested in going forward with their lives. If I am not the voice, I want to be at least a voice. I know I can’t just lay down and not do anything. I don’t think people should be punished for the rest of their life.”
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.