ORLANDO — Pastor Eddie Walker knows what it feels like to have an ex-felon walk into my church and ask for help.
They can’t find a job — no one will hire an ex-felon. They can’t get into an apartment — landlords are afraid to rent to someone with a criminal record. Some of them can’t even get food stamps, either. They’re trying to get their lives back together, Pastor Walker said, but all the doors are being shut in their face.
Walker, the pastor of In God’s Time Tabernacle of Jesus Christ Inc. church at 436A S. Parramore Ave., understands their pain — from personal experience. A convicted felon himself, Walker spent five years in a Florida prison for trafficking in cocaine before his release in 2001, which led him to seek a new life as an ordained minister helping others. But even today, a decade later, Walker still understands how difficult it is for ex-felons to get reestablished in a society that seems determined to stigmatize them as troublemakers.
“What about these guys who are getting out of prison who don’t have the same opportunity I had? They will be the big number in the recidivism rate,” he said. “There is no rehabilitation in prison. They are learning to become hardened criminals in prison.”
Pastor Walker has tried to help ex-felons by working with them to find a job, a place to live, or somewhere that provides meals — and to find hope through a belief that God is alongside them throughout their daily struggles. “The Lord gives you the initiative and the ability to go forward and do things,” Pastor Walker said. “The Bible says the Lord provides the path for a righteous man.”
Now the pastor and his congregation are turning their attention to Tallahassee — and to a decision made earlier this year, requiring ex-offenders to wait longer before they can get their civil rights restored. Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, sitting as Florida’s Executive Clemency Board, voted to toughen the process nonviolent felons need to go through to get their civil rights restored. The new policy requires nonviolent felons who have completed their sentence, finished probation and made full restitution to undergo a five-year waiting period, then begin an application process for the restoration of rights.
Florida’s former governor, Charlie Crist, had instituted new rules in 2007 that allowed non-violent offenders to apply for the automatic restoration of their civil rights upon the completion of their prison sentence.
Walker’s church held a meeting on Sunday on draw attention to this issue — and to start a petition drive to convince the Executive Clemency Board to reverse its decision.
“I just pray people will catch on and join this fight,” he said.
Sunday’s event was the first in what the pastor hopes will be a series of public meetings to focus attention on the need to let ex-felons become fully engaged citizens, and not people with fewer civil rights than those who haven’t been incarcerated.
“I want to ask them, ‘What kind of fairness is it in the ruling you just made?’ ” Walker asked. “I can’t own a business license because I’m an ex-felon. I can’t run for public office because I’m an ex-felon. I can’t even serve on a jury. I can’t even get food stamps because I was convicted for trafficking cocaine. What’s that got to do with now? I am hungry now.”
Ex-felons also can’t vote, he noted.
“If you find someone who has lived a decent life for years, I can honestly say I have lived my life for the Lord,” he said. “Now I have to wait five years just to apply for restoration of my civil rights. How many more getting out of prison today will have to wait five to seven years? Some states, as a matter of fact, don’t even hold that against you if you’re getting out of prison. But in four states — Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee — we’re stuck with this waiting, five to seven years, depending on your crime.”
Pastor Walker believes this issue is a matter of fairness to people who have already paid their debt to society through their incarceration.
“I’m an ex-felon,” he said. “I said ex with a big EX. That’s the way I feel. I shouldn’t keep paying for that when I have done my time. I got out, I have been living an honest life, and yet I have to answer to the charges I got back in 1995. How long must a man pay for the crimes that I have already paid for? Why is it so hard to get my voting rights back? We’re still American citizens. Why are you treating me like a third-class citizen? You’re denying me my civil rights. You can’t pursue happiness if you don’t feel free.”
Pastor Walker said he believes most people are decent minded, and if he makes them aware of the issue, their natural sense of fairness will come into play and they will support his mission.
“I don’t think society as a whole is doing this,” he said. “I think these politicians in high places set these standards for their own political benefit.”
Walker has formed an alliance on this issue with a group called FOCUS, which stands for Federation of Churches United to Serve, which has made the issue of civil rights restoration for ex-felons a priority. He hopes they can bring people together into a powerful coalition on this issue, because he knows this will be a long, tough fight.
“We’ve got to be ready to suffer the same things the people suffered when they followed Christ, the same things they suffered when they followed Martin Luther King, and we have to be willing to suffer in the same way,” he said.
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