ORLANDO – Kevin Lamar Stevens loves to cut people’s hair.
“Since I’ve been younger, I been real good at cutting hair,” he said.
But the two times Stevens tried to make a go at becoming a hair stylist, it didn’t work out. The first time was when he was about 18, and the second time was this past summer.
“I’d just walk around neighborhoods and find people who let me cut their hair,” he said.
In between those two efforts, something happened that made it impossible for him to pursue his dream: prison.
“I did 10 years in prison,” Stevens said in an interview with Freeline Media. “I’m 30 years old. That’s my whole life.”
Just released on Feb. 25 from the Union Correctional Institute in Raiford, Stevens struggled in the past six months to get his life back together after a decade being incarcerated. He was arrested in 2001 and charged with, then convicted of, robbery with a gun and grand theft motor vehicle. When he finally got released, he found that being a convicted felon with a violent, gun-related crime on his record made it impossible for him to find employment.
“My cousin had got out of prison a while ago, and he knew somebody who gave him a job at Olive Garden, and he tried to get me a job there,” Stevens said. But when the restaurant chain did a background check and discovered he’d been convicted of a gun crime, he immediately got rejected.
“They said I’d be lucky to get hired anywhere with my record,” he said. “As soon as they do a background check, no, you can’t get a job. When you got stuff with guns on your record, people don’t want to take a chance. I go door to door to door and I put on some nice clothes. But you can’t even live at the Salvation Army with a violent gun felony. It’s almost like you’re set up to fail.”
In a weak economy, even the most qualified applicants are finding that jobs are tough to come by. But with a criminal record, Stevens quickly joined the ranks of other convicted felons struggling to find even the most menial type of employment. At the moment, though, he no longer has to worry about where he lives or where his next meal is coming from. Stevens is now in the maximum security wing of the Orange County jail, where he’s been since Aug. 17, when he got arrested for armed burglary to a dwelling, grand theft with a firearm, using a firearm in the commission of a felony, and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.
He’s been waiting since then for his case to move to court. He insists that the last thing he ever wanted was a return to prison life.
“I want to do right,” he said. “I don’t want to have to do wrong.”
But as a convicted felon, he said, even what started out as modest ambitions – finding an entry level job, or going back to school to get a cosmetology license – became impossible when every door shut rudely in his face.
“Nobody helped me,” he said. “I wanted to go to school and get my license and cut hair. But you got to get a license. In order to get a license, you have to go to school. In order to go to school, you have to have money. In order to have money, you have to have a job. Nobody hires me, nobody even gives me a chance. ”
Stevens thinks another reason he couldn’t make it was a lack of support from his family. When he got out of prison, his father let him stay at his house for a week, then told him he was on his own, Stevens said. He lived with different girlfriends until they kicked him out. He slept in cars. He slept on the street.
“The ones who make it,” Stevens said of other convicted felons, “are the ones with a lot of family support. My parents won’t let me stay with them.”
Now, he says, at least he gets regular meals at the jail.
“I live better in here than I do on the street,” he said.
Another benefit, Stevens said, is that the jail provides him with medications to control what he says are violent fits of rage. He admits that he gets very angry, even enraged, when he thinks about his childhood growing up in Orlando.
He remembers a father who beat him, and a mother who disappeared when he was just a baby.
“I always had a problem with rebellion, acting out, getting a whooping,” he said. “I got a whole bunch, bad, a whole lot of whoopings.”
But the physical abuse didn’t seem nearly as bad as the strong feelings of rejection that haunted him as a child.
“When I think about how I got treated as a child, I wasn’t as loved as my other siblings,” he said. “My mom left when I was 2. Voices tell me she left me because I’m a nobody, and a loser.”
That anger comes back, again and again.
“I get mad and get real angry and try to cut myself and kill myself,” he said. “I hear voices that drive me crazy.”
When he got released from the prison in Raiford, Stevens said he applied for Supplement Security Income (SSI), a government stipend provided to people with disabilities.
“I’m a mental patient taking psychotropic medications,” he said. “SSI denied me. They didn’t say why, they just denied me.”
It was the final insult, he said, to 10 harrowing years in a Florida prison, almost all of those years spent in solitary confinement. His fits of anger, he said, prompted him to lash out at other inmates – or to bring violence upon himself.
“I was incompetent, unable to live with other inmates,” he said. He was placed in the prison’s CSI, or Crisis Stabilization Unit.
“Out of the whole 10 years, I did one year” living among the general population, he said. “And that’s not a straight year. I was acting out in anger. I would get mad and hit people, assault people.”
After the physical abuse he endured as a child, Stevens said, he had been experiencing these fits of rage for years.
“I was going through issues in school where I got expelled,” he said. “I hit my teacher with a chair. I explained that to them in prison. They put me in a box by myself, in a box where you come out one hour a day. You come out to shower three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. They’d slide open the flap and slide your food to you.”
Sometimes he didn’t mind the solitude.
“I don’t want to be around people,” he said. “I like to stay by myself. When I was with the other inmates, I’d be thinking people are talking about me. I really wasn’t functional.”
Even when he was alone, the rage continued to consume him.
“I had mental problems, where voices tell you to masturbate or kick the door, and they (corrections officers) come in and gas you with mace. It burns your eyes, you coke. Once they spray you, they’re supposed to pull you out and give you a shower and clean the room, but they didn’t.”
He got to speak with the prison’s mental health counselors, but he mostly considered this a waste of time.
“They call it like babysitting,” he said. “They just want you to lay down and not do anything. They try to make it out as a behavior problem, and say you’re a behavior problem.
“I talked to many physicians and site specialists,” he added. “Some try to help, some don’t care. Some say ‘Go ahead and kill yourself.’ They don’t care. They used to give me shots when I got mad, real mad, they’d shoot me up and I can’t move like a zombie for two or three days. When I come out of it, they said ‘Want us to do that again?’ “
He was 29 years old when he finally got released in February. He recalls the prison staff telling him what to expect on the outside. It had, he said, no bearing on reality.
“They tell you you’ve got to get a job, you need to dress like this, dress appropriate, and they tell you how to use a debit card,” he said. But as a convicted felon trying to find work or any kind of opportunity, “You’re learning all this stuff for nothing. They don’t tell you that you need money for all this stuff.”
He left prison with $100. It didn’t last long.
Now Stevens is back in jail, after having struggled for six months to start his life over again. He feels like society has abandoned him altogether and would be just as happy to be rid of him.
“I want to do right,” he said. “But no matter how hard you try, once you’re gone …. You’re gone.”
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.