I couldn’t make a living wage after prison. Now I run a business

The stigma that comes with having been in prison is difficult to overcome because it is both internal and external. My daily mantra reminds me that I am worthy and deserving of all good things, especially a way to feed myself and my family that allows us choices and freedom. I remind myself that just because I was indicted does not mean I should spend the rest of my life repaying a debt that society says I owe. Some days my internal pep talks are difficult because there is the ever present and subconscious stain on my reputation.

Before going to a federal prison camp in Alderson, West Virginia, I took a job as a barista at a popular coffee chain. The involuntary career change from accounting, my previous line of work, was due to the tax-related charges against me. The barista interview was great, and the manager hired me almost on the spot. I had no experience, and I was over 40, with only an administrative and accounting background. Still, she felt that I was an ideal candidate for the open position. I had a rocky start and there were several times I thought I might get fired because I had no idea what a latte was, much less how to steam milk. 

Over the course of the next year, I learned my job and excelled at customer service. My manager even remarked once that the culture of the store had changed for the better since I had been there because of my attitude. Right before the fateful day of my sentencing hearing, I decided to share my legal issues with my manager. She chose to testify on my behalf. With tears in her eyes, she read a review from a customer who was so pleased with our interaction they shared it with corporate. In August 2019, I left my job and my home to self-surrender. I was comforted by the thought that I could come back to a job and a company that I had grown to love.

I was released in less than a year because of the pandemic. After getting a monitor strapped to my ankle, I called my old manager to let her know that I was home early and that I was excited to get back to work as soon as possible. I was better and more focused and ready to prove it. Weeks went by, and she hadn’t made me an offer. Eventually she informed me that she was afraid to submit my name for consideration for re-employment because she couldn’t justify hiring someone who had been to prison. After a few months, she finally called and made an offer to come back. While everyone’s pay rate had gone up because they agreed to work during COVID, I would be coming back at the same $9.34 per hour. My work schedule was also less accommodating than before. The coworkers who were there prior to my incarceration began to treat me differently. My manager constantly watched my ankles and the length of my pants to see if my monitor was visible.

Eventually I looked for employment elsewhere. It was a struggle because I was no longer able to work in the financial sector. No one trusted me. After a period of incarceration, your mind and your body begin to deteriorate, so working in a warehouse or in manufacturing is not reasonable. Your temperament is not prepared, and the sudden change in environment is shocking. Once the ankle monitor was removed, I was concerned that my probation officer would come to see me at work—no matter how hard they try to look like your friend, they still look like probation officers.

There were several days that I was not equipped with the mental or emotional fortitude to leave the corner of my bed in the corner of my bedroom. What I was able to do was participate in the online course of Inmates to Entrepreneurs (I2E), a nonprofit enabling what its name suggests. I was able to write a business plan for Queen Coffee Bean. I was able to do more research about coffee and the coffee industry. I was able to create a website to sell the beans I was roasting. It gave me the chance to share what I loved with a community of people who only knew me for the joy I sent to their doorstep. Because of the relationships I had built through I2E and the encouraging feedback from customers, I was able to begin rebuilding my confidence. I write this now as I sit in my thriving coffee shop in High Point, N.C., where people gather for delicious beverages, specialty coffee beans, and an inclusive environment.

When I wake up every day, I have another opportunity to live my dream. I serve coffee to people who empathize with my past and support my business, but wouldn’t hire me to work at theirs. Without entrepreneurship, I am not sure where I would be. I haven’t found a place that would pay me a livable wage, or a company with resources in place for returning citizens. I love my life, and that is in large part because of my opportunity and willingness to work for myself. I am learning a lot on my entrepreneurship journey and becoming a better person for it. I cannot say the same would happen if I had to live a life according to the standards of people who have no idea what I have experienced. I am enjoying my journey from inmate to entrepreneur.

Claudia L. Shivers is founder of Queen Coffee Bean in High Point, N.C., and both a graduate and board member of Inmates to Entrepreneurs. She is a mother, social justice advocate, and writer with The Winters Group.

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