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Fair Chance advocate tells her story

Monday, November 9, 2015 by Jo Clifton

University of Texas PhD student and former Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmate Susannah Bannon describes her research as being “at the intersection of rhetoric and social justice.” In her studies as a communications student, Bannon examines the ways in which public conversations create and maintain social inequities. Her interest comes from her personal experience with the criminal justice system and the impact it has on those who pass through it.

Bannon could be the perfect poster child for giving the previously incarcerated another chance at employment. She told the Austin Monitor her story in the hopes that City Council will approve a fair chance hiring ordinance, not just for herself but for thousands of Texans who cannot find a job because of their status as former inmates. The Economic Opportunity Committee will be taking up the matter at today’s meeting.

From the outside looking in, it might appear that Bannon has had an easy and comfortable upper middle-class life. She grew up in the Woodlands, north of Houston, with supportive parents, but she struggled with school. She barely made it through high school, Bannon says, probably because of undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. After high school, she started going to classes at a local community college, where she studied criminal justice in hopes of becoming a police officer. But that dream was shattered when she was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

By her mid-20s, Bannon was working as a certified nursing assistant. She decided to study to be a licensed vocational nurse and was admitted to an LVN program. Then she was arrested for a second DWI, and shortly thereafter a third. At that point, the criminal repercussions were more serious because the charge was no longer a misdemeanor. It was a felony.

While she was facing that charge, Bannon missed too much of the practical training she needed to complete her semester of nursing school. “I didn’t want to repeat the semester, and I think on the inside I knew I was ruining everything,” Bannon says.

With the third DWI, Bannon was placed on seven years’ probation but was still battling what she calls “raging alcoholism” and depression.

“And through that whole process, the only jobs I was able to get were with small businesses, and they were all owned by women,” Bannon says.

Bannon’s life was torn apart by her fourth DWI at the age of 29. This time she was facing jail time. It was August 2009. But again she was lucky because her parents hired a good attorney to represent her. “The original offer was seven years,” she remembers. But she opted to go to a 30-day inpatient treatment program for her alcoholism, for which her parents also paid. That treatment was successful, and Bannon’s attorney managed to whittle down the jail time to two concurrently running two-year sentences.

She was released from prison on Oct. 4, 2010, but unlike many of the formerly incarcerated, when she walked out of jail, she had a place to go, an apartment to live in. However, like just about everyone who has been incarcerated, Bannon could not find anyone to hire her.

“I immediately started beating the streets and was denied time and time again,” Bannon said. “I applied for a cashier position at a Texas-based sporting goods store. The man who interviewed me said, ‘I can tell you are way overqualified for the job.'”

The interviewer started talking about getting her into a management training program. He even talked to some regional managers about her, but when she asked about their policy on hiring people with a criminal background, Bannon said, “their faces just instantly changed.” Two days later they told her that their company hiring policy required that anyone with a criminal history wait seven years after being released from prison.

That was just one of many times Bannon was turned down, she recalls. Finally she concluded that she just wasn’t going to find a job that way. Now, thinking back, she says, “I still couldn’t get that job,” even though she has a master’s degree and is on her way to a doctorate in communications.

“When I came home, I immediately was treated differently,” Bannon recalls. “And it’s the same thing, only more extreme, with other people. … I know girls who left the Crain (Gatesville prison) unit with $50 and a bus ticket. … It’s too easy to dismiss people as essentially criminals as opposed to as human beings,” she said.

She believes that it is irrational “to expect people who have criminal records to do their time,” get out of prison and then be successful “when there’s so many barriers. I felt this obligation to change things because I know they are not fair.”

Because she could not find a job, Bannon had to create her own business, motor sports photography. Again she was lucky because she had a skill and because she had friends who had a training school for would-be auto racers. After that, Bannon was able to get loans and a grant to attend the University of Houston, where she got a degree in communications. From there, she went to Texas State University in San Marcos, where she got her master’s degree.

“It’s the aim of my work and my colleagues’ work to change the narrative about what it means to have been involved in the criminal justice system, and to put people’s minds at ease – like we’re not forcing anyone to hire anyone. No one’s being sent to jail if they do not comply. This is a good thing, and we’re just trying to help people realize that,” Bannon said. If employers will interview people regardless of their criminal history, she said, they may find people who will be loyal, work harder and work weekends, for example, because they will be so happy to have a job.

She is currently a teaching assistant at UT. “My assistantship has to be renewed every year,” she said, noting that each time, she gets a queasy feeling about whether she can keep that job.

Bannon has worked with Texas Advocates for Justice and has been active in the Ex Offenders Council for the Re-Entry Round Table. She said she will forever be grateful to her family and to her recovery community. She recognizes that things could have turned out very differently without their support, and she wants to help others who have been less fortunate.

Photo of Susannah Bannon by Jo Clifton.

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