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ND convicts struggle to make it work outside the walls as few employers offer second chances

Joby Zimmerman, left, and Joshua Snyder are both felons looking for employment in the Bismarck Mandan area. Snyder lives in an apartment in southwest Mandan, and Zimmerman said he is homeless. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK—Joshua Snyder lives in a dark wood-paneled basement apartment on the west side of Mandan.

He doesn't really like it there. He calls the space, made up of a bedroom and a kitchen, his little box. He misses his house.

But the rent is cheap — $500 a month — and he can keep his dog — a big malamute, St. Bernard mix named Baxter.

It's the best he can do for now. With a felony conviction, options for work and a landlord willing to rent in Bismarck-Mandan are limited.

"As soon as they find out you're a felon, they say, 'I can hire you for $8 per hour.' But when you're trying to get on your feet, it makes it pretty difficult," he said.

Snyder has construction skills and worked for the summer after getting out of the walls in April. He started at around $8 an hour and was bumped up to $18 after a month.

"You've got to prove yourself; they want to see you work," he said.

Sister Kathleen Atkinson, founder of Ministry on the Margins, a volunteer organization that supports those in transition by providing meals, a food pantry and prison-to-society support, echoed Snyder's experience.

Construction, restaurants and hotels are the industries most willing to hire felons. But when people with felony records do get jobs, particularly in the hospitality industry, it's at a lower wage than their fellow employees, Atkinson said.

"It's very challenging to find a living wage," she said of workers who won't receive many hours — even as few as 15 hours per week.

Snyder also had been working the night shift at Hardee's for minimum wage to earn extra cash to cover restitution, fines and child support.

"But you wear yourself out pretty thin," he said.

He has no vehicle and was walking 6 miles a day, working 65 to 70 hours a week, and running on four or five hours of sleep.

"I just couldn't do it anymore," he said, so he quit Hardee's then found himself laid off from his construction job a few months later.

Since getting laid off, Snyder spent a couple months living on $60 per month for groceries until someone told him about the Ministry on the Margins food pantry. He knows taking care of Baxter costs extra, but he doesn't know many people in Mandan and the dog provides companionship.

Court records say Snyder, who was found guilty of aggravated assault-domestic violence, choked a woman and broke her nose. According to him, he was moving and had loaded his things in his truck when it was stolen. He said he confronted the thieves, got in a fight and that ultimately led to his arrest. He pleaded guilty.

"It wasn't wise of me but I didn't have a super clear head," said Snyder, who wants to get to Ohio as soon as he's able. He has a kid there.

"I need to get on my feet and be able to take care of myself before I help anyone else out," said Snyder, saying he's convinced he'll make it but sometimes it feels as if he's still being punished despite having served his time.

Worst actions

"Who among us wants to be judged the rest of our life for our worst action?" Atkinson asked.

There are employers in Bismarck-Mandan willing to give those coming out of prison a chance but some places say absolutely not.

A number of years ago, the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce Leadership Bismarck-Mandan conducted a project identifying employers willing to interview those with felony convictions. That list of about 20 companies was provided to Ministry on the Margins.

"Having leads helps keep frustrations down," said Atkinson, who estimates there are about 1,800 people incarcerated in Bismarck-Mandan. The majority will be re-entering and will have to spend some time in the community while on probation.

"If they're given the chance and the support, they'll very quickly be your best workers because they know what they have to lose," she said. "They want to prove themselves."

Nothing for granted

Atkinson said there are many extra things these felons face that others take for granted, like phones, clothing for work, transportation. Ministry on the Margins helps with these things where they can.

Another barrier is housing.

"Without an emergency shelter, that's upped the complications," Atkinson said.

Joby Zimmerman is one of those who was caught up in the closing of the area's only emergency homeless shelter. He's been couch hopping since the doors shut.

Zimmerman has been out of the penitentiary since May 20, and he's still looking for work. He's applied for more than 30 positions and managed to get four interviews. He said he would really like to get a job at a print shop since that's what he did for 15 years, but he'll take anything.

"It doesn't matter what I do as long as I get a job," he said.

Zimmerman, like so many, came to North Dakota for employment in the oil field. The printing company he worked for in Minneapolis closed with the recession. In Williston, he got a job right away as a pipe inspector. He worked there for two years until he was arrested and pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for pushing a woman down a set of stairs. He said it was a dispute with a former roommate who had broken into his house.

He's out on probation and has to stay in the state until 2021 and pay $26,000 in restitution. As soon as he can leave, he'd like to return to Vermont, where he has a child.

Solid employment

Northwest Contracting has been willing to offer felons jobs since the '80s. One of the owners was contacted by someone with DOCR and agreed.

Keith Schmaltz, who is in charge of human resources at Northwest, said it's worked out well, particularly in the busy season, being able to pick up extra hands. People are trained on the job, and many come in with previous experience.

Schmaltz said Northwest stays busy enough, too, that it's able to keep many people employed year round.

"We have several long-time employees who have rehabilitated their life," said Eric Brenden, a Northwest representative, adding that one such person achieved the position of supervisor of a concrete crew.

Transportation challenges

Autumn Engstroem, employment specialist at Centre Inc., a halfway house in Mandan said many are dependent on public transportation and they may be juggling treatment schedules and other programming requirements.

She said those getting out of prison need to learn to seek employment that works for their situation, either close to where they are living or learning to budget for taxis. That serves as another limit on the jobs available to felons.

Ongoing punishment?

Kelly Bachmeier was in prison for 14 months for criminal trespass. He said he kicked in the door of his apartment after his wife had changed the locks.

He had a drinking problem. His addiction continued until he had what he believes was a divine intervention after waking up in jail for a DUI.

Oct. 22, 2013, marked Bachmeier's first day of sobriety, but his felony record haunts him. He has been struggling to find work since the granite business he started shuttered in 2016 with the oil downturn.

"That's all on me but, when a guy comes through, it would be nice to have opportunity to succeed again," he said. "My life is better, but I'm not able to advance myself in the community because I made that mistake."

He's turned in about 20 applications with no luck and has his resume posted on about 15 job sites. One hiring manager told him, "I have 50 applications. Why would I look at yours?"

Bachmeier, who has been unable to find steady work, has been on both sides of that hiring desk. Prior to his incarceration, he was a store manager for Menards for more than a decade. Having helped hire close to 3,000 people, there were a handful of times he bucked company policy and hired someone with a felony record.

"It was probably wrong to do, but I just knew these people were better than what they're background was showing me," he said. "I think you really have to interview somebody to know what you're getting."

Now Bachmeier is hoping someone else will give him that same chance.

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