Hundreds are mobilizing to remove barriers for Ohioans of conviction

Darchaun Ewing was released from prison 289 days ago. Since then, he has had to quickly learn the hurdles that come with a criminal record.

“That’s 289 days — no freedom,” Ewing told a crowd of more than 200 people Sunday afternoon. “But 289 days of hurdles, 289 days of challenges, 289 days of me and my wife fighting side by side.”

Ewing was one of several people who were formerly incarcerated, their family members and faith leaders who shared stories as part of a call to action to change laws, rules and policies that create barriers for people trying to recover after incarceration to integrate into their communities.

Collateral consequences or sanctions can prevent people with criminal records from renting a home, getting a job or professional license, going to school, or volunteering.

The speakers were part of Building Freedom Ohio's “Felony Impacted Liberation Movement: The Convening,” a half-day organizing and voter mobilization event at the Huntington Convention Center.

“I’m regaining my strength”

Carlos Elliot, far right, interviews panelists about the impact of collateral sanctions on their lives and in their communities. From left are panelists Omar Medina, Darchaun Ewing and Sheila Calloway. Credit: Rachel Dissell/Signal Cleveland

Over the past nine months, Ewing, of Akron, learned that his name could not appear on the lease for the home he shares with his wife. His wife had to become sole owner of her business because his background prevented her from getting orders, he said.

This not only affects her family, Ewing said, but also his employees, who relied on companies to put food on their own families' tables.

When Ewing recounted the fighting, people in the crowd responded, “That’s not right.”

“Those moments when you feel hopeless, worthless and inadequate. … This is something you have to struggle with yourself,” he said. “Nobody knows exactly what you feel. …That’s what drug abuse causes. This is what keeps us in the criminal mindset. These are the moments that we have to change. This is the moment where I have to go in and try to fight and say, 'Hey, I'm getting my strength back.'”

Involvement with Building Freedom Ohio (BFO) has helped Ewing and others take back that power. On Sunday, speakers, most of them organizers and members of BFO, called on more people to join the fight for more voting rights.

Sheila Calloway has seen several family members go to prison – her brother, her sons and grandchildren. When family members were released, she felt powerless as she tried to help them move on with their lives.

Calloway watched her family members struggle to get jobs, find housing and open bank accounts because of her criminal conviction, she said. And it was up to her, just like other family members, to provide support. “I felt like I was the security of his sanction,” she said of her brother.

Calloway called on the public to participate in efforts to increase voter turnout and to advocate for the lifting of collateral sanctions.

“If you are in this room, do not leave this room without making a commitment to join us in this fight,” she said.

A woman holds a sign that says "Our vote must be counted!"
A woman picks up a sign at the Huntington Convention Center. Hundreds of people attended a Building Freedom Ohio rally to advocate for reducing the impact of collateral sanctions on people with criminal records who have served time in jail or prison. Credit: Rachel Dissell/Signal Cleveland

Growing strength by vote

Shauntae Metcalf, a BFO member who also had to overcome a felony conviction, shared information about a bill introduced in March by two Ohio Republican lawmakers that would make it easier for some people with felony convictions to to have their files sealed after a period of impunity.

The Getting Rehabilitated Ohioans Working Act (GROW) would not help all people affected by crime, but it is a step in the right direction, Metcalf said. The proposed law would bar sealing of records for violent crimes and prosecutors could still object to sealing of records in certain circumstances.

If state lawmakers pass the GROW Act, it could affect up to a million people in Ohio, making it easier for them to find jobs after their release, Metcalf said.

Donovan Harris, an organizer with BFO, urged spectators to join the organization at a rally at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on June 12. He urged them to write to their legislators and express their support for the GROW Act. He asked them to become “conductors” of the BFO “On the Ground Railroad” movement, a commitment to register 10 friends to vote and bring 10 people to the next BFO event. The conductors will host meetings and policy teach-ins every two weeks.

Sunday's event was the start of a campaign to enforce the GROW Act and end accompanying sanctions in Ohio, Metcalf said. Organizers plan to meet with members of the Ohio House of Representatives between June and November.

About 11.7 million people live in Ohio. Nearly a million people in Ohio have been convicted of a crime.

There are 9.1 million eligible voters in the state. In Ohio, people with a felony conviction can vote as long as they are not serving a sentence in prison.

Fred Ward, state director of Building Freedom Ohio, helped shine a light on the power of voting.

“People in power only want to know two things about you: whether you have enough power to keep them in power or whether you have enough power to take power away from them,” Ward said.

The last race for governor was decided by fewer than 200,000 votes, he said. If people affected by crime and their families across Ohio came together and voted, they could reach these numbers.

“We could easily make it clear to those in power that if you don’t bring our values ​​to the table, your chances of getting elected are slim to none,” Ward said. “This is a conversation about power.”

Anna Harden

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