Ex-offender goes from doing time to doing nine-to-five


Employment program helps family man leave drug dealing behind

Misfortune occurs in each of our lives. However, depending upon our perspective, misfortune actually can be a blessing in disguise. In Arron Barker’s life, a series of unfortunate events occurred. As he looks back on the events one-by-one and then as a whole, Barker believes that what happened in his life happened for a good reason.

“The bad things that happened to me were a wake-up call to guide me in a new direction and offer me the good life that I should have been living all along,” Barker says.

Arron Barker was 16 and living with his mother and siblings in Detroit when his mother died in 1985. “I was too young to understand, and I didn’t handle it well,” he says. The only thing that Barker remembers is jumping on his bike and riding off. “I must have blacked out because I don’t remember anything else.”

Barker says that from that point on everything in his life changed. He stopped playing the drums, stopped playing football and stopped communicating with his family. Instead of turning to family members for comfort or to ask questions about his mother’s death, he turned to the streets — the mean streets of Detroit.

The older guys that hung out on the streets took him under their wing and taught him how to steal cars. “I was fascinated. I realized that I could make $1,500-$2,000 stealing cars and selling them to chop shops. But after a year, I began looking for something bigger,” Barker recalls.

By age 17, Barker was selling cocaine. For the following 11 years, Barker traveled back and forth from Chicago to Minneapolis “dealing” cocaine between each city and state. In 1989, Barker met and married his wife. He says that he tried to stop dealing to have a normal life with his wife, but he was in too deep.

In 2002, he was caught. Police had set up a sting and caught Barker selling 126 grams of cocaine for $10,000-$12,000 to an undercover officer in South Minneapolis. “When I was caught I felt as if a huge weight was lifted off my chest,” Barker says with a sigh and a smile. “No more hiding and no more looking over my shoulders wondering who’s watching me and who’s going to catch me.”

Arron Barker was sentenced to prison for 98 months for first-degree sales of narcotics. “Prison was the best thing that could have happened to me because it helped me do what I had wanted to do for a long time — change the direction of my life.”

While in prison, Barker earned his GED, earned a cabinetmaking degree, and participated for six months in an intensive program, in which only one percent of the prisoners who enroll actually complete, called the Challenged Incarceration Program (CIP) at Willow River, a prison in northern Minnesota. After he completed CIP in March 2007, Barker was released from prison to his home and his wife and was placed on Intensive Supervised Release (ISR) for the remaining one year of his sentence.

Barker began to search for a job. He turned to the Minneapolis Urban League for help, fearing his job search would be challenging at best. He began working with Linda Whittler-Price, a program service specialist who has been very successful during her 12-year career in helping people with multiple barriers to finding jobs.

“Changing the direction in one’s life, especially from an ex-offender to an employee at a company, is difficult. No matter how stellar an inmate is while in prison, he still must face the stereotypes and attitudes of potential employers in the ‘real’ world,” says Whittler-Price, who has a caseload of 75 clients. Approximately five are ex-offenders.

Because of the challenges that they face securing a job, many ex-offenders return to their old friends and their old habits; so they go back to prison very quickly. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nationally approximately 650,000 ex-prisoners are released each year; nearly two thirds of them are back behind bars within three years of their release.

Whittle-Price explains that employers often have legitimate reasons for denying employment to a former inmate: They have limited education and cognitive skills, limited work experience, and are often substance abusers or have other physical or mental health issues.

“In Arron Barker’s situation, he wasn’t a substance abuser, but he had never held a full-time job,” she says, identifying an employment obstacle common to ex-offenders. “But I knew I could help him. More importantly, he was determined to change.”

Whittler-Price worked with Barker in her office for nearly two weeks helping him prepare his resume, complete online job applications, and contact hiring managers with openings in his field. She also worked with him on developing his interviewing skills and helped him select a business suit for his interviews.

Approximately three weeks after being released from prison and with help from the Minneapolis Urban League, Barker landed a job doing commercial framing for a construction firm. “It’s been a blessing,” says Barker. “Now I’m living the life I should have been living all along.”

Whittler-Price believes that Barker’s search for employment was short because the Minneapolis Urban League has developed a strong collaboration over the years with a number of Twin Cities businesses and governmental agencies. They support the Urban League’s mission and work with the Urban League staff to actively seek qualified candidates and develop employment opportunities to help advance underserved individuals and communities and people of color.

Today, Arron Barker has a new position as a heavy-service technician with Bauer Built. He lives happily with his wife and daughters in Brooklyn Center, and he is planning to attend Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) this fall to continue his education.

The Minneapolis Urban League offers a wide range of programs and services that can help seniors, teens and adults find and secure employment. To learn more about their programs and services, call 612-302-3143, or go to www.mul.org.