Project Milwaukee
2:43 pm
Tue April 29, 2014

Milwaukee Father: My Time in Prison Doesn't Define Me

A Milwaukee man says not having his own dad around inspired him to grow as a father.
Credit Thinkstock.com

Armando is a 36-year-old Milwaukeean, a certified carpenter, and a very proud dad. But he is also a former inmate of a state correctional facility.

Back in 2002, Armando was charged with possession with intent to deliver cocaine and spent two years in prison. After being released, he became the custodial parent for his son, and struggled to find work.

Armando says his story is like that of a lot of other black men in Milwaukee County, where more than half of black men in their thirties have served time in prison.

Growing up amongst violence

As a child, Armando lived in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing in Chicago, where he says violence and poverty were rampant.

“There was always this mind state that, ‘This is where we live, this is as far as it goes for us,’” he says. “That kind of instilled in me, along the way, ‘Well, this is a part of who we are as a culture’…It was just the process of thought coming from that environment.”

Estranged from his father, Armando gives the credit to his mother for working so hard to raise him and his siblings. She tried to protect her children, even as the family witnessed an attempted homicide near their home one day.

“My mom, I can't say enough about bringing us up in such a volatile environment, the job that she did,” he says.

To escape the violence, she brought her children to Milwaukee. Armando says the new city - and the two-family home his family now lived in - seemed like “paradise” in comparison to Chicago’s public housing.

Turning to crime

Even though his family had left Chicago behind, Armando soon found Milwaukee had its own street violence. He says he wasn’t thinking about consequences when he committed his crime – he was simply trying to help his family and survive.

“When you're dealing in an urban neighborhood where there's a large amount of violence and crime, being able to come home safely was the first priority,” he says. “Anything that happened in between that was secondary, and that was the mind-state.”

Living in a neighborhood where so many black men had served time, Armando says going to prison was normalized.

“In urban culture, it’s almost an award, it’s common place,” he says. “’It comes with the territory,’ one of those types of things.”

When asked whether he could have made different choices, Armando says yes, but in “certain circumstances.”

“It's always easier to say something from the bleachers,” he says. “You do the best you can and just hope that you can actually overcome the circumstances you're in.”

Trouble getting a job

Even though he draws on his time in prison as a learning experience, it’s been hard for Armando to overcome his time in prison – particularly in trying to find a job. He’s been out of work for 2.5 years.

“There are instances where I had almost gotten employment until the question of the felony comes up,” he says, “and then there's something, some insurmountable reason given to me. ‘Well, we found someone more qualified,’ ‘The position just closed,’ even to, ‘We didn't mean to put the position up.’”

He says businesses shouldn’t be afraid to hire the formerly incarcerated. “Most of the hardest workers I know are felons because they have something to prove other than the average person,” he says.

As for himself, Armando is undaunted.

“At first it used to frustrate me, but me being the type of person I am, I started to look deeper into the situation, and work around these things,” he says. “The more challenges, I go through, it makes me more determined.”

So he got certified as a carpenter and is training in the removal of hazardous materials. He hopes one day to go into business for himself.

“I took from being on the streets, not to condone selling drugs or committing illegal illicit acts,…the sense of entrepreneurship,” he says.

Few resources

Unfortunately, Armando knows that not every former inmate has the inner drive he does, nor are there many resources to help men once they leave prison.

“You have an individual explain what the resources are for and how to get it, and there’s no support after that. So if you're not the type of person who doesn't just take no for an answer, then you can get just lost in the shuffle,” he says.

Armando says it’s important to learn how to market yourself, how to take an interview, and how to answer the questions you should expect to get as a felon.

“When you make yourself seem more of an asset to the company and not make this small infraction in your life be the subject of the conversation, then you become that person,” he says. “You become that person you need.”

Looking to the future

For Armando, his future is inextricably linked with that of his son. He wants to be able to support his son and give him the things he didn’t have growing up: a life free of violence and poverty, a college education, an involved father.

Armando hasn’t told his son about his time in prison yet, but says they talk regularly about personal responsibility and making good decisions. He knows one day it will inevitably come up, and when it does, he hopes his son, like prospective employers, will realize he is more than his record.

“I don't let the events in my life define me,” he says. “One moment, one instance in time doesn't make me who I am. It’s actually learning from those decisions and moving on.”