North Charleston man honored for turning life around still fighting weight of felony conviction

Tim Gunn prepares to test the efficiency of a heating and air-conditioning system in a house on Park Circle on Wednesday afternoon.

A 25-year-old North Charleston man who gained national attention for his turnaround after a prison term was recently reminded that his felony conviction will be a weight around his ankles for life.

Tim Gunn is a supervisor in The Sustainability Institute’s program to make the houses of low-income residents more energy-efficient. He’s also a felon, having served three years for an armed robbery he committed when he was 20.

Earlier this month, AmeriCorps paid for Gunn to travel to Washington, D.C., to be recognized for his leadership. He was one of five men and women from around the country honored as Corps Member of the Year, out of 25,000 people in the Corps Network program.

The award included a tour of the White House. Gunn was thrilled, quite an honor for an at-risk youth from a bad neighborhood. His mother flew from California to Washington to join the celebration.

Then he found out he couldn’t join the others on the tour because of the felony conviction.

“I was kind of devastated,” he said. “I felt I had made it this far.”

Gunn was arrested with cocaine after he graduated from Greg Mathis Charter High School and was put on probation. When he was 20, he pulled a gun on a man and took his cellphone and wallet. It got him $20 and three years behind bars.

About 70 percent of felons end up back in prison within five years, despite efforts at rehabilitation, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Many analysts blame the tendency for felons to return to prison not just on character flaws in the offenders but also on the stigma of the felony conviction. Felons are routinely barred from jobs, housing and federal assistance, including food stamps, making it hard to survive outside of jail without a break.

Some initiatives to minimize the stigma are surfacing around the nation, but not so much in South Carolina.

While Gunn was serving time, he was visited by a man named Ladine Daniels, known as JR at The Sustainability Institute where he worked. Daniels, who died in 2014, also was a felon who had turned his life around, trading the promise of short-term cash on the streets for a slower, harder path to something worthwhile in the long run.

“A light just came on,” Gunn said. “I realized I’ve got more important things than running around in the street trying to make a fast dollar.”

Now he’s a mentor to at-risk youth.

While working at the Sustainability Institute’s Energy Conservation Corps, Gunn is trying to build a lawn-care business and taking business classes at Trident Technical College. He said he’s about given up trying to find a job that requires filling out an application because of a box that asks if you’ve been convicted of a felony. He’s living with his grandmother to save money and is unsure he could pass a background check for an apartment.

In South Carolina, a violent crime can never be expunged, or cleared from a record. A legislative task force spent some of last year discussing what crimes might be cleared after a period of good behavior, but there was no serious talk of clearing a violent felony conviction, according to Gale DuBose an attorney with the S.C. Center for Fathers and Families, whose clients include felons trying to build new lives.

“Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.