Thomas Dixon found his redemption in the Berkeley County Detention Center, peering through cracks of a blackened-out jail cell window to glimpse the outside world he’d wronged. God, he felt, heard his plea for forgiveness.
The outside world remains another story. Since his release 12 years ago, he feels society’s forgiveness has eluded him.
He cannot find a job, no matter that he now is the pastor of a small group of Christian faithful or that he has led numerous anti-crime efforts.
He is certain that, though his crimes were not violent, it’s because he must check the box on job applications that asks: Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
It’s a box checked to nowhere, certainly not to employment that can mean the difference between successful reintegration into society and a quick trip back to prison.
It’s a box that reminds Dixon: Society doesn’t forgive the sins of an offender.
“There has to be a point when the debt is paid,” Dixon said. “But really, it is never paid. There is never forgiveness.”
And without jobs, many ex-offenders return to their old ways.
“I never met anyone in prison who said, ‘I want to come back here,’ ” Dixon said. “But when they can’t find employment, they go hustle, go get some dope. You get caught in that whirlwind again.”
That is precisely what a man now called Pastor Dixon wants to prevent — for himself and countless others.
Dixon grew up in Chicago’s South Side projects back in a day when yards were mowed and kids played safely outside. It was a time when the streets knew right from wrong.
Dixon helped to change that. At 15, he began using and selling drugs, fueling crime and feeding an addiction that would plague him for the next 30 years.
But he also fell in love. He and future wife Vanessa had a baby boy.
Even back then, Dixon knew better than to slide down that old slippery slope. He just couldn’t resist it.
“I saw people beginning to disappear and dying and going to prison,” he recalled. “And I’d just had this son. I asked myself, ‘What am I going to have to offer him in 10 years?’ ”
So he joined the Navy in 1983, hoping discipline and travel would straighten him out. He and his young family traveled from Chicago to stops in California, Philadelphia and eventually Charleston.
“I didn’t realize the demons of drugs and alcohol would go with you,” Dixon recalled.
He became a hospital corpsman and then a surgical technician, helping to heal by day, drinking and doing drugs by night. After five years of service, after failing his fifth drug test, Navy officers threw him into the brig for two months.
He was sent home to his family — and his drug addiction.
Soon, he and Vanessa welcomed a second child, a daughter. Dixon worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, then moved on to jobs including a loan finance officer and account manager for a rent-to-own company.
There, he discovered a new skill to support his addiction: stealing.
“I was circling the drain, waiting to get flushed,” Dixon recalled. “I hated myself, and I hated my lifestyle.”
But he couldn’t stop.
One day, Vanessa dropped his clothes off at his dealer’s house and said goodbye.
It was around Christmas 1999 when he got down on his knees and prayed for help:
I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this.
“Then, I got up off my knees and went to get high.”
God, Dixon now realizes, heard his prayer. And he had a plan.
It just wouldn’t be fun.
Dixon was arrested on a breach of trust charge followed by a torrent of bad check charges. He landed in the Berkeley County Detention Center for eight months in 1999 and then served two years in prison.
Inmates were confined indoors and allowed only religious books. Dixon opened the Bible.
Without drugs and alcohol, separated from his freedom and the outside world, he faced the man he had become.
As he read, he learned about judgment and sin. He learned God forgives those who repent.
Today, he celebrates his spiritual birthday on July 7, 1999. That was the day he promised God:
Every day I am on Earth, I will work just as hard serving you as I did for all those years serving the devil.
When he was released in 2001, Vanessa reunited with a new Thomas Dixon, one who didn’t drink, do drugs or swear.
“We had to learn each other all over again,” Dixon recalled. “But I thank God for my wife. I had a support system.”
He was lucky. He had a home, a wife, his wife’s income as a respiratory therapist, transportation and a work-release job. He had children willing, with time, to give him another chance.
Most newly released inmates have none of these.
Most offenders walk out of prison with no money, no job, no driver’s license, little education and the Scarlet badge: CRIMINAL.
When they apply for jobs, they must check that box, the one that asks about criminal convictions.
At first, Dixon remained lucky. He worked as a restaurant prep cook before being laid off in 2011.
He has struggled to find work since.
With a high school diploma and a criminal record, he applied at a Walmart. He was hired and worked in the deli.
But last Christmas Eve, he was released as a seasonal worker. He would have to reapply.
So he did. This time, he was denied due to his criminal history, he said. (Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Thomas’ record will be a red flag that removes him from consideration for most jobs, regardless of his character and all that he has done to right the wrongs of his past,” said Heath Hoffmann, a College of Charleston sociology professor who worked with Dixon on the S.C. Crime Reduction Coalition.
Indeed, since Dec. 24, Dixon has had no income and relies on his wife’s salary.
He said he has filled out at least 300 job applications and received two calls. Still, no job.
Along with the stigma of being an ex-offender, he is battling a recession that allows hiring managers to be more picky.
“It’s much harder than it was five years ago to latch onto anything that has promise,” said 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, who worked with Dixon on the Crime Reduction Coalition. “Most companies look carefully at criminal histories. Some use them as automatic disqualifiers.”
A bill pending in the state House would provide $5,000 tax credits to those who employ ex-offenders full time for one year. Similar incentives already exist federally.
Pennington said those help, but there also need to be ways for ex-offenders to “prove” themselves, such as through community work or a chance at earning a rehabilitation certification that would make it easier to expunge certain convictions.
A chance at forgiveness would motivate many to work harder and reduce recidivism, Dixon added.
The U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts found that of federal inmates released between 2002 and 2006, half who could not find work during their supervised release committed new crimes or violated the terms of their releases and were sent back to prison.
Yet 93 percent of those who found work stayed out of prison.
“At a certain point, it is in everyone’s best interest that they work,” Pennington said.
Hoffmann called the treatment of ex-offenders a legally permissible form of discrimination.
“America embraces rhetoric suggesting we are a land of second chances. But that is empty rhetoric when it comes to ex-offenders,” Hoffmann said. “Thomas’ life exemplifies these struggles. He has dealt with the adversity incredibly well.”
Dixon’s lack of income strains his 30-year marriage and his dignity. Now 60, he has been clean and out of trouble for 15 years, he said.
He leads anti-crime rallies. He helps offenders re-enter society. He was chairman of the S.C. Crime Reduction Coalition. He co-founded People United to Take Back Our Community to combat violence in North Charleston’s Dorchester-Waylyn neighborhood. And he is the volunteer pastor at Summerville Christian Fellowship.
“Thomas is excellent because a lot of people are talking about what he is actually doing,” said Amy Barch, founder of The Turning Leaf Project, an offender education effort that operates in detention centers.
Dixon will speak next month at Turning Leaf’s Charleston County jail graduation. Once again, he’ll share his story and urge inmates to make positive impacts after release.
Sharing that message will reward him in priceless gratitude and, hopefully, reduced crime.
But it won’t pay the bills.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerry Hawes or “subscribe” to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.