- Associated Press - Saturday, May 14, 2016

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - With the bang of a gavel, a judge said he was sentencing John Ruess to two years in prison. What he actually got was life.

Yet, 20-plus years, steady income and a clean record later, the felony conviction still haunts him, Ruess said.

As of early May, Ruess, 48, his wife, and their three kids, ages 3, 5 and 9, live in an RV after being denied by every landlord they’ve contacted. Before that, they lived out of a car, with the occasional night spent in a hotel room, The Gazette reported (https://bit.ly/21PogUg).

He accepted that life when it affected only himself, but “it’s a family now,” his wife, Malichi Ruess said.

“He has a job. We can pay rent every month, but all they see is a felony,” she said. “It’s 23 years old, but that doesn’t matter to them.”

The same curse follows many people whose mistakes at one point put them behind bars, said Jesse Wiese, a former offender and director of The Second Prison Project.

Those exiting the prison system are told their efforts at rehabilitation will help them start anew. They can raise a family, get a good job, buy a home and live a good life. What they get is judgment, Wiese said.

They’re not locked up, but they’re locked out of society, he said.

“We give them a manual for how to build a vehicle for a new life, but then when they open the door there’s not a road to drive it on,” Wiese said.

To bring awareness to what Wiese calls “second prison,” he organized a 5K race at America the Beautiful Park in downtown Colorado Springs to urge society to stand behind its promise of a second chance.

Wiese knows the struggle better than many.

He was 21 when he was sentenced to eight years in prison for bank robbery. In prison he discovered a passion for the law. He completed his bachelor’s degree from his cell and started studying for the LSAT. He hoped to be a judge someday.

Wiese said he knew there was a stigma attached to being a convicted felon, but he thought he could outwork, outsmart, outrun it.

That seemed possible when he was accepted into law school. But when it came time to get his law license, he was denied. Repeatedly.

“We preach hope to people in prison, but the minute they walk past that prison threshold it dies,” Wiese said.

“There’s no end to this misery,” he said. “We’re setting them up to fail.”

It would have been easy for Second Chances 5K participant Dennis Avila to contribute to the wrong side of the recidivism rate.

Avila said he spent his 20s as a drug dealer, watching as semi-trucks full of drugs infiltrated the city. It was a good gig, offering six-figure returns, he said.

Then the law caught up to him. In 2003, he was sentenced to two years in prison. He calls it a two-year discipleship.

When his suppliers came to reinstate him in the drug world, he chose God, he said. He worked tough jobs for little pay and no promise of retirement.

Then he channeled his entrepreneurial spirit for good. He’s a part-owner in three local businesses and runs DJ nonprofit HEAT Inc. - Healing, Edifying, Affirming, Teaching. Still, “people don’t look at that so much,” Avila said.

“Being someone who’s been in trouble and made a mistake still follows me today,” Avila said. “I was the guy who needed a project like this.”


Information from: The Gazette, https://www.gazette.com

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