Julius Henry was first sent to prison when he was 14 years old. After a 30-year reincarceration cycle, including charges ranging from trespassing to possession of drugs with the intent to distribute, Henry was released for the last time in 2006. Ten years later, he owns his own business and wants to give back, but his recent volunteering efforts have been rebuffed.
In January, Henry applied to volunteer at UVA Medical Center’s Escort & Wayfinding program, which directs patients through the hospital who might not know their way around.
When he had not heard back about his application after two weeks, he visited the volunteer coordinator to ask about it and was told he had been rejected. He says it was “a slap in my face as an ex-offender.”
He wanted to find out why UVA would not accept him and asked for a list of UVA’s qualifications for volunteers. Instead he received a new application.
“[The application] does not have the information on what kinds of qualifications they expect from their volunteers,” Henry says. “It does say that they ask for a background check. But it does not say that ‘we do not accept ex-offenders.’”
Eric Swensen, spokesperson for UVA Health System, says that on a volunteer application, all convictions found through a criminal background check are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“We consider: the seriousness and frequency of any offense(s), the length of time since the offense(s), subsequent work history, the nature and responsibilities of the position and the honesty of the applicant in completing the application form,” Swensen writes in an e-mail.
Henry says that during his 10 years out of prison, he has started a home business, J&J Hand Car Wash and Detailing Services, volunteered at The Haven, volunteered with a peer support counseling program, had his voting rights restored and is now a member of Believers & Achievers, an ex-felon support group. The UVA Medical Center is the only volunteer work for which he has been rejected, he says.
“We are not asking you to accept rapists and murderers,” Henry says. “We are asking you to accept nonviolent ex-offenders to come and volunteer for therapeutic reasons.” He says he wants the opportunity to show the world and his family he can “do the right thing” after coming home.
Jim Shea, 77, spent one year in federal prison for refusing to pay taxes during the Vietnam War, and says his felony has followed him his entire life.
He agrees with Henry that there is a general stigma against ex-convicts.
“Imagine finding yourself week after week, year after year, a victim of this undeniable rebuff,” Shea says. “It keeps people on the outskirts of society. It keeps people from feeling like this is their country and their society.”
When ex-convicts such as Henry are denied opportunities, it creates a “kangaroo court” where private citizens “assume the right to continue punishing someone who has already paid their debt through court,” says Shea.
Swensen disagrees, and says that although ex-offender volunteers are not common at the UVA Medical Center, the opportunity to volunteer is still there.
“In the past six months to a year, we’ve probably only had a handful of applications from ex-offenders,” Swensen says, “but there is not a blanket prohibition on accepting them. We do enlist people who have things come up on their background check.”
The UVA Medical Center is not the only organization with strict guidelines for ex-offenders. The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, for instance, says on its website that those who have been found guilty of violent offenses, robbery, drug possession and other charges will not be accepted as volunteers.
Henry says he understands the need for these guidelines when allowing ex-convicts to volunteer, and he wants to open a dialogue between Believers & Achievers and UVA that will help more ex-convicts meet those qualifications.
“We are willing to listen,” Henry says. “We are willing to accept any type of guidelines so that this will be an opportunity not just for one ex-offender, but for all ex-offenders, no matter of race, color or creed. That’s all we’re asking for—an opportunity.”