Published December 2009 Vol 13 Issue 11
by Gretchen Crowe
Jerome Cotton was born in St. Paul, Minn. in 1952. Like so many in this economy, he talks of his current struggles and his desperate search for work. He wants a full time job so he can get an apartment with the “sanctity of having time to myself. I haven’t been alone in over five years,” he says. In the interim, he makes good money off the VOICE as a successful vendor—“it’s making people independent, prideful and having hope,” he says.
Jerome’s search for work and solitude is made more difficult by his past. Jerome has recently left the prison system, in fact, after living in it for 32 years. With employers saturated with applicants, how does a felon fare? Jerome talks of his new life, what he looks forward to. He knows it’ll take time for people to believe him. But with each step, he’s closer. First, he’s out; he’s free. Second, he’s clean. He is proud to say, “I don’t even smoke cigarettes.” He’s got a hotel room, but for once, he wants to have his own kitchen, bedroom and quiet. He wants to cook for the first time. But, is that feasible for a felon?
At 15-years old, Jerome was tried as an adult and sentenced to 20 years in a maximum-security prison. He talked about a lifer who offered him candy and cigarettes; he talked about not knowing it meant anything as he took the treats. But, it did. When this gang leader came to collect and assert his power, Jerome fought back and ended up in the hospital for 3 months. Then, transferred back to the prison, this man again returned to try to take his service on Jerome, padlocking the door to his infirmary cell. Jerome fought back, able to hear the guards trying to break in, and he held the assailant as close as he could, like a hug, so as to not aggravate his previously broken ribs. The guards cut their way in, and they found teenage Jerome standing over a dead inmate. He was tried and sentenced for 1st degree murder and another 45 years were added to his time. “You lose hope when hear a sentence like that. I did what I thought I needed to survive.” Part of his sentencing was three and a half years in “the hole.” “I came out with a reputation I didn’t want—taking a person’s life isn’t nice. They don’t know how much I cried.” He was, after all, a kid.
As Jerome looks to make a new life, he has taken steps to better his job chances. He just got his flagging certificate—so he can work on road crews—and certification to operate a forklift. So, time will tell how Jerome fares in this job market. We’re glad the VOICE is here to help him as he works for his goals.