When Do Their Sentences End?

Reentering RIPTA

by by Sam Adler-Bell

illustration by by Robert Sandler

On November 17 of last year, WPRIChannel 12 “Target 12 Investigator” Tim White reported that Rhode Island Public Transport Authority (RIPTA) had hired two men with criminal records to drive buses for RIPTA’s RIde program, a service providing transportation for the elderly and disabled.

The four-and-a-half minute segment, craftily titled “Risky RIde,” is typical of local network news sensationalism: Law and Order-esque clanging sounds punctuate revelations about the two men’s criminal histories, while White types furiously away on his computer, hot on the trail of his Target 12 investigation. In a bit of riveting “undercover video,” we see the blurred-out faces of one of the drivers behind the wheel as a list of his past felony convictions—the most recent a cocaine charge in 2003—scrolls down the screen. In another shot, a man, presumably though not obviously the other driver, is shown walking down the sidewalk. The words “60 days at the ACI [Adult Correctional Institute] for marijuana possession” flash across the screen.

These two blurry-faced men, Kevin Thomas and Larry Robertson, were, in fact, hired through a reentry program facilitated by a partnership between RIPTA, the Department of Labor and Training, and Open Doors—a community organization committed to supporting the formerly incarcerated. Both successfully underwent rigorous screening and training programs administered by Open Doors and RIPTA before being hired. And neither had a single complaint from a rider or an on-the-job supervisor in their three months of work. The story was melodramatic ratings fodder. But as any local news reporter worth his suit knows, fear sells. So they milked it.

Four days after the segment aired, Kevin Thomas and Larry Robertson were out of a job.

Buying Fear
At a RIPTA Board meeting on November 21, community-members spoke out against the re-entry program. Lucy Bettencourt, a RIPTA bus operator, called the hiring of Thomas and Robertson “a personal affront to [her] integrity as a driver.” Paul Harrington, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents RIPTA’s drivers, called the Open Doors program “sad…an embarrassment to RIPTA and [union] members.” Thomas and Robertson were a few months shy of union eligibility when they were laid off, although both were paying dues since day one.

Caroline Medeiros, director of the Alliance for Safe Communities—an organization that supports reinstating the death penalty and doing away with Good Time statutes, which allow inmates to earn time off their sentences for good behavior—chastised RIPTA’s leadership for endangering “some of [our] most Vulnerable Population” by putting two men with “excessive records” behind the wheel of RIde vehicles. She urged the Board to discontinue the program which jeopardized the safety of “the elderly, and developmentally disabled.”

RIPTA CEO Charles Odimgbe (pronounced “oh-dim-way”), who initiated the partnership with Open Doors, originally defended the re-entry program on Channel 12, saying, “somebody has to help [formerly incarcerated individuals] readjust into this community and if that person is going to be me, I’m willing to stick my neck out and do it.” But at the November 21 board meeting, he pulled his neck back in. “Due to public protest,” he announced, RIPTA would be “discontinuing” the program. Odimgbe took “full responsibility for any concern” the program had caused.

Second Chances
In the following days, the story only gained momentum. On December 1, the RI Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government convened a hearing to explore the hiring of ex-felons at RIPTA. Senator Francis Maher said the program was “literally putting people at risk.” Senator John Tassoni tore into Odimgbe, calling the recent revelations “a black eye for the whole state.”

Only Senator Harold Metts of Providence offered unqualified support for the re-entry program. He defended the two fired drivers: “Once someone has paid their debt to society, served their time, repented and turned their lives around for the better, they deserve another chance.”

On the same day, members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) took a no-confidence vote for RIPTA’s CEO. Union President Paul Harrington cited the revelations of the “Risky RIde” investigation as the “final straw” in a series of disappointments that pushed his members to register their gripes with Odimgbe. Harrington claimed the CEO never told the union about the program to hire ex-felons.

When I spoke to Odimgbe, however, he told me Harrington and the ATU had been fully informed of the Open Doors initiative well before it went into effect; he found their outraged surprise “kind of funny.” Odimgbe admitted that the choice to fire the drivers was his. “I have to balance every action that I take. Riders started speaking up and complaining [after the story broke]. So I had to preempt any claim that we were exposing them to a liability.” Still, Odimgbe remained outspoken in his support for rehabilitative programs: “People deserve second chances. As a member of this community, I believe it is the least I could do for the less fortunate.” He added, “there is always redemption.”

Jesse Capece, head of the Employment Program at Open Doors, emphasized that RIde services are a diverse group. “There are people who’ve served time using RIde too. One of the main groups [Robertson and Thomas] serviced were people being taken to and from the methadone clinic.”

More than a record
On December 7, a group of community leaders and activists met at Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), a community organization on the Southside of Providence, to discuss how they should respond to the WPRI story and subsequent firings. DARE’s ‘Behind the Walls’ committee—composed of formerly incarcerated men and women, their families, friends, and allies—has been fighting discrimination against former inmates for two decades. They also invited Kevin Thomas and Larry Robertson to attend the meeting.

“They came through and shared their story and the committee to decided to get behind them,” said DARE organizer Jordan Seaberry.

On December 19, DARE and its community allies attended RIPTA’s monthly board meeting. Carrying banners and signs—“When does a sentence end?” “We’re more than a record!”—they demanded that the board rehire the two drivers. During public comment, DARE members, along with Ward 9 City Councilwoman Carmen Castillo, spoke in support of RIPTA’s re-entry program and the two drivers.

Larry Robertson told the board about his criminal past and the steps he’d taken to get his life on track. He described the job at RIPTA as giving him a “sense of pride [he] had not felt in many years.” For the first time in his life he was able to support himself and his family and provide them with health benefits. He regretted he wouldn’t be able to provide them with a nice holiday. He “respectfully asked to be reinstated.”

Jordan Seaberry from DARE read a letter Kevin Thomas had prepared beforehand. In it, Thomas offered “thanks to all who have committed themselves to helping people who find themselves in difficult situations.” He said his words were “not only in defense of [himself] but…for those who are behind me, and beside me, and for those to come after me.” He challenged the board and Odimgbe to stand by their stated commitments to re-entry. “Every step toward the goal of justice,” Thomas’s letter read, “requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle.”

In closing, he reminded the board members that “the justice system was built upon two premises.  One of punishment, the other…rehabilitation, but to nourish one half and starve the other” is to “commit judicial suicide…a death knell for the system itself.”

Barrier after Barrier
After the December board meeting, Odimgbe started meeting privately with DARE to try to address their concerns. And they have made progress. “I believe in these two young men,” Odimgbe said. “It would be difficult at this time to get them rehired at RIPTA, but I will put in a good word [for them] in a couple of other places.” He also claims that he and the board might revisit the program at some point in the future.

For DARE and its members, who fight against such discrimination on a daily basis, however, this after-the-fact sympathy is not enough. “It’s such a clear case,” Seaberry says, “of how society treats people with records as if they are just so fundamentally different and less worthy than those without.” For Seaberry, the underlying issues here are “criminalization, discrimination, and race.” Both Robertson and Thomas are black. “When folks finally get a break,” Seaberry added, “when someone wants to help them out, they still wind up facing barrier after barrier after barrier.”

Sam Adler-Bell '12.5 is a black eye for the whole state.