(Photo by Tony Abraham)
Chris Catona used to spray down sewage for 14 cents an hour on the grounds of SCI Graterford.
It was a good gig, his first real one at the state prison, and a big step up from the scraps he could earn doing more general labor inside its walls. As he neared the end of his two-and-a-half-year sentence, all Catona wanted was work. He needed something to get his mind off the past decade he’s spent as a recidivist, detached from his family and addicted to heroin.
If focusing on the future that meant sliding into sanitation gear (a pair of rubber boots) and hosing down human shit in a state prison where Hepatitis C runs rampant, well, that would have to do.
Graterford was Catona’s first experience in a maximum security prison, and he was there for selling marijuana.
“Twenty-one pounds” of it, he said. “Plus a couple more at my house.”
A lot of weed. It was a non-violent drug offense, but it was far from his first. Catona spent the entirety of his 20s and 30s either getting high, selling drugs to get high or locked up in county jail. His turned 40 years old in Graterford, away from his family — those who would still talk to him. Catona’s relationship with his father was frayed, and he was desperate to mend it.
Enter Rob Rosa. Rosa was visiting Graterford with New Leash on Life‘s prison program, preparing a group of inmates for reentry by tasking them with training a rescue dog. These days, Rosa is the vice president of operations at the nonprofit. Back in 2006, Rosa was a lot like Catona — a Graterford inmate struggling with addiction and nearing the end of his sentence, completely unprepared for reentry and lacking job skills.
The program gave Rosa the skills, strength and support he needed to successfully reenter society. That’s what Catona wanted.
“Right after meeting him, I decided I wanted to do what he had done,” said Catona. “Whatever he tells me to do, I’m doing it by any means necessary. As long as it means I’m not coming back to prison again.”
So, Catona dropped the sewage hose and picked up a leash. Learning how to train dogs gave him purpose and a viable career path. Rosa became both his teacher and a vital part of his support system, and when Catona made parole in 2012, Rosa helped him secure an “externship” at an animal shelter.
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He set goals: He finished his externship, reconnected with his father and went to Animal Behavior College to become a certified dog trainer — all while holding down a 9-to-5 at Eastern State Penitentiary.
“That was the most important thing to me. I had never set a goal that I actually intended to accomplish,” he said. “I’ve never followed through on anything. I’ve started strong on a lot, but I never really finished anything.”
He was clean, he was out of prison and he was on the right track. And when he went for his first job interview as a certified dog trainer, he was promptly turned down after the employer brought up his record. The non-violent drug offense was overshadowed by more severe arrest non-convictions.
“Aggravated assaults, attempted murder,” said Catona. “That pops up for me. It’s not me and it never was me, but it’s on there.”
It wasn’t the first time Catona’s record prevented him from working, and he’s not alone. The exact unemployment rate among returning citizens is unclear, though a 2015 poll from the New York Times, CBS and the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests up to one-third of all unemployed individuals in the United States have criminal records.
Most of Catona’s life post-Graterford has been spent in that bracket.
And pre-Graterford. He once spent three months working as a caretaker for an elderly man with gout. Catona remembers having to scrub his feet. You’d think that level of intimacy would foster trust.
“He forgot to run my background when he hired me. A week later they called and didn’t want me back anymore,” he said. “They see a piece of paper and think I’m persona non grata.”
It wasn’t the last time, either. The animal shelterhe had externed with placed him on a three-month “trial” period where he’d demonstrate his ability to do the job before receiving benefits, a 401K and vacation days. Two weeks before completing the trial period, Catona’s father died. A week before the trial period ended, he was sacked.
“I knew I was let go because of who I was and because of what I look like on paper,” he said. “Inventory was coming up missing and they just didn’t trust me.”
Oddly enough, the shelter offered to write Catona a letter of recommendation, adding insult to injury. Catona has had employers lie about wanting to hire him and avoid contact with him after background checks. He’s been told by realtors he “isn’t the right fit” for certain neighborhoods.
“How many times can you take feeling like a loser? You know what it feels like, people offering you money out of pity? If I go out, I want to be able to buy my own coffee,” said Catona. “It’s embarrassing. I might not look like things affect me, but they affect me.”
It’s been nearly five years since he had a prison job spraying down sewage. Yet, somehow, the stench still lingers.
“There’s a reason why the prison guard says ‘See you when you get back,’ when you leave,” Rosa chimed in. “He’s not talking to you specifically.”
Catona leaned in. “Sixty-five to 70 percent of the time, he’s right.”-30-
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