Man with a Past—And Now, a Future

At 8 years old, Michael Hiser cut class, drank whiskey, and smoked marijuana. Raised by a single mom who worked 16-hour days, he “ran wild” in the projects of Louisville, Kentucky. His teachers called him “stupid” and “lazy,” not realizing he struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia. At 13, a man befriended and molested him. Blaming himself for being too weak to resist, he took harder drugs to numb the pain.

Michael met his “future co-dependent” in a homeless kid named Chuck, who moved in with Michael and his mother. He and Chuck went on benders—drinking, doing drugs, and stealing to continue their drinking and doing drugs. They were in and out of jail for 20 years on various charges. In one five-month period, Michael racked up 53 felonies. “I wasn’t good at being a criminal,” he laughs. “I got caught too much.”

One afternoon, the police nabbed Michael for selling drugs at a strip club. They dragged him into a field and beat him, breaking a flashlight on his skull and causing him to black out. After 16 hours of surgery “to put my head back together,” Michael woke up in jail five days later—to an offer of 85 years in prison.

Since the jail allowed inmates to have only one book—the Bible—Michael asked his mother to have Brother Byron Jessup send him one. Using a makeshift pencil he fashioned from a plastic spoon, a piece of pencil lead, and a label from a stick of deodorant, Michael copied the words of Proverbs ten hours a day for eight months while awaiting trial. He did it to pass the time, not to understand the Scriptures, but people started to call him “Preacher” anyway—a nickname he despised for its association with televangelists.

Before trial started, Michael took a plea bargain that reduced his prison time to 15 years. It was one of the darkest moments of his life. But unbeknownst to him, God was using it to make him alive.

In Prison

During his first day “on the yard,” a young inmate asked him how to be saved. The Preacher had no idea what to say. Imagining how Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker might respond, he forced himself to cry, which only confused the young man. A prison ministry volunteer then approached them, quoting Ephesians 2:8–9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Michael felt broken and hopeless. God, whatever you’re going to do with this kid, do for me, he prayed. I don’t want to live this way anymore, even if I never get out.

Everything changed in that moment.Lightstock

Michael had no taste for cussing anymore. His Bible came alive, and he longed to read it. He offered Bible studies to his fellow inmates and shared the gospel. When an old charge came up that threatened to lengthen his prison term, “I was honest, even though it possibly meant dying in prison.” Turning it over to God, Michael says “it was a miracle” when the court allowed the new charges to run concurrent with his old ones, not adding a single day to his jail time.

After Prison

After serving four years on his 15-year sentence, Michael faced the parole board, who released him for good behavior. He desperately needed a job—not only to provide for himself and his family, but also to avoid returning to his old ways. Lack of employment is one of the main reasons 66 percent of ex-offenders are re-arrested, 50 percent re-convicted, and 20 percent re-incarcerated within three years of release. It’s hard to build a life without a job.

Lack of employment is one of the main reasons 66 percent of ex-offenders are re-arrested, 50 percent re-convicted, and 20 percent re-incarcerated within three years of release. It’s hard to build a life without a job.

But every job application asked a question that caused Michael to stumble: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor?” He had three choices: check the box and be honest, don’t check it and lie, or toss out the application.

For most ex-offenders, to check the box is to commit employment suicide, reducing the chances of getting an interview by at least 50 percent. “You can’t just go up to the gas station and put in an application,” Michael explains. “No one wants to hire a guy with 25 years of criminal offenses.”

The second choice—lying by not checking the box—wasn’t an option for him. First, his employer would find out the truth eventually. And second, now that he was a Christian, he longed to please God, not deceive men.

In most cases, Michael threw out the application, feeling frustrated and hopeless. If I could just get an interview, he thought, then I could explain how I’ve changed.

No matter how much he had changed, though, his past had not. Employers defined him by his worst moments.

No matter how much he had changed, though, his past had not. Employers defined him by his worst moments.

Ban the Box

Last month, Michael stood behind Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin as Bevin signed an executive order to “ban the box” from state employment applications. The policy aims to help the 18,000 men and women in Kentucky who leave prison each year, by preventing state employers from asking about criminal history until later in the application process. President Obama banned the box on federal-government employment applications in 2015 and, so far, 25 states and the District of Columbia—along with some private companies like Google and Facebook—have banned the box in some form, too.

Recent studies cast doubt on the effectiveness of such policies, however, suggesting they disproportionately hurt young, low-skilled minority men. How? If employers don’t have immediate access to an applicant’s criminal history, and they assume minorities are more likely to have been imprisoned, they look for other ways to discriminate, taking note of last names or addresses and neighborhoods.

These studies, though, say less about the policy itself and more about the hearts of employers. As The New York Times points out, “Policies often go astray when we try to change behavior while leaving the motive for that behavior unchanged.” Plus, the studies only compare what happens when individuals of different races submit applications; they don’t consider the thousands of instances when individuals, like Michael, toss them out. Ban-the-box policies encourage such individuals—regardless of race—to apply.

Ultimately, policymakers just want to give ex-offenders a fair chance. As Governor Bevin told me, “It’s the right thing to do. America was founded on principles of second chances, fresh starts, redemption, and mercy.” Seeing the same beauty in the gospel, he continued, “Not everyone shares my worldview, but my Christian faith informs and transcends my thinking. The Golden Rule [Matt. 7:12] is how we should treat one another.”

Hope Beyond the Past

Michael finally got a part-time job as a student worker at a technical college, enabling him to pay rent. When the property manager of his apartment building noticed him voluntarily cleaning up the grounds each day, he offered Michael a management role in exchange for discounted rent. After buying a truck, Michael used it to pick up scrap metal on his days off. “I usually have multiple jobs,” he says. “They don’t pay felons very well.”

Today, 10 years after he left prison, Michael still has several jobs. He is a family therapist at his own clinic and works at a medically assisted treatment facility that helps those addicted to heroin and other substances. He also volunteers his time helping ex-offenders rejoin society, and building a homeless center in his county. “I want to build my community so that my grandson has a place in it—not tempted by drugs and alcohol but captivated by God’s love and mercy for all people, no matter their past.”


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