On a crisp Sunday morning in St. Paul, Randy Anderson stands atop metal bleachers at Concordia University, overlooking a track and a couple hundred people decked out in running gear, telling the story of when he hit rock bottom.
He talks about how his drug habit got so bad he started selling to support it; how a team of drug enforcement agents raided his home in 2004; how he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
“I can’t believe our country incarcerates someone for so long with no consideration for the positive changes made in one’s life,” he says. “I couldn’t help but ask myself, ‘Why me?’ ”
Anderson was among the more than 200 who participated in a 5-kilometer run at Concordia, hosted by Prison Fellowship, a national faith-based organization that specializes in second chances. More than 500 more inmates also ran Sunday on the grounds of prisons in Lino Lakes, Stillwater and Shakopee.
The purpose of the event, the group says, is to help show the community that many people do change in prison, and despite past transgressions, still have something to offer society.
Unlike many similar stories, Anderson’s has a happy ending. He got sober. He got out of prison in 2009. He got into college. He works as a drug counselor in the same treatment center that first helped him get clean.
But Anderson believes the path to redemption is unduly burdensome for felons like him in Minnesota. He says he was at one point temporarily disqualified from drug counseling because of his past, even though he’s been clean for more than a decade. He’s also been denied housing and insurance.
“I often wonder what will be the next legal obstacle,” he says.
Over the past five years, the Department of Corrections has released more than 40,000 prisoners. Even though they’ve paid, or continue to pay, their debts to society, many still face a difficult path in finding a job, renting an apartment or from the stigma that accompanies being a felon. Some call this a “second prison,” or — because of the tens of thousands of legal restrictions they continue to incur after incarceration — a form of “civil death.”
“There are always gonna be those people who are going to game you, scam you, try to get over on you. They’re never going to change,” said Casey Irwin, who served prison time for bank fraud and now volunteers and helps others through Prison Fellowship. “But then there are the people who are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And they should be afforded a second chance.”
Redemption of Brady Irons
Also among the scrum was Brady Irons, who was released from Minnesota Correctional Facility-Lino Lakes in 2014 after serving four years for a meth conviction.
Irons, 40, has been to prison three times. And though his rap sheet includes such offenses as identity theft, he says a reckless meth addiction drove his crimes.
Irons tried getting help after his first sentence, he said, “but it just wasn’t the right time.”
“I don’t know if I hadn’t lost enough — I hadn’t experienced enough pain and suffering in my life at the point that I went through it — but it just wasn’t the right season for me,” Irons said. “And, sadly, it would take many more years of falling on myself and going in and out of the system.”
He finally made a change while serving a stretch in Lino Lakes beginning in 2010. Irons said he was surprised to see so many addiction treatment services offered at the prison. He’s now been clean for going on seven years.
While at Lino, Irons got involved with a religious program then called InnerChange Freedom Initiative, operated by Prison Fellowship, which teaches willing prisoners values of living in a community and being part of a family. Irons said he even met Charles Colson in prison, the former counsel to President Richard Nixon who founded Prison Fellowship.
Despite his reformation, Irons said he found little sympathy from potential employers once he got out. Some offered him jobs and rescinded after a background check, even though he’d divulged his criminal past during the interviews. The best work he could find was moving around Smart cars and seasonal landscaping.
“I understand, if you robbed a bank, it’s probably not a good idea to let this guy go work in a bank. I get that,” said Irons. “But where do you draw the line?”
Nearly a year ago, someone finally took a chance on him. He now works in the corporate office of a cooler manufacturer in Plymouth.
Irons considers himself one of the lucky ones, knowing many never catch a break and turn back to crime.
“There are people who have walked the same path that I’ve walked, and they get out and get the same doors slammed in their face,” he said. “And I tell ya, a slightly less established person is going to go back [to prison] ... And that’s sad.”
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036