A car door slams shut. Giggling and drunk, two college students request a ride to their dorm building. Long hours and late nights-that’s what Paul Peterson, 38, has grown accustomed to since starting his job as an Uber driver last year. But it’s better than sitting in a jail cell, which is what he did for seven years before his release in 2013.
Peterson is one of millions of Americans with a criminal record. According to the U.S Department of Justice, 2.3 million Americans are currently behind bars.
Re-entering society after prison comes with a myriad of challenges. Ongoing legal battles and finding housing and work are among the most reported difficulties convicts face.
Peterson is one of the many ex-cons who struggled to find a job after prison.
“It was very difficult to find a job when I came home because I’m a convicted felon and a lot of people do background checks,” Peterson said.
Lately, politicians and mainstream entertainment put a spotlight on prison reform, which has contributed to a larger discussion of America’s justice system.
President Barack Obama visited a federal Oklahoma prison last month and discussed sentencing laws, rehabilitation programs and what can be done to create a smoother re-entry process.
“My hope is that if we can keep on looking at the evidence, keep on looking at the facts, figure out what works, that we can start making a change,” Obama said.
The popular Netflix television show,“Orange is the New Black,” is based on a memoir detailing one woman’s year-long stint in prison. The series became a spotlight for activism after Piper Kerman, author of the memoir, spoke out against job discrimination against ex-cons in an interview earlier this summer.
Time behind bars for conspiracy to distribute narcotics left Peterson, like Kerman, reeling to find steady work when he re-entered society, he said.
Uber gave him the second chance he needed.
“I feel like Uber gave me the chance to provide for my family right now,” Peterson said.
For seven years, Peterson bounced around federal prisons all over the country. He spent time in the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Fairton, N.J., the FCI in Ashland, Ky. and was released from the FCI in Cumberland, Md. in 2013.
Peterson spent the past year driving for Uber and rubbing elbows with the dregs and elite of the District. The time he spent dealing drugs served as practice, he said.
“[With] my background, I think I’m able to socialize and, like, basically deal with all walks of society,” he said. “The things that I did, as far as the drug selling, I sold drugs to the lowest forms to, there’s been times when I’m pretty sure the people I was selling drugs to could have been in the Senate or Congress.”
Peterson hopes to open a halfway house for ex-cons and publish a book. As far as advice, Peterson urged ex-cons to work the rehabilitation system in prison the best they can and create a plan.
“If you don’t have a support system it’s gonna be hard for you,” he said. “You need to come out here and do what you gotta do man, because eventually, you’re gonna be a grown old man dyin’ in prison.”
Produced by Jacquie Lee
Filmed by Dominick Mortarotti