Michigan ex-con helps others turn around lives
While other teens were preparing to take college entrance exams, Mario Bueno was behind bars for killing a drug dealer.
Just 16 at the time, Bueno’s descent into crime had begun at age 13 when he started selling drugs in Oakland County. He would spend nearly two decades in nine Michigan prisons, including three years in solitary confinement for misbehavior.
But he gradually reformed himself while incarcerated, studying toward a bachelor’s degree in accounting, which he finished at Wayne State University in 2016 after being released four years ago.
Now an accountant, husband and father, Bueno, 39, has made it his mission to help other former inmates stay out of prison and rebuild their lives.
He is co-founder and co-director of LUCK Inc., a nonprofit aimed at helping ex-convicts re-enter society, and last month released a book, “Reformed: Memoir of a Juvenile Killer,” that details how he turned himself around.
“All they need is a job,” said Bueno. “You gotta put something in their hands.”
Finding jobs and stable housing for newly released inmates is crucial as the state tries to reduce recidivism among the 10,000 Michigan convicts who are paroled each year.
Chris Trudell, who heads the Prisoner Reentry Program for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said the state has put more effort into aiding parolees since the program was started under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and it’s paying off.
Among parolees released in 2014, 28.1 percent returned to prison within three years, according to MDOC figures. That’s down from more than 45 percent two decades ago.
Michigan has allocated more than $14 million in fiscal year 2018 for community-based programs and other initiatives for parolees, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Trudell said all 83 of the state’s counties offer services to help ex-offenders find housing, employment and treatment for alcohol and drug abuse.
“To turn your life around you need a hand up,” Trudell said. “It takes a lot of good outcome.”
Many who work with newly released prisoners in Michigan say Bueno personifies the importance of reentry programs, and the value of having mentors for ex-convicts when they transition back into society.
Timothy Runyan, a state corrections officer and counselor who met Bueno when the author was incarcerated, says “it’s absolutely amazing” what Bueno has accomplished.
Runyan said Bueno and others like him can best relate to those who have been prisoners like themselves.
“They understand ’cause they’ve walked in their shoes,” Runyan said. “They can talk to them and say I have a (prison) number. I’m you and you can talk to me.”
Finding a job for ex-offender is a feat within itself, Bueno says. He said he was rejected for 50 jobs that he was more than qualified for because of his prison record.
Parolees who can find work, a home and emotional support in the first months after being released have the best chance to avoid going back to prison, Bueno said.
“If you make it to 12 months, you’ve got a good shot,” he said.
Family support and “meaningful” opportunities are important, said Bueno. Sadly, many parolees find a life of emptiness and a lack of family support when they leave prison.
“They live in trap houses,” he said. “The older ones go to (shelters).”
As Bueno found, ex-convicts also can struggle to persuade prospective employers to hire them.
Trudell said the state has partnered with some employers to hire ex-offenders who have been thoroughly screened to make sure they are suitable for the job.
MDOC helped 1,779 parolees in Wayne and Macomb counties find jobs from April to December 2017 through contracts with Health Management Systems of America and Macomb/St. Clair Michigan Works!
Finding jobs for ex-inmates benefits them as well as society, Trudell said.
“Less crimes, less victims,” he said. “This is hard work. (Ex-offenders) have to do a lot of work on their behalf.”
MDOC has an “Offender Success” program aimed at providing prisoners with education, employment skills and job training in high-demand fields to lead them to stable careers.
The training programs include the department’s Vocational Village, based at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia and the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson. Prisoners can be trained in automotive technology, welding, machinery, robotics, commercial truck driving and other trades.
Local companies like Suburban Trucking in Romulus are training and placing parolees in jobs through MDOC’s screening program.
Vern Fuller, a consultant for Suburban Trucking, said he has trained and placed about 30 parolees in trucking jobs in the past three months.
“There is a demand for more,” he said. “They’re making some of the best employees. Many of them realize they’ll never have this opportunity again.”
Hiring ex-convicts can be a win-win, Fuller added.
“The whole point is to keep them from going back to prison,” he said.