Amid all the talk in the Legislature this year about reforming Nebraska’s prison system, people who have been through that system are not always heard. But Willis Sanders is an exception. Sanders showed up at a hearing in the Capitol this year to talk about the challenges ex-felons have getting jobs. In a subsequent interview with NET, he talked about his background.
Spend a few hours talking to Sanders in his north Omaha home, and you’ll likely be impressed by his thoughtful, soft-spoken manner.
Look at some old newspaper clips from when he was arrested and sent to prison for robbery and attempted murder in the early 1980s, and you get a much different impression. Sanders, now 54, said growing up in Omaha, he and his five sisters and three brothers had everything they needed. But when he was 13 or 14, trouble surfaced.
“There was four guys that I hung out with. And we did things – started smoking cigarettes together, started smoking weed together and drinking, hanging out like that,” Sanders said.
Soon, he and his friends started stealing from stores, which led him to the Douglas County Youth Center. Then, auto theft sent him to the state youth center in Kearney. After that, burglary landed Sanders in the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
That was when he “crossed the threshold where everything really begins,” he said. Sanders spent three years in the Penitentiary.
“I’m 17, I’m doing whatever I want. I got a bad attitude, still. I think the world owes me something,” he recalled.
During his last six months in the Penitentiary, Sanders said, he was transferred to an area holding older inmates. “So I have a chance to listen to all the master plots and plans. So now I have a plan when I get out,” he said.
That “plan” was to get away with whatever he wanted to. Back in Omaha, Sanders got a job. But it didn’t take long for his sense of entitlement to lead him back to crime.
“I don’t have as much money as I think I should have. I don’t have anything that I feel I should have. So, I’m going to take it. And how do I do that? I use the plans and the plots that the big boys just gave me. I pick up the pistol, and I start doing robberies,” Sanders said.
Sanders was caught and pled guilty to four robberies. He was also convicted of attempted second-degree murder for shooting the owner of a bar during a robbery -- something he said he did not do. At age 20, he was sent back to the Penitentiary.
He spent the first few years rebelling any way he could. Then, he said, “One of the older guys who had his head on straight asked me why wasn’t I fighting my case. Why wasn’t I appealing it?”
Sanders said he figured his conviction was a “done deal.” But he tried writing an appeal, copying things verbatim out of a law book, challenging it. “I submitted it, they accepted it. I was dumbstruck,” he said. “I was invested and committed from that point forward.”
Sanders didn’t win his appeal, which was based on the bar owner originally not being able to pick him out of a lineup. But he spent the next two decades taking advantage of prison programs, studying business administration, spreadsheet applications and welding – courses no longer offered in Nebraska prisons.
He got out on parole in 2004, but in 2009, Sanders said he went back for technical violations, including a failed drug test, missing an appointment and not getting a certificate from a class.
That happens a fair amount. The Department of Correctional Services said from 2007 through 2010, it released about 2,000 prisoners a year. Of that, just over 25 percent were back in prison within three years.
In Sanders case, three years after he went back to prison, he was released again. He got out in June, 2012 and has "been climbing the hill ever since,” he said.
It is a fitful climb, filled with starts and stops. After one seasonal job ran out, Sanders recently got work selling cars in Council Bluffs. He said he understands why businesses are wary of someone like he used to be. But if ex-prisoners are expected to work after they’ve paid their debt to society, he said, businesses and the community need to react differently.
“I come to the front door with my application, and I am here to work. And I am rejected in sometimes not so subtle or polite terms. You can’t have it both ways,” he said.
Sanders said the Legislature is heading in the right direction considering more programs for people in prison and those just released. But he compared the proposals to a having a beautifully designed car.
“What’s key is the persons who can turn the gas pump on or not – the money,” he said. “If the persons who are responsible for funding these things, as has been the case all along, say, ‘beautiful idea, beautiful car. I bet it will run and just put everything else on the road to shame, but I’m not going to give you any gas money,’ then it just sits there, beautiful ‘til it rusts out,” he added.
In January, Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford introduced proposals including more mental health treatment and job training for inmates and housing programs for those just out of prison. Now, the proposal has been scaled back, along with the price tag.
How much “gas” is left in the tank to help people like Willis Sanders will be determined as the Legislature sorts through its priorities in the coming weeks.