Today, Gary Antonino, a 61-year-old grandfather of two, works with special education students and adults with disabilities at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA).
But five years ago, his life was different.
He was a federal inmate.
Gary served seven years at Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution for a financial crime.“I’m not the type of person to hide from something I did wrong,” he says. “I should have known better.”
The Pittsburgh-native worked for an insurance company for 20 years before going into business for himself. He says it was during his entrepreneurial pursuit that he made mistakes and was later charged with financial fraud.
While in prison, it took six months for Gary to “stop feeling sorry for himself,” and take a closer look at the young men around him. Many were 25-30-year-olds incarcerated for low-level drug offenses with no prior job experience and “no hope for tomorrow.”
“I realized that the young men who were getting out had no idea how to get a job,” he recollects. “As they got closer to getting released, their fear grew about what they were going to do. So, I would sit with them and talk about their experiences, help them pull together a resume, and talk to them about how they should conduct themselves in an interview. I told them to tell the truth: ‘I made a mistake in my life, here is what the mistake was, and this is why you should still hire me.’”
He encouraged inmates without work history to emphasize the skills they did have and incorporate their work experience from prison—such as cooking.
These conversations led Gary to spend the next four years of his prison sentence developing a job-readiness program called, “Post-Release Employment.”
“What I did in federal prison was a stepping stone for the work I do now helping people,” he says. “I feel proud that dozens of returning citizens got hired because of my small part.”
When his own release date neared, Gary realized he would face challenges finding employment, as well.
“It doesn’t matter if you are in prison for a white-collar crime or drugs,” he explains. “If seven people are applying for a job, and they see I have a felony charge, why would they take a chance on me when these others don’t have a felony? So, my concern was ‘how can I get back into the job market and convince people to give me a chance?’”
He continued to prepare for the job application process after reporting to Volunteers of America Chesapeake’s Residential Re-Entry Center, which supports former offenders transitioning back into society.
“When my family and I pulled up in front of Volunteers of America Chesapeake, I looked at the place and had zero expectations, but I couldn’t believe I was so well-received.”
Gary says the experience helped him restart his life. VOAC staff also did something for him that he will never forget: just weeks after entering the program, they gave him clearance to attend his son’s out-of-state wedding.
He was soon hired for his current position with NCIA, which employs more second-chance workers than any other organization in Maryland. His job has allowed him to provide hope for underserved populations, including residents at the epicenter of the 2015 Baltimore riots. After the riots, he drove there in a pickup truck to distribute and collect 200 job applications.
Gary says there are not enough resources for returning citizens.
“In Baltimore City alone, 7,000 inmates are returning home this year,” he says. “When you look at those numbers, more resources like Volunteers of America Chesapeake are just not there.”
Employers play a role, he adds.
“If someone was incarcerated, you can’t put this label on them,” he says. “I think some of the best workers are people who were formally incarcerated because many of them know how important a job is and they recognize the job is their chance to prove themselves.
My experience being incarcerated was horrible for me and my family. It really is the family that suffers in these situations, not the individual. But it changed my life in a positive way and opened my eyes to the fact that things happen for a reason, and now I get the opportunity to help other people.”