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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Layne Pavey is using her own experience as a felon to push ‘Ban the Box’ and give former prisoners a chance on the outside

Layne Pavey saw her life upended by a felony conviction, and then became a leading voice in persuading Spokane’s City Council to “ban the box” – preventing employers from asking about felony convictions. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The day after she was released from prison, Layne Pavey went to Target to buy makeup, where she encountered children for the first time in almost two years.

“I was so terrified the parents would know a felon was walking around, free, among their children,” Pavey said.

Should she make some kind of disclosure? Alert security? Leave?

“Am I even allowed to be here?” she wondered.

Among the challenges facing someone just released from prison, it was a relatively minor problem. But it was an example of how difficult it would be for her, and in how many unforeseen ways, to return to life after incarceration.

Pavey has made it her mission to help others make that transition. She formed a nonprofit that advocates for restorative justice and opportunities for the formerly incarcerated at the state and local level. She runs a series of seven “re-entry” homes around Spokane with two partners who are also formerly incarcerated people, and works as a counselor.

Her advocacy put a lot of wind in the sails of the efforts to “ban the box” in the city of Spokane, making it unlawful for employers to ask people about their criminal records on application forms. Employers still can ask and do background checks, but not until later in the process – which advocates say gives people an opportunity to at least make the case for a second chance. The county adopted the policy for its own employees this year as well.

Meanwhile, Pavey and her advocacy group, I Did The Time, is gearing up to travel to Olympia and lobby lawmakers on several policy proposals, including reforming the system of legal fees and fines that become a trap for low-level offenders. She and other people with felony records will tell their stories, humanize their predicaments, connect with policy makers as people.

“I find her to be an extremely passionate advocate for formerly incarcerated people, and also a pretty ferocious organizer,” said Councilman Breean Beggs, who has known Pavey through their work on Smart Justice issues. “She organizes people, gets them to Olympia, gets them to the City Council, and has them tell their stories.”

When it comes to making change for people on the margins, he said, it is those stories that tend to move policy makers.

That was something Pavey learned firsthand after her initial forays as a lobbyist in Olympia. It’s one thing to talk policy. But what really inspires change is a story.

And Pavey has a good one.

‘Who are you hurting?’

Pavey was born in Spokane, the oldest of three sisters. The family lived in Walla Walla and Clarkston before returning, and Pavey graduated from Lewis and Clark High in 2001.

Her father, Rick, owns Domino’s pizza franchises, and her mother, Zig, taught school. Rick was a standout catcher at Washington State University in the early 1980s, and family life was built around team sports. They were, Layne said, a typical, all-American family, their home the center for her friends’ social life, involved and well-known in the community.

Layne played softball and other sports and went on to play catcher for the softball team at Montana State University-Billings. After graduating with perfect grades in sociology and political science, she and her boyfriend stayed in Billings. She sold real estate and coached youth softball, while he worked in roofing. In 2008, when the market collapsed, they found themselves in desperate straits.

That, Pavey said, is what she used to rationalize what happened next. Her boyfriend started selling cocaine. She said that she considered it a temporary thing that would get them out of the hole, and that it was primarily her boyfriend who “ran the business part of it.” Still, she doesn’t try to evade her responsibility – even if she was peripheral, she was involved.

“I thought, ‘I’m staying out of it,’ ” she said. “But I was accepting the money from selling drugs to addicts.”

She had to consider: “What does it mean to be a drug dealer? Who are you hurting?”

She pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges as one of 10 people arrested in a drug-dealing prosecution, and was sentenced to 20 months in prison. She served the sentence in the women’s prison in Federal Way, and was released in 2012.

That was when she was introduced to the box.

‘It’s a brick ceiling’

Upon her release, Pavey moved to a halfway house in Spokane – and eventually into the basement of her parents’ South Hill home. She began looking for work, starting with positions in sales and customer services and eventually shifting her sights to food service jobs.

Every application included the box: the question about whether the applicant has a felony conviction. Pavey said she always checked it, and never heard back from an employer – except for once when the employer accidentally overlooked it.

“Our magna cum laude daughter, who had a 4.0 GPA, couldn’t get a job delivering pizza,” said Pavey’s mother, Zig Pavey. “It was shocking. Just shocking.”

Zig Pavey said that before her daughter’s experience, she would have been opposed to banning the box. But seeing what Layne went through in trying to put her life back together changed her perspective.

“I get it now,” she said. “I so get it now. … Every door slammed in her face.”

Layne Pavey began working on a master’s degree in social work at Eastern Washington University. A few years after her release, she learned that she could vote – she had never been told her voting rights were restored upon release and she always assumed she’d lost them, she said.

“I found out I was eligible to vote, and had been eligible to vote,” she said. “The whole time nobody had ever told me.”

This led her to consider other ways in which incarceration continues to affect millions of Americans even after their release. The barriers that prevent people from re-entering society are daunting, and Pavey began to see them as an unjust extension of people’s sentences growing from a system of justice that emphasizes punishment and incarceration over restoration.

“No matter how hard we try, there is a brick wall,” she said. “It’s not a glass ceiling, it’s a brick ceiling.”

She formed I Did the Time in 2014. She has been working toward earning an independent license as a counselor. Her criminal record may still be an obstacle for getting licensed, or contracting for counseling services with insurers, though she’s hopeful she can make that work.

She also runs the nonprofit Revive Re-entry Houses with partners Dom Felix and Bill Keizer. They have seven houses throughout Spokane – five for men and two for women – that provide shelter and other help for people after their release.

“I’m so, so proud of her,” Zig Pavey said. “She’s just extraordinary.”

And she has spent a lot of time in the corridors of power, lobbying lawmakers in Olympia, testifying at City Council meetings, serving on panels focused on criminal justice reform. She recognizes that, with a background of relative privilege, she has an advantage in getting the attention of leaders.

“I kind of have the power and the privilege to do that,” she said, “because I’m white, and I can persuade other white people.”

‘Thrown right in the pot’

It’s time for the house meeting at one of the men’s Revive Re-entry Homes. Pavey, Felix, Keizer and eight men sit around a living room. As the group settles in, Pavey picks up a book from the coffee table.

“Who’s reading ‘Co-Dependent No More?’” Pavey asks. “Are you really reading this? This is a beautiful book.”

The men talk about the problems of trying to establish a new life after prison. The struggles of trying to be sober without a place to live. The challenges of transportation and health care. Managing appointments with parole officers and drug tests. The brick wall of trying to find employment. The feeling of disapproval or illegitimacy.

“That list goes on and on and on,” Keizer said.

Nick Finley, a young man living at the house, said when he was discharged from the county jail without anywhere to go, “I almost knocked on the door and said ‘Let me back in.’ ”

At the Revive houses, the men get a safe, private place to live, help with juggling their responsibilities and appointments, and a chance to restart their lives. Some stay for months until they move on, some stay more or less permanently – and some don’t make it.

“These guys God sent to me,” said one man who asked not to be identified. “If they weren’t here, where else am I gonna go? When you get out of jail, you get thrown right in the pot.”

Felix said that the houses can be an important way to prevent instant failures by people who are released from prison without any kind of support.

“A lot of those guys are failing the same day they’re released,” he said. “I figured if we could help that person … get their basic needs met on day one, at least that kid wouldn’t be failing on day one because his basic needs haven’t been met.”

Pavey’s days are packed full with the various ways she tries to help meet those needs, including house meetings, counseling sessions, sitting down with legislators and running errands for her clients.

She also “coaches” the men in something that’s hard to teach: A sense of belonging, of legitimacy, of deserving their second chance. It’s part of the dynamic that traces back to that day in Target, when she wondered whether she, Layne Pavey, who had been an imprisoned felon, belonged there.

Even as she has completely redefined her life, even as people have forgiven her and praised her activism and service, that feeling remains.

“I would hope people would forgive me,” she said. “But I still have to wake up every morning and look at myself in the mirror and say I have the right to be free in this society, and the right to participate as a citizen.”