Experiencing the Colorado State Capitol for the first time can be overwhelming. When I walked into the building to advocate for better job opportunities for people like me who have returned from prison and saw what I imagined Wall Street was like: crowds of people in suits running to and from important meetings. I never experienced anything like it, and I certainly didn’t expect it to result in a job.

As a part of my affiliation with the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), the nation’s largest reentry organization, I was able to participate in the ACLU of Colorado’s Lobby Day in February where citizens met directly with legislators to voice their concerns. This experience helped me find the confidence to advocate for a better future for myself and others living with similar experiences.

Existing social stigma and punitive laws led me to believe the odds were stacked against me. Finding any kind of work after incarceration is difficult – 27 percent of people on parole in Colorado are unemployed. Finding a job among policymakers is next to impossible. But after a fateful meeting with legislative staff, I got the chance to do the impossible — and more people like me deserve that same chance.

During Colorado’s last legislative session, I worked as a legal aid representative for State Representative Junie Joseph’s office in Boulder. This position allowed me to provide Rep. Joseph with a first-hand perspective on important legislation as someone impacted by the criminal legal system. I helped conduct research and draft talking points for Rep. Joseph while she was busy on the floor.

Thousands of obstacles exist as collateral consequences from having a record, extending the sentences we serve past incarceration. People who were incarcerated often don’t qualify for government assistance programs and face a higher risk of homelessness. Nationally, nearly 60 percent of us are unemployed one year after leaving prison. As someone who is part of this demographic that is routinely excluded from participating in society, I felt empowered to be in a position to help support my community.

On my day at the statehouse, we sat and had lunch with various state representatives — though I didn’t realize it until nearly halfway through our meal. My perception of policymakers was one of awe, which I experienced from a distance. I learned that they are everyday people who also face employment struggles.

It was at that lunch that someone from Rep. Joseph’s office handed me her card and asked for my resume. When her office called me for an interview, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t real, but just a few weeks later I returned as an employee.

CEO helped me find my voice through their Participant Advocacy Council (PAC) program, which taught me the basics of advocacy and organizing including how to give testimonies before policymakers. The ACLU of Colorado channeled that voice to ensure my message reached the right people.

People who have been incarcerated should be afforded the same opportunities as me. In addition to hiring individuals with a record, legislators can remove policy barriers to employment, such as investing in reentry employment training, reforming lengthy and onerous parole terms, reducing fines and fees, and making it easier to obtain employment documents quickly upon release.

I’m grateful that Rep. Joseph’s office welcomed me to their team. It allowed my experience and perspective to help inform policy decisions. If more legislators did the same, we can chisel away at the obstacles people with past convictions face, craft policies that are informed by direct experience and ensure that our sentences truly end once we walk out of those prison gates.

Britt’ny Henderson, on the left, during the 2022-2023 legislative session.

Britt’ny Henderson served as a legal aide representative during the 2022-2023 session and plans to return to the State Capitol in the fall.