Coming Full Circle – In the Real World, Robin Hood Goes to Prison
The doors slammed with a deafening clang. The reverberation seemed to last forever. The echo faded. My anxiety increased: “I’m stuck here until somebody lets me out.”
My stay in Lancaster County Prison was short: seven hours a day. Five days a week. Two weeks. Locked behind clanging steel doors and in front of video cameras recording every move.
I was there to conduct the New Beginnings Program for people reentering the workforce, which is under the umbrella of the New Choices Career Development Program by the Lancaster County Career & Technology Center.
But I got to go home at the end of each day.
Tiffany Clough didn’t.
When Clough first arrived at LCP, she was scared. She worried if her nine- to 23-month stay would be like TV, or worse than TV?
First stop, which can last for hours: holding cell with other new inmates. Afterward they trade all their earthly belongings for a bin containing a set of “blues” (scrubs), a pair of Crocs, and a toothbrush and paste. When Clough spied picnic tables out the window, she thought, “At least we can go out to eat.”
In her cell a CO (corrections officer) gave her a food tray. The door slammed shut, and once the echo faded there was no sound. She sat next to her toilet and ate.
Nothing in Clough’s life would have pegged her as a future felon. While not idyllic, she had a happy childhood in a stable, middle-class family. She was a good student with dreams of Wall Street. Clough helped her dad in the family business and had no trauma bigger than being an only child.
“With no older siblings to lead the way, I had to figure things out on my own,” Clough said.
After earning a bachelor’s degree—with honors—in business management with a concentration in finance from Goldey-Beacom College, Clough got that job on Wall Street.
Five years of commuting via train wore her out, and she left for a job closer to home, eventually leading to a role as controller in an area business. It was there that this intelligent, accomplished professional began a road that led to prison.
Her move closer to home “is where my downfall started.” Her dad, with whom she was very close, got sick.
“When I knew he was going to die, I felt like my life was over,” Clough remembers. “He was always there for me, and now I knew he wouldn’t be. Almost overnight, a switch went on.”
Therapy helped post-prison Clough realize that her frustration of being unable to help her dad pulled her heartstrings, so when a customer was $400 short on a bill, she wanted to help. As the controller for a small lumber company, Clough had access to its funds.
“This person needs help,” she thought. “I’ll give them a loan. I’ll pay it back.”
She knew the potential consequences.
“I didn’t care. I absolutely knew I would get caught,” but she became addicted to stealing. Time passed and Clough continued “helping” others, knowing what she was doing was wrong, but she “made it right in my head.”
Over time she “began getting really sloppy. I began writing checks to myself, giving the money to people who needed help.”
She was totally convinced she could pay everything back, thinking the total was around $30,000.
It was over $184,000.
The day she was called down to her boss’s office, she was pretty sure what it was about. When he confronted her, he looked “disappointed, not angry.” She told him it was “exactly what it looks like.”
Police came, handcuffed her, and put her in their cruiser for the ride to the police station across the street.
“I felt relieved,” Clough recalls. “I didn’t have to look over my shoulder anymore.”
By the time Clough’s day in court arrived, the judge had received about 20 character references who shared the many—legal—ways Clough helped the community, including spearheading efforts to raise money for the family of Charlie Roberts, whose brutal murder of 10 girls in an Amish schoolhouse in 2006 and subsequent suicide left a wife and three young children alone.
Clough could have gone to state prison. Instead, in addition to paying the money back, the judge sentenced her to nine to 23 months in Lancaster County Prison, three months of house arrest, and 12 years of probation. He admonished her to “prove me right on this one.”
Thus Clough began a six-month stay at Lancaster County Prison, where the doors clang shut and reverberate for what feels like hours, and video cameras watch every move you make.
What’s it Really Like?
In the winter it is incredibly cold, and in summer it is swelteringly hot. Inmates wash their clothes in the sink and do a lot of sitting around. Food is high in carbohydrates and fat with few fresh fruits and vegetables. Many inmates gain weight.
Most of them work. Clough’s job was cleaning different parts of the prison for $1.50 an hour, earning about $7 every week. This went toward phone calls, toothpaste, other necessities, and treats from the commissary, if commissary privileges are earned.
Prisoners are allowed books and magazines, and there is a TV in the common area. Because nights go faster, inmates often stay up all night and sleep all day. Unless they participate in programming—AA, NA, or New Beginnings—there is nothing to do.
Going to prison wasn’t traumatic for only Clough. Her husband was left to deal with their small community’s response to Clough’s transgression and care for their 1-year-old son and Clough’s 6-year-old son from a former marriage.
Her husband had to answer questions about where Mommy was and why. They explained that she “did some wrong things and she’s getting help.”
Clough’s mother was also traumatized. Within a short period of time, she lost her husband and the daughter she thought she knew. Clough’s husband visited weekly; her mother refused to visit. She was very angry with Clough. (They have since restored their relationship.)
Though grateful to be home, Clough considered house arrest to be harder than jail.
“I was out but I couldn’t do anything,” Clough recalls. She was allowed out for church on Sundays and for meetings with her probation officer.
Clough avoided running into anyone she knew. “I was very, very, very embarrassed.”
Released in 2011, it has only been in the last couple of years that she stopped dodging people, making a conscious effort to go to the grocery store.
How to Get 3 Good Jobs When the Answer is “Yes”
“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” has been a standard question in many job applications, often used as a screening for any position: Say “yes,” and you are automatically out of the running. Lie, and, well, they’ll eventually find out. So how did Clough get three good jobs?
1. At the end of her jail sentence, Clough applied for a job where she was working while on work release. No response. On house arrest, she applied again and was granted an interview. The company was slow to return her follow-up calls, but she persisted and was eventually hired. They were willing to take a chance on her because she took full responsibility for her actions and didn’t act entitled to anything other than what she got.
2. After two years she needed something closer to home and got another job. They didn’t ask “the question” about convictions. Clough was instructed never to lie but never tell a company without their asking.
During the seven hours of interviews, they never asked. The closest they came was, “What’s one thing you regret doing?” She replied, “I’ve made very poor choices,” and they never probed further.
Offered the job without their knowing, seven months later they discovered a Lancaster newspaper article and confronted her, asking her to put herself in their shoes. They were “very gracious,” ultimately deciding she was a great worker whom they trusted completely.
3. Three years later when her son was ready for kindergarten, she needed more flexibility, leading to her current job where she has been for almost a year.
Determined to make something good come of her experience, Clough has worked hard to restore her reputation and continue to make positive contributions to the community. Success after prison “doesn’t happen overnight.” It took a lot of persistence and consistently being authentic, accountable, genuine, and purposeful.
“I don’t believe I was lucky. People know I am authentic. What I did? I do not plan to do again.”
Return to LCP
When she left prison, Clough was sure she would never return. But she did—as a graduation speaker for the career class referred to earlier in this article. She addressed the five graduates of the New Beginnings class as someone who has been in their shoes, wearing their “blues.”
She laid it right on the line: “You are responsible for you. You decide to do the right thing or not do the right thing. You have no excuses for poor decisions.”
Clough feels like she has come full circle. As she promised herself, she has worked hard to make good come of her poor decision. BW
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it is not legal to use a felony conviction as a rationale for eliminating a job candidate from consideration.
From the website:
Federal law does not prohibit employers from asking about your criminal history. But using criminal history information to make employment decisions may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (Title VII).
1. Title VII prohibits employers from treating people with criminal records differently because of their race, national origin, or another Title VII-protected characteristic (sex, disability, religion).
2. Title VII prohibits employers from using policies or practices that screen individuals based on criminal history information if:
They significantly disadvantage Title VII-protected individuals such as African-Americans and Hispanics; and they do not help the employer accurately decide if the person is likely to be a responsible, reliable, or safe employee.