Upon release from prison, ex-offenders often enter a world full of uncertainty. Where do you live? Where do you work? How do you survive?
Mario Bueno tries to help people find these answers. He is the co-founder of Luck Inc., a non-profit headquartered in Detroit helping ex-offenders get on their feet. Bueno joined Stateside's Lester Graham to talk about how he started doing this work.
Years behind bars
Bueno is no stranger to the state’s criminal justice system.
At 16, Bueno killed a man during an armed robbery drug deal. He was sentenced to 22 to 40 years for second-degree murder, eventually serving 19 years in 16 different adult prisons.
Three of those years were spent in solitary confinement.
During his incarceration, Bueno’s parents were his foundation. His mother sent him books, and his father offered to pay for his education while behind bars. At 17, Bueno enrolled in a few classes but said he was not yet ready to commit to his education.
“At 17 you can’t see the light at the end of 22 to 40 years,” Bueno said. “So little hurdles, like for example, getting the graph paper for my calculus class denied because they sold paper at the store was an excuse for me enough to throw those books in the garbage.”
A few years later, while locked in solitary, Bueno read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. He began to see the light at the end of his 22 to 40 years and told his father he was ready to take classes again.
Eventually, Bueno earned his associates degree in prison and began teaching classes to 17 to 25-year-olds on resolving internal conflict and challenging the paradigms of the criminal mind.
The start of Luck Inc.
Bueno was released from prison on January 22, 2014. He compares the experience of leaving prison after longterm imprisonment to that of a returning veteran.
“After 20 years, from the age of 16, I found a family — a brotherhood in there,” Bueno said. “Especially a brotherhood that was on the right path, because we were all trained mediators teaching the entire population how to resolve conflict.”
According to Bueno, the services that were offered to him when he was released were helpful, but they lacked resources. Bueno and other former inmates and mediators saw a void, and thought that they could help fill it. That's why every member of the Luck Inc. is an ex-offender.
Getting on the right track
Bueno and his team meet ex-offenders where they are at. If an individual does not have a GED, they start there.
“Its physics, it’s not philosophy,” Bueno said. “I need to see where they are at and get them in motion.”
According to Bueno, a new study found the two elements necessary for successful re-entry are strong familial support and an opportunity for employment.
“Most of these high-risk paroles do not have strong familial ties,” Bueno said. “With that being said, the culture in prison has conditioned them to look at every problem as a nail, unfortunately, and they are carrying the hammer. What we try to do is we try to transform the way they believe, the way they look at life.”
Finding employment for an ex-offender is also incredibly difficult. A study from the National Employment Law Project said 60 to 75 percent of ex-offenders remained unemployed up to a year after release. Since being released from prison four years ago, Bueno has stacked his resume with a B.S. in accounting from Wayne State University and work experience at the Michigan House of Representatives. Still, Bueno said he turned in 70 applications over a six-month period and couldn't get hired.
Luck Inc. now works to makes the employment process easier for other ex-offenders.
“We did not want those who were coming behind us to come to nothing,” Bueno said. “Because we understand that in order to safeguard the community, which is the mission of Luck Inc., we have to transform those dysfunctional paradigms, those belief systems.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry.