Second Chance Pays Off in Palm Beach
Driving Miss Daisy was in the theaters, the Berlin Wall was coming down, and phones still had cords when Talmedge Hayes disappeared from the world.
Just a teenager in the late ’80s, the fatherless youth had fallen in with criminals in his Tampa, Fla., housing project and was arrested for armed robbery. The sentence was severe: life without parole.
Hayes was one of many black teens discarded by the system, abandoned forever to prison, for a crime that might have gotten a white defendant a more lenient sentence. He could have let incarceration consume him and become just another bitter, violent inmate, racked with despair. Instead he chose a different path, one of self improvement and hope. He decided to learn a trade.
Hayes took to printing like he’d been born to it, eagerly training on a multitude of presses and bindery equipment. He did it even knowing he had no chance of parole; knowing he would never leave prison again.
But that’s not how things turned out for Talmedge Hayes.
Today, he’s in his fourth year as a press operator at the Palm Beach County Graphics Division, running the in-plant’s four-color press and turning out top-quality work. His positive attitude is an inspiration to customers and coworkers, not to mention to his boss, John D.L. Johnson, the man who gave him a second chance and has no regrets about doing it.
“Talmedge has been a real strong employee here in the shop,” he praises. “He keeps things going.”
But Hayes’ path from prison inmate to professional printer was not an easy one. Nor was his return to society, where things like the Internet, smartphones, and auto-flush toilets were suddenly sprung upon him.
“I just bought my first laptop earlier this year,” laughs Hayes, talking to IPI between jobs in his Greenacres, Fla., pressroom. He’s still trying to make sense of the Internet, and smartphones can be a little daunting.
“Four years later, I’m still trying to learn how to navigate a phone,” he admits.
With help from Abe Brown Ministries, though, he has adapted admirably to the modern world. He now plays a crucial role in the success of his in-plant.
Yet his success is a testament to both his own hard work and perseverance, and the willingness of an in-plant manager to give him a second chance — a chance he has not wasted.
“You have to have the mindset that I’m going to succeed and I’m never going back to that place,” Hayes emphasizes, “so I need to do everything I can possibly do to ensure that I’m being a productive member of society.”
Determined to Succeed
That mindset was in place from almost the moment Hayes set foot in prison in 1989. Eleven months after the gates locked behind him, he had earned his high school diploma. Despite his unalterable sentence, he still held out hope that he might get a second chance. He resisted the urge to fight, and looked for ways to better himself.
“Just because I was in that environment, doesn’t mean I need to be of that environment,” he says.
In 1995, while serving time at Cross City Correctional Institution, in northwest Florida, he learned about the vocational training program offered by Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE). Though he admits he initially saw it as just a way to earn some money to buy things from the commissary, Hayes quickly took to the work. He started by running a vinyl cutter, then learned to do hot foil stamping.
Three years later he was transferred to Sumter Correctional Institution, 60 miles west of Orlando, where PRIDE operated a large print shop. Hayes started in the bindery, learning the folding, stitching, and cutting equipment, and earning training certificates for each new skill. He was coached by another inmate to learn all he could so he would be more valuable to an employer if he ever got out. Still hopeful that would happen, Hayes took that advice to heart. He moved on to the presses and learned to run a 29˝ Miehle, a Sakurai Oliver 66, a Superweb, a four-color Didde VIP, and a five-color, 29˝ Heidelberg Speedmaster. All the while he collected training certificates and saved them in his cell. That would prove a very wise move.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses. Hayes learned about the decision and wrote to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), telling them about his sentence. With the EJI’s help, Hayes was resentenced in 2012 to 75 years plus five years. Finally, he had a chance.
In his years behind bars, Hayes had earned numerous credits for good behavior. Based on these and his years of commendable work in the PRIDE print shop, he was released from prison on April 1, 2016. His hopes for a second chance had been answered. But as he stepped out into a strange world of smartphones and SUVs, Hayes knew he had a tough, confusing road ahead of him. What would he do now?
John D.L. Johnson was the son of a Lutheran pastor and grew up with the belief that people are basically good, if you give them a chance. When he moved to Florida from Chico, Calif., in 2002 to take the job as manager of Palm Beach County’s Graphics Division, he brought with him that sense of fairness and trust. So when he learned the county was outsourcing some of its printing to PRIDE, he approached that organization with an open mind, and soon got to know the managers and even some of the inmates who were producing the county’s printing.
“I’d gotten to talk with a number of [inmates] about printing and also about themselves, and they were pretty much regular people — but they also knew printing,” he says. He even had the opportunity to visit the prison print shop in his county once.
“That was quite an experience,” he recalls.
In 2016, Johnson found himself in need of a press operator to run the in-plant’s two-color Shinohara. In addition to posting a help wanted ad (“I insisted we actually put it in the newspaper,” he says. “Printers read the newspaper.”), he also called his contacts at PRIDE to let them know about the opening. Hayes phoned him the next day to inquire about the position.
Dressed for Success
After his release, Hayes moved in with his sister, his mother having died while he was in prison. He enrolled in Abe Brown Ministries’ Ready4Work-Hillsborough program, which offered life coaching, employability training, and job placement assistance. In it, he had learned all about job interviews — something new to him — including the need to dress professionally. After receiving encouragement from Johnson on the phone, Hayes made the long drive across Florida for the interview in a rental car after getting his first driver’s license.
Though Johnson brought in eight candidates for the position, Hayes stood out from the others.
“He was the only person of the eight that showed up with a tie and a suit,” Johnson recalls. “He was there seriously looking for a job. He did really well.”
He was very polite and answered Johnson’s tough technical questions without hesitation. What’s more, Hayes had brought his stack of training certificates from prison, which he had saved for years while behind bars. That really impressed Johnson.
“It was like having a diploma from a trade school,” he says.
Hayes got the job. Just 89 days after his release, he started running the in-plant’s press.
Admirable Work Ethic
Johnson has been very impressed with Hayes’ work ethic and dedication.
“He’s always on time,” he praises. This was an especially challenging feat for Hayes in the beginning when, without a car, he had to ride two different buses on his hour-plus commute.
“He’s got a very good level-headedness,” continues Johnson. Rather than getting frustrated with problems, he says, Hayes calmly assesses them and finds a way to fix them. Johnson feels this stems from his time in prison, when he avoided altercations and kept his temper in check.
“He had a perfect record inside the prison,” Johnson remarks. “He didn’t get in trouble.”
He’s very meticulous in his work, Johnson adds, and eager to learn new things. When the in-plant installed a four-color, 14x20˝ Presstek 52DI digital offset press in 2018, Hayes took right to it.
“He’s been our lead pressman on that,” Johnson says.
Hayes handled most of the printing for a recent run of 675,000 COVID-19 safety flyers explaining the importance of wearing face masks and social distancing. This was mailed, along with four face masks, to all 658,995 residential addresses in the county.
Different Than Prison
Though Hayes’ years of experience in the PRIDE program prepared him for working in the in-plant, there were some things that caught him off guard when he started.
“We can lay tools out around here,” he notes.
In prison, it’s a different story. “A tool is a weapon,” he says. Inmates had to sign out tools, and if they were not returned, harsh punishments followed.
The in-plant’s facility is smaller than the prison shop, he observes, but his coworkers are nicer to work with. Management is not the iron fist he was used to in prison.
Despite being something of a fish out of water after spending 27 years away from society, Hayes has adjusted well to the in-plant and gets along with his coworkers.
“He’s got a very warm and open personality,” Johnson says. “He puts people at ease.”
For his part, Hayes is fond of paraphrasing Nelson Mandela to explain his positive attitude: “I need to learn to leave all the bitterness, anger, and hatred behind or I’ll still be in prison.”
He’s glad his coworkers treat him like a normal person rather than an ex-con.
“They accept me for who I am,” he says.
This isn’t always the case in his life, though. He urges people to be more accepting of someone in his situation.
“You’re looking at what I did, but why don’t you be concerned with what I’m going to do,” he advises.
He tries not to be bothered by the distrust of others, and looks to set a good example.
“Always do right,” he says. “It will gratify some and astonish the rest.”
Hayes sees his release from prison and the opportunity to work at the Palm Beach County Graphics Division as gifts from God, and he wants to show his appreciation of that by leading a good life. Johnson views it the same way.
“We’re both men of faith, and we both really look at this as a gift,” he affirms. “We have a responsibility to that gift to make sure that Talmedge is successful and that he can be an example to others.”
To help set that good example, Hayes tells his story to kids through groups like Inner City Innovators and Balanced Living Mentorship, which offer mentoring, community engagement, anti-violence workshops, and other initiatives aimed at breaking the cycles of violence plaguing black communities.
“If I could just bring a message to them about the mess that I had in my life, and turn my mess into a message, then hopefully that will inspire them to say … ‘I don’t want to live that life,’” he says.
A Brush With Fame
“It’s phenomenal that he’s been as successful as he has been,” says Johnson. “And now he’s in a movie.”
That’s right, a movie. As in a Hollywood film starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. The 2019 biographical drama Just Mercy, based on a memoir by Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the EJI, chronicles Stevenson’s efforts to appeal the murder conviction of death row inmate Walter McMillian in the early 1990s.
When Director Destin Daniel Cretton asked Stevenson if he wanted any of EJI’s past clients to appear in the film, he suggested Hayes, who readily agreed. Hayes traveled to Atlanta for the shoot, where he was given “five-star treatment.” He has a cameo in the film.
“That was a great experience,” he reflects.
Hayes’ success in the in-plant has so inspired Johnson that when the shop needed another press operator a year ago, he again opened the position to ex-inmates from the PRIDE program. He ended up hiring Sylvester Harris, who had actually helped train Hayes in prison.
Johnson urges fellow in-plant managers to take a chance on skilled former inmates, like he did. “Get involved with those organizations that are training these fellows,” he says. Once you are used to working with programs like PRIDE, he says, “then it becomes an easier decision for you to make.”
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