By Frank Cerabino
The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
Ten questions for former Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty, who recently started a Delray Beach-based consulting business billed as “compassionate coaching for incarceration preparedness.”
Four years ago, McCarty completed 21 months in federal prison for steering bond-underwriting business to her husband and for accepting discounted hotel rooms from a company trying to land the contract for the hotel at the Palm Beach County Convention Center.
Q — Was your decision to start a business out of your prison experience a case of making lemonade out of lemons, or is it because you had to search for a way to find gainful employment when more traditional means were no longer available?
A — It is something that I decided to do and planned for while I was “away.” I have a business that I hope no one needs, but there seems to be an endless supply of people that find themselves entangled with the federal justice system.
Q — Being a white, highly educated woman doesn’t make you a typical federal prisoner. What is it about your prison experience that is universal and relevant to people who may be from very different backgrounds?
A — It is universal to all prisoners that: Losing one’s freedom is traumatic and awful. Feeling left out and alienated from your family and social circle is tough to adjust to. It is frightening to consider how you will be treated when you return and how to once again restart your life.
Q — Was there a particular moment when it dawned on you that you had a viable business idea?
A — I was amazed as I went through the justice system how little I knew about it and that the fear of the unknown is overwhelming. As I helped fellow inmates deal with their new environment when they arrived, it became apparent to me that first time offenders could use help prior to going to prison.
Q — If you had the advantage of having your own incarceration coach, what valuable piece of advice would you have gotten that would have spared you of some mistake you made?
A — Be a sheep. Never be the only one or the first one to do anything. If no one is in the common areas, stay away. If no one is outside, don’t go outside.
Since I was used to leading, sometimes I would find myself being the only one in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had to learn to hang back and follow the lead of other more experienced inmates.
Q — Have you seen the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” a fictionalized account of life inside a federal women’s prison? If so, what does the show get right or wrong?
A — Yes, I have watched “Orange is the New Black.” It portrays the basics of the experience very accurately. It is just an exaggeration of what happens in some of the story lines.
I particularly like the flashbacks because it shows the inmates in their normal lives and the circumstances surrounding their incarceration. It is true that in most cases the inmates self-segregate according to race and ethnicity.
The guards in real prison are very disengaged for the most part. They treat the inmates like cattle being herded from one thing to the next. They are pretty cold and uncaring, unlike most of the staff on the show.
Q — If Mary McCarty became a consultant for the new season of “Orange is the New Black,” what story line would you like to see?
A — I would like a story line of an elected official coming to prison.
Q — Have you made an attempt to restore your voting rights?
A — No, I am not eligible to apply for six more years.
Q — Has your experience changed the way you think on this issue?
A — Yes. Florida is one of the toughest in the nation in this area. I think it is too tough because, along with voting rights, it is the rights to get certain licensing to be employed.
If we are serious about reducing recidivism, we need to allow people to be hairdressers, manicurists, barbers and other occupations that require a license.
It is frustrating for an inmate to take a class and learn a skill while in prison, only to learn that they are unable to get a license to do that job when they are released from prison. While voting is an important issue, the most important issue is restoring the rights that allow for people to work an honest job.
Q — Your service offers clients assistance in finding employment after leaving prison. Is it fair that job applicants be asked at the outset of the interview process to disclose their criminal records?
A — I am in favor of banning the box on applications that require one check the box if they are a felon. I support allowing someone to apply and if they get the interview, they can be asked if they are a felon, and at that time the applicant can offer a full explanation about their situation to the employer. I certainly support employers doing background checks, as well.
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But if one checks the box, it is almost certain they will not get an interview.
Q — Now that you’ve done your time, do you envision a return to some form of public service?
A — Not elected public service. But I want to be an advocate who helps to reduce barriers for felons, so they have a chance at living productive lives.