For the past fifteen years, Hawk Aavan Jonsson has been obsessed with becoming a firefighter. After graduating from a fire academy, he became a member of a volunteer firefighting team, began teaching, and was eventually promoted to chief of the department. He earned an EMT license and seventeen other first-responder certifications. A figurine of a firefighter helping a child sits next to his bed, as do a stack of firefighting equipment and textbooks. He lives across the street from a fire department. Even his girlfriend is a firefighter.
So, in 2006, when he made it to the last round in the notoriously competitive application process for the Oakland Fire Department, Jonsson thought he was finally achieving his dream. But it turned out that no amount of experience was going to be enough, because the only thing on his résumé that mattered was the small box: "prior felony conviction."
It didn't matter that Jonsson had been out of prison for fifteen years and had lived a straight life. He was turned down because of his criminal past, which continues to haunt him.
Since his release from prison in 1996, Jonsson says he has never been able to get a job that paid more than $23,000 a year. "Those positions always had a glass ceiling of pay and I was never able to get higher than I did at any one job," he said. "The stigma of my past is something that keeps holding me up, and I'm unable to do the things I want to do in my life, like have a family, children."
The forty-year-old Oakland resident is one of thousands of ex-convicts in California who struggle to find financial stability after incarceration. The problem is particularly magnified in Oakland, which has a large population of ex-felons and a high unemployment rate. The fact that even Jonsson can't catch a break, despite actively trying to succeed and not reoffending since being released, is indicative of how challenging the situation is.
"He was a great leader and great teacher to the other volunteers," said Jeffrey Matthews, chief of the Bloomfield Volunteer Fire Department and a former colleague of Jonsson's. "He's passionate about his work and he's passionate about turning his life around. They call it the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and Hawk Jonsson is this shining example of what prisoners can come out of prison like. Why they don't choose to use him as a success story just dumbfounds me."
Rejected by the Oakland Fire Department, Jonsson believes his last hope is to earn what's called a certificate of rehabilitation. Issued by a superior court judge, the document doesn't erase a person's record, but it declares them "rehabilitated."
No statistics are available on how attaining a certificate of rehabilitation improves one's employment odds or salary, but Jonsson is willing to try his luck. Even though the certificate's value is questionable, he doesn't know what else to do.
Jonsson was born in Oakland in 1969. He doesn't reveal much about his childhood other than the fact that he was raised by a mother he admires. His real father, however, was not in the picture, but an abusive stepfather was. Whatever happened at home led him to leave for Southern California after high school in 1988. He went to diving school, but with new freedom came partying. At first, he was only smoking marijuana. But one night he says he unknowingly used pot laced with cocaine.
Soon he was pawning every possession he could for the new, top priority in his life —crack cocaine. Then he ran out of everything he had. So he joined a group of people faced with the same addiction and ended up robbing two homes and pawning off the stolen goods. After serving two years in jail for the crime, he got out and this time got hooked on meth. In 1992, police eventually caught him on the street with the drug, strung out of his mind, as Jonsson recalls. For a moment, prosecutors threatened him with the three strikes law that could put him in prison for life, but then settled on a sentence of seven years, which was eventually reduced to four with good behavior.
His exposure to firefighting came while he was serving time. During his last year of prison, he battled a wildfire at Konocti Conservation Camp, a job training camp jointly operated by the California Department of Corrections and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was there that it became clear to him: Firefighting was his calling.
"That last year of incarceration changed everything for me," Jonsson recalled. "It gave me a whole new sense of purpose in my life that I'd never had before."
Since that time, Jonsson says he has become a completely different person. With the help of family and a Native American brotherhood, he explored some of the internal reasons why he started doing drugs. He saved money from minimum-wage jobs and student loans in order to attend college and a fire academy.
But life wasn't easy. Without a car, Jonsson was forced to bike as much as fifteen miles to and from work. In 2003, he was hit by a car and had to have surgery on both legs, as well as his shoulder and elbow.
Because he had no health insurance, Jonsson had to wait two years for those operations. In the meantime, he still had to rely on the only kind of transportation and form of physical rehabilitation he could afford — his bike. So he got back on it.