William Perry wants to start a larger conversation on forgiveness

Since his August 2020 release from prison, Perry has struggled to find work in his chosen field, leading him to ask what it actually means to be 'rehabilitated'

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
William Perry photographed on Parsons Avenue

William Perry said he grew up struggling with anxiety, mood swings and low self-esteem, which often led him to seek the approval of others. “And I found the easiest people to fit in with were the drinkers and drug users,” Perry said in a January interview at an Olde Towne East coffee shop, “because at the end of the day they didn’t care who you were or about your personality. It was, ‘Let’s party together.’”

As a result, Perry, 36, started drinking at age 15, early in his tenure at Westerville-South High School, gradually progressing to harder drugs, including heroin, as he moved into his early 20s. “What started as a good time, all of a sudden it wasn’t,’” said Perry, whose father also struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism. “I remember the first couple of times I got sick, where I’d get these aches and pains to where I thought I was getting the flu, but then I’d get high and [the pains] would be gone. I realized pretty quickly those two things have way more to do with each other than I thought, and then it became, ‘How am I going to get enough of this daily to keep the sickness away?’”

Perry described his early 20s as a deeply solitary time, living largely cut off from his family, which kept him at arm’s length amid a series of addiction-driven misdeeds. He bounced from flophouse to flophouse, experiencing homelessness for long stretches on North High Street.

“Once you’re in [drug addiction], in order to alleviate yourself of the shame, or to not let the people you love down, you end up isolating, getting further and further from the people who might be able to help you out of it,” Perry said. “I’d have periods where I could get a job, and I’d hold it down for a second and use. And then I’d tell myself that if I can do it once, maybe I can always do it. … But that’s not how addiction works. It progressively destroys your life. And so I used up all the resources I had. I burned all of my bridges.”

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Amid this slide, Perry had frequent run-ins with law enforcement, racking up charges that included domestic violence, criminal trespassing, possession of drug-abuse instruments and petty theft, among others, until he was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglary and being in possession of a stolen car. In August 2012 Perry was admitted to Pickaway Correctional Institution, serving eight years before gaining early release in August 2020. 

While incarcerated, Perry earned his counseling certification in hopes of working with individuals in recovery. But since his release, he has struggled to find work in his chosen field, despite being forthcoming about his past misdeeds in the application process, and despite having served his time, all of which has made him begin to question the concept of rehabilitation.

“Every person, I don’t care who they are, walks out of those [prison] gates wearing a crappy sweatsuit and possessing a dream and the motivation to never go back there again,” said Perry, who has gone through multiple rounds of interviews with companies, only to be ghosted, his calls left unreturned. “There should be somebody with open arms there waiting to harness that energy. … Instead, it’s roadblock after roadblock. And I don’t know what a community welcoming people back with open arms looks like, but that’s why I’m asking: Do we, as a society, need to have a larger conversation on what forgiveness is?”

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Perry readily acknowledges that his situation is not unique, particularly amid a still-surging opioid crisis and an ongoing war on drugs that has helped to drive high incarceration rates for decades. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan policy institute, almost one in three adults in the United States has a criminal record. For those who have been incarcerated, the jobless rate has typically been much higher than the general population, with a March 2018 report by Brookings finding that 45 percent of those released from prison did not report any pay in the first calendar year following release. A July 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research and advocacy center focused on “the broader harm of mass criminalization,” estimated the unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated at 27 percent. “Higher,” researchers wrote, “than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.”

Perry entered into prison “angry at the world,” as he described it, feelings that intensified as he sweated his way through detox in his cell. Gradually, however, this anger began to lessen, particularly as Perry connected with Derek Hodge, a prison counselor and recovering addict who had been in and out of the system himself, experiences that helped create a natural bond between the two. “It was a process, and it probably took the first year to accept, OK, this is where I’m going to be," Perry said. "Then I could look around like, all right, what are my options?”

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At that point, Perry participated in a "therapeutic community" offered by the prison, which he described as “an intensive, yearlong rehabilitation,” after which he started taking courses in social work, eventually earning his counselor certification. (Perry has continued his studies at Sinclair Community College and plans to enroll at Ohio State in the fall.) He also helped create and launch This Must Be the Place, a nonprofit that aims to “harness the arts” to help in the fight against substance use disorder and behavioral disorders. Perry said the organization has partnered with domestic abuse shelters and rehabilitation centers to help establish reading programs, describing books as something that buoyed him through his recovery process, “helping me imagine something more” in those times when misery threatened to overwhelm. 

It’s these experiences Perry hopes to draw on once he finds steady employment in the recovery field, even as those same experiences make it more challenging to find work. “Relatability is something that you can’t teach in books: 'This person has been there and done that, and he knows fully what we’ve been through,'” Perry said. “It’s sad so many of us get locked out of doing that work of helping. … I’m disqualified from any expungement or sealing of record. That will never happen. So, this will be a conversation I’ll continue to have for the rest of my life.”

At the same time, Perry isn’t ready to fold, crediting the ongoing support of his girlfriend for helping him to navigate the emotional rollercoaster he’s lived for 18 months since his release.

“When I do have one of those huge letdowns, she tells me, ‘You know what, lay in bed, feel bad about yourself, and tomorrow morning get back at it,’” Perry said. “And that’s what I need to hear. It’s OK to feel bad. It’s OK to process things. But then you need to get back at it. And that’s exactly what I’ll keep doing.”