Kelvin Belton is a writer, father, and grandfather from Richmond. While incarcerated, he participated in a writing workshop run by VCU professor David Coogan. Kelvin contributed to the book, Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail, published in 2015.
For a lot of years, I wanted to leave this place. I got the feeling early on that there weren’t opportunities for me here. I always liked writing in school, but I didn’t know I was good at it. I wasn’t told what opportunities I could go after.
I was first locked up when I was 18. I got in a fight with my uncle. In jail, there was nothing to do but fight or watch TV or listen to the radio when they had one. So I used to write all the time.
One day I was asked, “Do you want to go to a writing class?” I said “Yeah, sure.” I really didn’t expect much from it. But I quickly saw that Dave Coogan wasn’t afraid to talk to us. He was real with us. He asked us all kinds of questions. I think Dave got lucky too, because he found a lot of guys who didn’t mind talking about what they were going through. I told Dave, “I’m going to write the truth.”
Writing helped me. It helped me reflect on what I had done and what I want to do. When I got into the program, a lot changed in my mind. If you write down your mistakes—the choices you've made—you’re not going to repeat them.
But you'll still experience stigma. I experience stigma every day.
One time, I applied to a job and they asked me to come in for an interview. The lady there was so nice. And the manager seemed excited to talk to me. A week later, that lady called and spoke to me like I was the worst person. She brought up my record from 15, 20 years ago. My thinking wasn’t right at that time, because I was always trying to take the easy way out. I’ve made mistakes. But she was judging me based on things that happened long ago.
The Governor may have banned the box so that job applications can't ask about past convictions, but employers can still do a background check. The stigma is just delayed. An employer can look up your record and legally fire you because of what they read there. For one job I had, my supervisors told me that I was the best worker they ever hired. Thirty days later, they fired me.
I have five kids and seven grandkids. The only one I don’t see is my younger son, who’s locked up. I pushed my son a lot when he was growing up and I always tried to be there for him. But he rebelled and ran away. Maybe I pushed too hard. He has two daughters and a son who are here in Richmond. They’re a big part of my reason to stay.
I’m good at dealing with kids. My grandson plays basketball, and I help out his team. The past few weeks, I’ve been getting up at 3:30am so I can get to a job. I work there from 5:00am until 1:30pm, and then three days a week I go to practice in the evening.
The kids on the team respect me. The parents see that I can help their kids, whether with sports or life. But because of my record, I can’t coach. I can’t sit on the bench; I sit behind the bench. But I don’t let it bother me. I don’t need a specific title. I would probably have to get Jesus’s signature to be able to get a job working at a daycare. That was always one of my dream jobs. And every child I work with gets better. I have patience for kids who have attitudes. I have less patience for adults.
What I’ve been through and how people perceive me keeps me from pursuing certain jobs. It shouldn’t be like that. But I’m going to start my own business. I want to be my own boss. And I want to build something that I can leave behind. I worry all the time about what opportunities my grandkids will have, so I want to leave something for them—a financial gain or a business. When I’m gone, I want them to say, “Granddad was a good guy. He changed himself. He cared about people.” My grandkids tell me, “You’re the best Granddad.” But I want to do more.
I know there’s nothing I can’t do. Everything takes time and money. If you want to achieve something, you have to earn it. And you have to be patient.
— interviewed January 12, 2016