In the late 1980s, Gary Wozniak was serving three years in federal prison. The former stockbroker was convicted for using the money of his clients to support his drug addiction.
As part of his sentencing, Wozniak forfeited his licenses to work in finance. After getting out of prison, the forfeiture and his criminal background prevented him from getting licensed in many other areas. And no private employer would give him a shot.
“When I got out of prison, I couldn’t even be hired to sweep a broom in a nursing home because of state regulations,” Wozniak said. That remains the case today, 30 years later.
For too many people, this story would follow a typical path. No job. No financial resources. Part-time or off-the-books employment. Perhaps a regression back to drugs and other illegal activity. Then back to prison.
But not for Wozniak. After being turned down for work again and again, he decided to go into business for himself. He worked briefly as an intake counselor for a Detroit-based drug treatment program before becoming one of the first franchisees for Jet’s Pizza. He eventually started seven different businesses and volunteered to help others in Detroit clean up their lives.
His business and community work eventually combined, and today he runs RecoveryPark. This latest business includes a 50-acre plot in the city of Detroit that grows crops for local restaurants. It’s part of his nonprofit that focuses on hiring people with challenging backgrounds — often those with special needs or a criminal background.
“Tomatoes don't care if you can't read or write,” he told Model D media. “They don't care if you're coming out of prison. They're basic skillsets you can teach anybody, and you get immediate feedback from growing.”
The business doesn’t just provide jobs; it’s revitalizing the neighborhood. Wozniak has worked to clean up blight in the area and put the land to more productive use. And there’s clearly a market for his services, as demand has continued to grow.
While he’s doing what he can in the private sector to help people get back on their feet, Wozniak believes lawmakers need to do more to help. In September 2018, he testified in support of a package of bills that would make it easier for those with criminal backgrounds to find work.
While businesses have been slowly embracing the idea of second chances, state government needs to do it as well. Wozniak knows the obstacles that a criminal background can put in front of citizens. That’s why he joined the Mackinac Center and other organizations in testifying in support of legislation to make it easier for people to find work and rehabilitate themselves.