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What It's Like to Visit the White House as an Ex-Con

President Obama's security detail still brands ex-cons—regardless of the nature of their crime or what they've been up to since—as suspect.

John Surico

John Surico

The White House in Washington, DC. Photo by Flickr user Robert Lyle Bolton

This piece was originally published on July 2.

When Daryl Atkinson arrived at the White House last June, he had a lot to be proud of.

In the nearly two decades since he'd been convicted on nonviolent drug charges and spent 40 months in prison, he'd built a reputation as a criminal justice reformer. He graduated law school, earning his license in two different states, and helped found the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance, a statewide organization that works to provide the formerly incarcerated with employment opportunities. Then he was hired as a staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a firm that works to negate the collateral consequences of mass incarceration in America.

For this work, Atkinson was invited to be honored as a "Champion of Change" by then Attorney General Eric Holder, who, at the June 30, 2014, ceremony, said Daryl "overcame his own involvement with the criminal justice system and has since worked to build a better future not only for himself—but for countless others who deserve a second chance."

But none of that mattered when Atkinson got to security at the most famous mansion in America.

"I was not given a lot of specific info," Atkinson later told me over the phone. "I was just told I couldn't proceed, or walk around the grounds, without an escort. That was it."

As part of visitors' check-in at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building near the White House, Atkinson was given a special pink badge that he says read "Appointment A, Escort," while everyone else received a green badge. As his colleagues entered the grounds to attend the ceremony honoring their work, Atkinson was told to stay back because of his past.

"It's a very sobering reminder that no matter what your accomplishments are in helping the formerly incarcerated, even yourself, with second chances and employment, you're still very much treated as a second-class citizen," he told me angrily. "It flies in the face of what the administration is trying to do in regards to the integration of the formerly incarcerated into society.

"And, I was invited!" he added.

Atkinson was singled out by the Secret Service as part of standard White House practice, according to interviews with recent visitors. Despite the Obama administration making strides on mandatory minimums and other federal criminal justice policies, the president's security operation still brands ex-cons who visit as suspect—regardless of what they've been up to lately.

In the early 1990s, Glenn Martin did time for a robbery charge in New York City. It was a traumatic experience that drove him to make reintegration his life's work upon release from prison. He hooked up with the Fortune Society, which helps former prisoners navigate society, and, more recently, founded JustLeadershipUSA, a criminal justice reform group.

In early June, Martin, along with other activists, was invited to the White House to discuss mass incarceration and law enforcement issues after meeting down the block at George Washington University Law School. The group of domestic policymakers and advocates headed to the Eisenhower Building for check-in before continuing the conversation inside the White House. Martin remembers walking with Paul Howard, the district attorney of Atlanta's Fulton County, when he was handed a pink badge and stopped by a Secret Service official he described as "menacing."

The agent was flanked by a huge German shepherd.

"He told me we were waiting here to find someone to come get me," Martin said. "I said, 'What do you mean?' Another colleague walked by and asked me what was wrong. I told him, 'I need an escort!' It was embarrassing."

Eventually, a White House staffer began to bring Martin upstairs before realizing he was not the person she was looking for. She escorted him to the meeting anyway upon discovering that he was invited. Everyone in the conference room was already seated when Martin arrived, and the discussion had begun. When it came time for him to speak, he chastised the officials for what he, like Atkinson, sees as a glaring problem.

"I used that experience as a learning moment and the context for the conversation," he told me later. "I said, 'I will sit here and have this discussion, but I'm gonna use my moment to talk about my experience downstairs.'

Of course, if any institution is going to have a strict visitors' policy, it's the place where the president of the free world lays his head at night. That's especially true given what's happened in the past year: An intruder hopped the gates on the North Lawn and made it in as deep as the East Room in September, and another managed to carry a suspicious package over the fence in April. As a new security precaution, the White House announced on Wednesday that sharp metal spikes will be temporarily placed on the fences until a permanent security plan is approved.

But Martin doesn't think the security risks warrant branding him and other reformed ex-cons as shady.

"You may ask, 'What's the big deal?'" Martin said. "But it's this idea that I'll do something again, while all of my work I've done, rebuilding my life and hoping to do the same with others, points to the opposite. Especially when I'm supposed to be their colleague and equal. It's a shame, too, that this happened in the highest office in the land."

An estimated 77.7 million Americans have some type of criminal record. That's a statistic that, in Martin's opinion, demonstrates how out of step the White House is with the realities of the American criminal justice system. The institutional barriers for those nearly 80 million people extend to all reaches of society, from employment to education.

In an open letter to President Obama on June 25, Martin wrote, "Along with millions of others, I have watched with tremendous pride and optimism as your administration has stated that our carceral policies are patently counterproductive. Further, those policies disproportionately target communities of color, running roughshod over our declared principles of justice, fairness, and proportionality in the process.

"I submit to you that the treatment I received as an invited White House guest, and by extension all others with prior convictions, further erodes the life of those principles," Martin continued. After posting the letter on Facebook, Martin told me he was taken aback by how many people responded with similar tales of special treatment at the White House.

On the White House tour webpage, there is no mention of the appointment screening process. Tour members are asked to submit their requests at least 21 days in advance. However, the people I interviewed for this story told me that this was a Secret Service policy affecting them, rather than something that came down from White House staff. (The White House declined to comment for this story.)

In an emailed statement, Brian Leary, a spokesperson for the Secret Service, told VICE, "Every visitor to the White House Complex undergoes a comprehensive security check prior to the scheduled visit. There are many considerations taken into account in making a final determination before allowing an individual access to the White House Complex. Every visitor is subjected to a thorough security screening procedure upon his/her arrival, prior to entering the White House Complex."

Strangely enough, some of the people Daryl Atkinson entered the White House with had also been incarcerated. But they were given a green badge and proceeded without an escort, leading Atkinson to question what it was about his past that stood out to officials. What had he done differently?

At least Atkinson and Martin made it inside.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Vicki Lopez, a criminal justice and government consultant, was excited about his administration and the boost it might offer to prisoner-reentry programs across the nation. This was the first black president, one with an extensive history of community organizing in the South Side of Chicago, she thought.

"The White House should have signs that say, 'Formerly incarcerated, not invited.'" —Vicki Lopez

But when Lopez, who served a year in federal prison for bribery after a 1997 conviction, and Julio Medina—a convicted drug dealer turned reentry advocate honored by George W. Bush in his 2004 State of the Union speech—visited the White House in 2009, their pasts came back to haunt them.

After arranging a meeting with several agencies, Lopez and Medina were held back at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building by Secret Service for half an hour, without any indication as to why, Lopez told me. She said at the time to Medina, "Julio, I bet this has something to do with our records." Medina, she said, was shocked, and then angry. "I told him to stay calm," she said. "That we just came to say what we need to say."

Soon enough, an Obama administration official arrived, but with no pink badge in sight. She escorted Medina and Lopez across the street to a White House satellite office, where the meeting was held. It didn't take long for Medina to say something. "He told her, 'Listen, let's talk about why we're here,'" Lopez recounted. "'I've been in the Oval Office before. Going across the street to talk feels a lot like getting put at the back of the bus.'"

Lopez said the same thing happened in early 2010. This time, though, a White House official brought her to a nearby coffee shop. Again in 2012, even after her crime was formally vacated by a Florida court, Lopez was escorted to another White House meeting off the mansion's grounds, she told me.

"It's very sad, and very egregious. And I don't think the administration is cognizant of what it does to our lives," Lopez said. "Of all the administrations, too, this is the last one I'd expect to let this happen."

When Lopez read Martin's letter to the president on Facebook, she said it "awoke something in her psyche" that she hadn't thought about in years. And now, as the president seems to be dedicating his last months in office to the intertwined issues of race and criminal justice, she believes awareness of how the Secret Service treats the formerly incarcerated is more important than ever.

"The White House should have signs that say, 'Formerly incarcerated, not invited,'" she said. "What are their expectations of us? You just shake your head and wonder."

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