Jan 04 2007

The 'Trash 80' Transformation

How 16 kilobytes of memory, an external hard drive and dogged determination turned an ex-con into a techie.

Eli Sanders

When it comes to expanding his IT staff at Fast Water Heater, CIO Dwaine Casmey says he'd like to help someone like himself: an ex-con with a technology bent.

After years of abusing drugs, conning, mugging and armed robbery, Dwaine Casmey ended up at the Monroe Correctional Complex, a sprawling state prison located in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington state. He was 22 years old. He resigned himself to hard time, posed tough in the cafeteria and tried to befriend the right inmates — all the while looking forward to the end of his eight-year sentence. If anyone had told him then that one day he’d be earning six figures as the chief technology officer of a large West Coast water heater installation company, Casmey would have rolled his eyes or worse.

This was, after all, a time when Casmey’s typical outlook was: “I’ll spend the rest of my life incarcerated.”

Not long after arriving at Monroe, Casmey was assigned to a special classroom for inmates trying to get their GED, a high school diploma equivalent. He’d received his high school diploma years ago, while at MacLaren, an Oregon juvenile detention center. His assignment in this class was to track the other inmates’ grades and help them with their studies. As often happens in prison, one day something unusual occurred without any explanation: A computer arrived.

The Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80, known among computer enthusiasts as the “Trash 80,” had just 16 kilobytes of memory, all of them stored in the keyboard. This pre-floppy-disk computer’s external disk drive recorded data on cassette tapes.

There was no instruction manual. When Casmey turned it on and gamely typed in his name, the computer spit back “syntax error” in response. A short fuse combined with a need for power and control got Casmey into prison in the first place, and now this dumb machine was mocking him. “What do you mean syntax error?” he recalls thinking. “What’s wrong with my name?”

On the outside, Casmey once put a gun to a robbery victim’s head and said, “I’m gonna kill you.” But there, inside the prison’s double walls, metal gates and razor wire fences, he was beginning to realize that violence wasn’t going to get him anywhere. He decided to direct his creativity — once used to manipulate easy marks and elude capture — against the disrespecting computer. “I’ve been trying to beat that computer ever since,” he says.

That was 1982, and he had seven years left on his sentence.

Code Crunching

These days, Casmey is much calmer, more introspective and comfortably employed as the director of information technology for Fast Water Heater. The Kirkland, Wash., company does about $12 million annually in heater installations and repairs up and down the West Coast.

Beating that prison computer was, Casmey says, his salvation. “If it wasn’t for that, I just don’t think I’d be here.”

Using trial and error, and the advice of other inmates, Casmey taught himself basic programming on the TRS-80, a skill that he first used to build programs for tracking the inmates’ grades and attendance in their GED classes. After getting paroled two years early in 1986 for good behavior, Casmey turned his programming skills into a career. At Fast Water Heater, “the whole company sits on hundreds of thousands of lines of code that I wrote,” Casmey says.

His reversal of fortune is, in many ways, a lucky one. A 2005 Princeton University study showed that employers, even when they claim to be open to the idea, are reluctant to hire ex-cons. And numerous other studies confirm that a high percentage of ex-cons have difficulty finding meaningful employment after prison. Casmey beat the odds on these scores, owing in large part to the understanding and open-mindedness of his employer, who kept promoting him even after learning about his rough past.

He discovered faith and a profession behind prison walls — a profession for which he had aptitude and that he found challenging. He also beat the odds on a personal level: Neither he nor his family ever really expected he would turn his life around after a very, very bad start.

Born on Nov. 12, 1959, in Santa Ana, Calif., Dwaine Casmey didn’t stay in his birthplace long. He moved around a lot, and, by the age of 16, his family had arrived in Monmouth, Ore. His father, a former Marine, worked for the pipefitters’ union. His mother, a quietly religious woman, stayed at home to raise Casmey and his two older brothers.

According to Casmey and his parents, Casmey clashed with his father (and every other available authority figure) during his teens. “He was quite hostile toward us,” says his dad, Richard Earl Casmey, now 70. “He was very rebellious. He would get up in the middle of the night after we were asleep. He might come back the next day or that night or whatever. I don’t know what he was doing. And he wasn’t going to school. He would head that way, but then he wouldn’t go.”

Dwaine Casmey says his father, a large and imposing man now sick with cancer of the esophagus, stomach and lungs, was severely strict with him and his brothers, at times telling them they were “nothing” and making them reply back to him, “We’re nothing, sir.”

By his own account, Casmey suffered from extremely low self-esteem and destructive tendencies. He popped pills, drank and tried illegal drugs. His family was comfortably middle class, but whenever he saw money he would try to steal it — from a coach’s locker at school, from a teacher’s desk, from an honor system pay jar at a soda-pop machine. Paradoxically, he also earned money the legitimate way, working at an all-you-can-eat restaurant near his home. But that job didn’t last long.

Casmey washed dishes at the restaurant, and one Friday evening he noticed the 60-year-old cook’s open purse. The cook was not paying attention, so Casmey reached over and took some of her money. The restaurant manager was watching, however, and fired Casmey on the spot, later telling his parents what he’d done.

As a result, on April 16, 1976, Casmey’s father told him to pack some things and get in the family car along with his mother. “They took me down to the children’s services division,” Casmey recalls. “They told the case worker they felt like they couldn’t take care of me anymore, and they drove away.” He was 16.

Casmey bounced between group facilities for boys, short-term foster homes and juvenile hall, breaking the rules everywhere he went. In short order, he was sent to MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Ore., where he earned his high school diploma. Released at 18, he still couldn’t stay out of trouble.

“I had a look in my eyes then that if you tried to stop me, it just wasn’t going to be good,” he says. “Nobody ever tried to stop me. I just didn’t care.”

To feed a crystal methamphetamine problem, Casmey and two companions broke into a home wielding a handgun and demanded money. With money from the robbery, Casmey fled the scene. In one town, holding a club under his jacket, he’d ask passersby for directions. When they stopped to help him, he would hit them with the club and take their money. “Put it this way,” he says, “there’s nothing I haven’t done for a $10 bill.”

But there he stood one night, holding that club, when he suddenly reflected on his state: mean, heartless, vile and cold. Nothing like the innocent child he once had been. He walked to a nearby restaurant, sat down and ordered a turkey dinner, knowing it would be his last good meal in a while. Then, he told the manager to call the authorities.

“I said, ‘I committed an armed robbery in Seattle. Call the police. I’m done.’ ”

Telling His Tale

When he had been working for Fast Water Heater for some time, Casmey finally told this story to Jeff Jordan, his boss.

Jordan assumed he was going to hear that Casmey had been imprisoned for a “computer geek thing,” embezzlement or some kind of electronic fraud. “You know, white collar crime,” Jordan says. “When he told me it was armed robbery I was definitely set back a bit.”

Jordan found Casmey in 1994 while searching for someone to create an electronic scheduling board that could send information to his employees’ alphanumeric pagers.

After Casmey finished the scheduling board, “my wish list just kept growing,” Jordan recalls. “The more things I saw that he was capable of doing, it just got my mind spinning. He basically let my mind expand as to what I thought I could do with technology, and then he’d answer me as to whether he could or could not make it happen. And, in most cases, he could make it happen.”

Because Casmey was first hired on at Fast Water Heater as a contract worker, he hadn’t had to tangle with a job application that asked about his criminal history. Jordan says he’s not sure if he would have hired Casmey through a more traditional hiring process that brought up his criminal background early on. “I had known him long enough that I could definitely tell he was a changed person,” Jordan says. “I felt pretty confident that all that was a thing of the past. It’s kind of like the alcoholic who’s recognized who he was and can now talk about it freely. Same thing.”

Casmey is the only employee at Fast Water Heater with a criminal record, and not by accident. Fast Water Heater contracts with home improvement giants like Lowe’s and Home Depot to install water heaters for their customers, and those companies prohibit most of Fast Water Heater’s workers from having criminal records. But Casmey, exempt from the prohibition because he doesn’t do installation work, is currently in the market for a Web developer, someone motivated and good with a computer. And because of his background, when he thinks about what talent pool he’d like to hire from, his mind goes directly to the last prison he was in.

Help Wanted: Hiring Ex-cons

From a social perspective, the need to get ex-cons into meaningful employment is urgent and obvious: The fewer opportunities former criminals have to earn a legitimate living, the more likely they are to fall back into illegal habits.

Despite federal laws that prohibit employers from denying an applicant a job based solely on their criminal record, a 2005 Princeton University study found that although 60 percent of employers express a willingness to hire someone convicted of a drug crime, only 20 percent have granted such a person an interview.

“In the abstract, most people are open-minded and believe in the principle of a second chance,” says Devah Pager, an assistant professor of sociology at Princeton. “But the thought of employing a person with a criminal history is more of a risk than most employers are willing to take, particularly in a labor market where there are lots of options.”

It's not hard to figure out why. From a business perspective, hiring ex-cons is a thorny issue. On the one hand, these new hires often are among the most motivated employees, eager to prove to themselves and others that they can make it in the outside world. On the other hand, a company that gives an ex-con a second chance but doesn't do its due diligence during the hiring process may expose itself to a criminal negligence lawsuit if a violent or white-collar crime is committed down the road.

Do What’s Due

Carol R. Anderson, director of career development and placement for The New School's Management in Urban Policy Program, says an employer's first step when hiring an ex-con should be to understand both the crime in question and the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, which grew out of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (To read the guidelines, go to www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/convict1.html.)

The prohibition against denying someone employment based on a past criminal conviction contains exceptions, Anderson points out. An employer can consider the nature and gravity of a person’s offense, the time lapsed since conviction or release and the nature of the job being filled.

“Part of the due diligence is to make sure you’re not considering a bank robber to work with Brinks,” Anderson says. “You don’t put a child molester in a place where he has access to children. You’ve got to be smart about these things.”

The next step is similar to any typical hiring process: Get references. “They could have references even though they were in prison,” Anderson says. “They may have a prison chaplain who’s willing to give a reference; they may have a former employer; or they may have been in a training program while they were in prison.”