After struggling with addiction, homelessness, and incarceration, Thomas Smith sought to turn a new page with his $9-an-hour gig pushing carts at a Wal-Mart in Albany, N.Y. But after three months on the job, Smith was fired, and many were left scratching their heads at the decision.
According to the Times Union, Smith, 52, was fired for “redeeming $2 worth of cans and bottles left behind in a shopping cart at the East Greenbush store for roughly an hour in an entryway next to redemption machines.”
"He was terminated for taking property inside the store," Wal-Mart spokesman Aaron Mullins told the Times Union. Under Wal-Mart policy, that action is on par with theft.
A Wal-Mart spokesman told The Washington Post that Smith was fired for redeeming bottles that had been submitted to the customer service desk by customers, making them store property. Bottles found in the parking lot and redeemed by Smith, he said, wouldn’t have violated store policy.
Smith was interrogated in the security office, eventually signing a statement admitting guilt, despite not having his glasses and being unable to read. Smith did not want to argue and potentially jeopardize his parole. Smith served a 15-year sentence for a 2002 armed robbery.
The pubic backlash against the Wal-Mart manager's decision was swift and broad. Some called for a boycott of the retail behemoth and others wrote to store officials; this all comes just days before Black Friday, when bargain discounts are used to buoy sales.
The silver lining? A GoFundMe campaign to support Smith has collected some 900 donations totaling nearly $20,000 by Monday morning, achieving about quadruple its goal in just three days.
It can be extremely difficult for the formerly incarcerated to reintegrate themselves into normal life. A 2014 study on recidivism by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that almost three-quarters of ex-convicts released in 2005 eventually became entwined with the criminal justice system again, and more than half were imprisoned once more.
And as a 2015 Congressional Research Service report notes, “Compared with the average American, ex-offenders are less educated, less likely to be gainfully employed, and more likely to have a history of mental illness or substance abuse—all of which have been shown to be risk factors for recidivism.”
Ex-offenders often have trouble finding employment, housing, and paying off debts typically incurred through their incarceration. Some former inmates have faced tens of thousands of dollars in fees due to so-called “pay-to-stay” policies. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that “10 million people owe more than $50 billion in debt resulting from their involvement in the criminal justice system.”
And as The Christian Science Monitor reported, President Obama announced this month that all federal agencies were banned from asking applicants about their criminal records as part of an initiative dubbed “ban the box.”