E.B. Jordan, Storyteller

“Felon. That’s a strong word,” observed E.B. Jordan, an ordained minister, president of her neighborhood block club, precinct delegate, bookkeeper and tax preparer and the founder of a Detroit-based nonprofit that helps women transition from prison back into the community.

E.B. Jordan defines herself by all those roles. But far too often, the only thing people wanted to see her as was a “felon.”

E.B. Jordan grew up in Detroit with plans for her life. After high school, she went to Ferris State University in Big Rapids to study culinary arts and hotel management. And it was back in Detroit, working in the food service industry, when her life went sideways.

Asked if she had one thing she could tell her younger self, she says without hesitation, “Do not quit the kitchen because you want to sell some weed on the doggone corner, because you’re going to end up in prison.”

But that is exactly what happened. Today, regulated recreational marijuana is legal in Michigan, but back in 2009, that was not the case. She found herself convicted of a felony and sentenced to 2 to 20 years in prison.

But E.B., who describes herself as strong-willed, had her own thoughts on the matter. “I looked around and I said, I am not going to give this place 20 years. I am going to give them my two and I am going to get out of here.”

To hear her talk about it, she treated her prison sentence like an opponent, and she went after it with a battle plan. She carefully considered all the things that the parole board would ask about when she came up for parole review and she started checking them off her list. Get a GED? She already had a high school diploma. Get some college credits? Already done. Get job skills? That is where she had to put her energy.

Given the option of learning auto repair, horticulture or building trades, E.B. opted to learn how to build and improve houses. She had a plan: the work she was learning in prison would be directly applicable to jobs she could take once she was released. In fact, some employers even partnered with the Michigan Department of Corrections, and she had faith that they would hire her once she was released.

After two years, she met with the parole board and told them about all she had learned and her plans. They approved her parole, and she went home to her mother’s house. E.B. thought her path was clear.

Then, she got a rude awakening.

Shortly after coming home, she applied for a job at one of the employers that had partnered with the prison job skills training program. Simply filling out the application was unnerving, she said. She found herself checking boxes she knew could be used to exclude her, as the application asked her to identify herself as Black, female and a “felon.”

Then came the bad news.

“They said, ‘Oh, you can’t have this job,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Why? I have been working for you for two years. … I was the top of my class. I know what you need. You do not need to train me.’ But they said ‘No, I am a felon.’ I said, ‘OK, I am a felon. But you could take all my labor for free from where I was, but you cannot pay me?” The situation struck her as inherently unjust, but she was not about to pity herself. “OK, cool.”

The situation replayed itself when she wanted to move out of her mother’s place and get an apartment.

“Three boxes. Color — one strike. Male or female — I do not think it matters to live somewhere. Felon. God-doggit, there goes that felon word again. I checked it but (they said) you cannot live here because you are a felon,” she said. Once again, she was indefatigable. “So, I took my felon self, and I started a nonprofit organization so I could get my own property management co and help felons coming out.”

That organization is Detroit-based S&D PJ Housing.

That was just the start. Next, she rehabilitated a boarded-up house in her neighborhood — a move that won her so much goodwill in her neighborhood that she became her block club’s president. She also saw the value in becoming politically active and working for policy reforms to help her community. She began going door-to-door to make sure other people who have been incarcerated or who have a criminal record are aware that they have the right to vote in Michigan. Her political activity led her to becoming a precinct delegate.

She has also been active with many Safe & Just Michigan efforts, such as supporting the passage of Clean Slate expungement expansion legislation and being part of a presentation during a day-long seminar on homelessness among formerly incarcerated people.

“At the end of the day, just because I’m a felon doesn’t mean I can’t live my life,” she said. “I am E.B. Jordan. I am a felon, and I am still a citizen.”

Though E.B. often uses the word “felon,” she’s keenly aware that words like that and “inmate” often carry an emotional punch and a social stigma. Many people in her situation bristle at the mention of those words. It is just one way that the criminal justice system dehumanizes the people within it.

For instance, corrections officers refer to people in prison by “calling you inmate and then saying your cell number,” she explained. “You know, once you go to prison, you lose your name — your given name and sometimes they will use your surname but other than that it’s ‘inmate’ and a number.”

In fact, that is where this project, From the Numbers, takes is name.

E.B. points out that behind every number and every person called “felon” is not just a name, but a person — a story, a family, a life, a soul.

“Hopefully, we can erase that word ‘felon’ and just be people,” she said.

Listen to E.B. tell her story here: