by Sharon Rondeau
(Jun. 15, 2023) — In late April, Tennessee inmate Kristina Cole was paroled from a 13.5-year sentence imposed by Shelby County in 2017 as a result of a grant of clemency on the part of Gov. Bill Lee just before Christmas and an affirming vote in March by the Board of Parole.
Since that time, a widowed mother of three now-grown children, Cole has been striving to rebuild the life she lost over six years of incarceration, during which she maintained her innocence of two drug-related charges and filed numerous appeals, including her request for clemency.
Prior to her 2017 convictions for allegedly participating in a conspiracy to “possess” and “distribute” methamphetamine in a “drug free zone,” Cole had no criminal record.
On May 19, The Post & Email published Cole’s story in her own words in which she wrote that she not only was “deceived” by the individual who hatched the plan to deliver a drug-filled package to her home, but that she “also became a victim of the judicial process when as an upstanding citizen who had never been in trouble, each of my attorneys failed to protect my constitutional rights.”
In an initial interview following her April 25 release from West Tennessee State Penitentiary, she told us that although she was no longer behind prison walls, “I’m still fighting.”
Cole described her release as prompting “tears of joy” and a vast feeling of “relief” but at the same time engendering “tears of sadness” and fear of the unknown future which lay before her.
“I lost my home; I lost all my funds, so I’m really starting over from scratch,” she told us in early May. “So while there is an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude, there’s also the fear and nerves of thinking about having to start over. I have to just learn how to apply the same way I was in prison — one day at a time — and do it the same way at home.”
The day after our interview, Cole was scheduled to meet with her parole officer for the first time. She had already begun seeking employment and was fortunate enough to land a position with a company which had billed itself as “felony-friendly” at a TDOC job fair she attended in Jackson after her release. Elated at finding a job and beginning to formulate plans for the future, Cole said, her optimism was dashed when less than a week later the company informed her it had to terminate her.
“A couple days after I started working there,” Cole told us on Tuesday, “I got an email saying they were doing a background check which I know may be customary with how they do things normally. But with it having been at a TDOC job fair, they knew I had a criminal record, so I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is just routine.’ But then I got another email saying that the background check showed ‘negative’ information. Then I got another email saying that my record negatively impacted my eligibility to work there.”
“I worked all through the week and Saturday, and then Sunday night at 12:24 I got an email telling me that they apologized, but due to my record I could no longer work there,” she continued. “On the background report, although there were two charges, it looks like I have four different counts of ‘possessing with intent to sell.’ I don’t know if that’s how they looked at it or what, but I lost that job.”
She was paid for the week she worked, Cole told us.
Contacting her parole officer afterward, she was told it appeared the company is “OK with certain charges and certain ones they’re not.”
“Now I’m back to the drawing board of trying to find employment,” she said. “I met with my parole officer, who gave me a packet of other places I could apply to, but I’m so frustrated — I’ve tried so many places already. Of course, my résumé is constant up until 2017, but there’s nothing there since then. So I can understand they might ask, ‘What’s she been doing the last six years?’ I’m a convicted felon; I just got paroled on April 25th, so I can understand their reluctance about what I’ve been doing the last six years.”
“My parole officer — she’s very encouraging — said, ‘Don’t let that discourage you; that’s just this one.’ But this is one of the things I was really afraid of because I knew the challenges people face coming out of prison. When you’re in prison, they try to get you in a mindset of coming out and doing better so that you won’t come back, but when you get out in the free world and you’re trying to get a job, you can’t because they’re looking at your record.
“Before I went to jail,” she added, “getting a job like this would have been a snap, including a factory job, but now I can’t even work a factory job because of the felony convictions.”
At the time of our interview, Cole said she had “several” job leads she planned to explore. She thanked us for covering her story and promised to keep us updated on her progress.