Making the most of a second chance after nearly two decades in prison

Joseph Osorio was hired by Brooks Brothers in Garland shortly after his release

GARLAND —— Joseph Osorio hardly remembers a time when he wasn’t trying to see how things work. At age 6, he was already taking apart an old tube TV or dismantling his father’s air pistol.

“So yeah, I’ve been fixing things all my life.”

After nearly 20 years in prison, Osorio is trying to fix himself.

Osorio, now 55, was arrested in 1996 and convicted the next year for statutory rape of his 14-year-old stepdaughter. Osorio’s parents split up when he was a child, so he spent time growing up in both Indiana with his mother and New Jersey with his father. He joined the Army in 1979 and, other than a year-and-a-half stretch in the early ’80s, was in the military until 1997. It brought him to North Carolina where he was a warrant officer and worked as an electronic warfare intercept repairman.

His arrest and conviction ended his time in the military, but didn’t stop his fascination with seeing how things work. In 2003, he was hired by Correction Enterprises —— a state-run but self-sustaining entity that consists of 32 operations that employ inmates in everything from farm work to Braille transcribing — —to work in one of its sewing plants. Osorio started off sewing, but told his plant managers about his technical background and maintenance skills.

“Four months after I started sewing, they gave me a shot and they loved my work,” he said.

A couple of years before his scheduled release, Osorio started preparing himself for his reintroduction into society, keeping a book with all his personal information, from family to past employment and his health history.

“That was my preparation,” he said. “I also told myself that I didn’t care that I was in prison. So I came out with that attitude that I’m here to get a job, I’m here to get back into life. If you have a problem with that, that’s not my problem. That’s not me, and I kept moving forward.”

His supervisors at the sewing plant were very familiar with Osorio’s knack for fixing things. He altered multiple uniform patch sewing machines that would have cost at least $35,000 each to replace to do the work needed, saving tens of thousands of dollars.

When it came time for Osorio’s release just after Christmas 2015, his case manager had helped line up a job as a mechanic at Brooks Brothers’ sewing facility in Garland. Karen Brown, director of Correction Enterprises, said one of the biggest hurdles for released inmates is finding housing, especially for someone like Osorio who is a sex offender.

“It just so happened pieces fell in place for him,” Brown said. “Garland, N.C., a small town, is more amenable to someone like that than Wake County where every other house practically is a day care or something like that.”

Osorio said the key to his transition has been turning the other cheek.

“If I had never gone to prison, and somebody like me showed up here, I would probably be just like they were,” Osorio said of people who are wary of his past. “So I don’t take it personally and I don’t let it slow me down.”

Osorio doesn’t have family in North Carolina —— his mother is still in Indiana, however his father died in New Jersey a year before he was released —— but he’s made it his home.

“This place here, it accepted me in such a manner that it’d be hard to leave,” he said.

Osorio lives just a half-mile from the Brooks Brothers plant, starting off riding a bike to and from work and around town until he bought a 1998 Toyota Camry for $1,800.

Much like his co-workers and supervisors at the prison sewing plant, his peers and bosses at Brooks Brothers have taken notice of his hard work and ingenuity.

“He doesn’t drag around and let something last him all day,” said Landis Ammons, a production manager who has been at Brooks Brothers for 31 years. “He goes in there, he gets it done and he moves on to the next projects. And that’s just a super, super plus in the environment, in the business we’re in here.”

Osorio said he’d love to start his own hobby shop, where he could spend the day taking apart radio-controlled cars and planes. Until then, he’ll continue earning trust and responsibility at Brooks Brothers.

“I love fixing things,” he said. “It was good that I got a job that I’ve been appreciated for that.”

He’s not only appreciated, but accepted.

“I don’t know what he was incarcerated for, didn’t know how long he had been incarcerated,” Ammons said. “Everybody needs a second chance. I have no idea what he did … but I think he’s a great guy.”