Using ‘Prison As College,’ Michael Donovan Blossoms From Convict To Business Leader Changing The Bail Bonding Game
By Curtis Bunn
Verona, VA—Who is Michael Donovan and how has he, in three years, vaulted from ex-convict to the nation’s foremost advocate for the disenfranchised and immigrants?
He is a would-be lawyer from rural Virginia who said he did not encounter a black person until he was 14. Five years later, he found himself in jail. The two facts are connected only because in that time, he learned the power and possibility of redemption and moving beyond past mistakes.
It took seven months for Donovan to gain his freedom, but only after accepting a plea deal and conviction of six felony charges, including forgery and grand larceny for writing three bad checks that totaled $600.
That time incarcerated pained Donovan in profound ways, but also inspired him to create Libre Nexus, the national bond company that has revolutionized the industry in general and detained immigrates in particular.
“Jail was (my) college,” he said. “When I was in jail, almost everyone there was black. We all know that says something about the system. But I still have friends I made in jail. Everything we do is rooted in my jail experience. I could have worked with my dad at the mill. But this work. . . I’m on a mission to save the 19-year-old me.”
Donovan could not let go of the fact that he was locked up so long because neither he nor his family could pay the $5,000 bond,
“The system is encouraging jails to destroy people,” Donovan, 36, said. “It’s medieval, the significant increase in detainment. . . I’m committed to doing something about it.”
What his and partner Richard Moore’s company has done is bond out more than 12,500 people using their innovative, if not controversial, model that requires clients to wear a GPS tracking device on their ankle for $120 a week until the bond is paid off. The detractor have been many, but not nearly as many as those who are out of detainment instead of suffering in the harshness of incarceration.
“If Libre was around years ago, my brother would not have had to be deported to Mexico,” said Sergio Anselmo, a caseworker for Libre. “It would have been a better outcome for him. There’s a passion and compassion that comes from Michael and into the company. He wants to help people.”
If that sounds like an oversimplification, it likely is not. Libre was born and breathes from Donavon’s jail experience, which gained him empathy for those who often are incarcerated for minor offenses but have extended stays behind bars because they cannot afford to pay the bail set by the lawmakers.
“The system is set up for people to fail,” Donovan said. “We are creating a paradigm shift, especially on immigration release. . . We are the disruptors. . . And I’m extremely happy about that.”
An obvious sense of pride emanates as Donavan tells the stories of some of the client they have helped—a man seeking political asylum from Africa who had a death warrant because he was gay; another man who fled to America to avoid conviction and certain death because he had differing political views in Honduras, men in jail over minor traffic violations that compound via fines—and on and on.
“He comes to the office everyday with the idea that we are going to help someone get out of jail,” said Evan Ajin, Libre’s vice president, operations, who is from Guatemala. “I made a lot of stupid decisions when I was young. And I know that’s what happens with many of our clients. Having Libre to help them is very gratifying. And our job is to make sure we help them when they are free. Get them a ride, something to eat, job counseling. All that compassion comes from Michael.”
Of course, there are detractors of Libre, which employs more than 200 people in 20 locations across the country. They say it is making millions off of those who could not afford bail and taking advantage of a flawed immigration system that has court cases backed up for months. Donovan explains that the freedom his company provides allows the released the opportunity to reunite with families, to work and, ultimately, pay for the tracking device, as opposed to rotting in jail.
“Being in jail is not exactly a pleasant experience,” Donovan said. “It’s dehumanizing. Unless you experienced it, you don’t know. Once you’re in jail, you’re never out fully.
“Profit does not have to control the day,” he added. “The position is to never get greedy, to never make it about you. . . People on both sides (politically) are the problem. No one sees anything to gain by freeing people. They are encouraging jails to destroy people. We’re happy to help but horrified that we have to.”
Libre does more than help clients secure freedom. It has a pro bono legal defense firm that has contributed more than 100,000 hours or $5 million of work their cases. The company offers dramatically reducing housing options for felons.
Additionally, Donovan also is an ordained minister whose congregation often are inmates. And his messages are more about making it in life than and informing on what he calls a “government that depends on controlling people” than the teachings of The Bible, he said.
“If I could change my past (including jail), I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “It has made me who I am and my commitment to helping those who need help. Our model is smarter about how to make bail available. That’s it. That’s who we are and who I am.”