In 2017, Philadelphia’s City Council declared June to be Reentry Awareness Month, meant to build support for individuals who have been released from prison and are therefore “reentering” society. This work from more than 100 organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition reflects part of “national efforts to raise awareness of reentry’s importance,” the mayor’s office announced.

Since then, the city and country have talked about reentry more and more. Last week in Pennsylvania, a bipartisan group of lawmakers took steps to make June a statewide “reentry month.” But, according to many people directly affected by these programs, “reentry” doesn’t tell the full story.

Here are perspectives from Media Justice Fellows — all of whom are living reentry — working with Philadelphia’s Reentry Think Tank to produce journalism that changes the narrative.

‘Recognize the fullness of our humanity’

I work for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY), a registered nonprofit dedicated to ending extreme sentencing for children. This job is personal for me: At 17 years old, as an unwitting accomplice to a 21-year-old, I participated in an unarmed robbery during which the target was shoved to the ground, suffering a fractured femur. Although the decedent was not shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned to death, he died of heart failure 18 days after the robbery. His preexisting heart condition was believed to have been aggravated by stress from the robbery and later surgery to repair his fracture.

Under the felony murder doctrine applied in Pennsylvania, a person who commits a felony offense (such as a robbery or burglary) is held liable for any unintentional or unforeseen deaths that occur as a result.

So at 17 years old I was charged, tried, and convicted for felony murder. I was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Despite numerous unsuccessful legal challenges to my conviction and sentence, it was not until the U.S. Supreme Court pushed back against imposing life-without-parole sentences for minors — calling it a form of cruel and unusual punishment — that I became eligible for resentencing. On July 27, 2017, I was resentenced to a term of 30-to-life, making me eligible for parole. And on Oct. 10, 2017, I walked out of the state Correctional Facility at Frackville, a nominally free man after having been incarcerated for 31 years.

Through my work and personal experience, I’ve come to believe the biggest misconceptions around reentry start with the word reentry itself — or at least the way the term gets used in the criminal justice system. Federal, state, and county corrections agencies, and their service providers, often use reentry to mean everything and nothing. That is to say, there is no standard definition for reentry beyond a rudimentary understanding of returning to society after incarceration. However, one set of metrics is frequently linked to “successful” reentry: no rearrests or reincarceration within three to five years. If we can hit that bar, then people working within the system celebrate it as success.

But that definition oversimplifies the issue, reducing it to corrections-speak. Measuring reentry as simply keeping individuals out of prison ignores whether or not those who have stayed out of prison have access to prosperity or sufficient supports that allow them to live with dignity. It ignores their quality of life. We need metrics that instead recognize the fullness of our humanity and of our value. Those of us working in this community often use the term transition instead of reentry, as in transitioning into a life of dignity, meaning, and purpose.

Abd'Allah Lateef (center) with others who had also received life sentences without parole for crimes committed as children. The group traveled from Philadelphia to Washington for an Incarcerated Children's Advocacy Network event.
XAVIER MCELRATH-BEY
Abd'Allah Lateef (center) with others who had also received life sentences without parole for crimes committed as children. The group traveled from Philadelphia to Washington for an Incarcerated Children's Advocacy Network event.

In a sense, I was transitioning into the fullness of my being for all 31 years I was incarcerated. However, since my official release in 2017, I, like many of my peers, still search for meaningful access to equity, opportunity, happiness, and prosperity. It seems our freedom is constantly marred by the indignities of age-old stereotypes, unfounded myths, and racist biases that distort our value as human beings.

I began helping others navigate these challenges just under a year ago, working with CFSY, a national organization based in D.C. I joined them full time last fall as their Pennsylvania coordinator. I see every day that Philadelphia is at the heart of this issue. We have 189 children across Pennsylvania who received life sentences and have since returned, and more than 140 of those people returned to Philadelphia specifically.

I’ve seen how this group, in particular, gets labeled as “juvenile lifers,” and how that labeling fails them. We’ve moved away from the language of “ex-convicts” and “ex-felons,” which is good, but introducing someone as “formerly incarcerated” still does not reflect the human beings behind the term. It “others” them as being unlike everyone else. That in itself creates disadvantages — making individuals feel dehumanized, and also making it harder for them to find meaningful jobs or affordable housing, to access higher education, or to deal with parole agents who monitor them when they are out of prison.

Working with children who have been confined, I encounter a perception of danger surrounding these youths. Some employers show apprehension about whether these folks are “truly reformed,” or what the fallout would be if they hired persons convicted of murder as part of second-chance initiatives. That stigma becomes very difficult to overcome.

One of the most important and immediate things we can do to push back against that stigma, and create opportunities for people in so-called reentry, is to bring these individuals into contact with policymakers who make decisions about their lives. Business owners, too, could use training to identify legitimate concerns in working with this group — such as the unpredictability of parole supervision requirements and how that may impact productivity, the likelihood of rearrest, or post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by incarceration. Those concerns must be separated from ones not based in fact, like the assumption that these youths are dangerous or incapable of adapting to life on the outside, or that they otherwise lack employable skills.

Likewise, nuanced media reporting can help reverse decades of sensationalized headlines that tended to demonize rather then humanize people who, in their past, committed acts of violence and harm that no longer define who they are. These efforts can help correct inaccurate assumptions about people who have been stigmatized, and redefine how we see “reentry.”

Abd’Allah Lateef is the Pennsylvania coordinator for the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, an outreach initiative of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and cofounder of the Redemption Project.

Joe Schwartz is a Media Justice Fellow reporting on criminal justice with Philadelphia's reentry think tank.
Joe Schwartz is a Media Justice Fellow reporting on criminal justice with Philadelphia's reentry think tank.

‘Seniors often go unnoticed’

What’s one thing you wish more people understood about reentry?

I went to prison at 50 and was released at 65. I imagined release as a panacea, anticipating pieces of a puzzle that fall into place as matter of course. That was naive. What I didn’t grasp, and what I’d like folks to understand, is that the challenges of reentry — work, home, family — are complicated by a loss of self that happens when you’re institutionalized. Because emotional and psychological scarring is rarely part of the narrative, a void in reentry services is trauma care.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your reentry experience?

One thing I grapple with frequently is how to best repackage my 25-year career as a pastry chef (from before incarceration) to suit my capabilities as a 65-year-old man. Long hours on my feet and hoisting 50-pound bags of flour are formidable challenges. But the bigger challenge is using my professional skills to serve a new view of my place in the world — being responsible to help those who may need the support I struggled to find while in prison.

You’re focusing your current research and work on senior reentry. Why?

Aging is difficult. Seniors are a population the public rarely considers as returning citizens. In prison, seniors often go unnoticed because older men and woman adjust more readily and therefore require less attention. Upon release, we continue to receive less attention. But it’s a problem because as older adults our needs aren’t necessarily met by cookie-cutter programs designed for our younger counterparts, like job placement programs that focus on entry-level jobs and ignore our past work history. We deserve more support.

Joe Schwartz is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia. He worked as a pastry chef before being incarcerated in federal prison at 50 and serving 14 years of a 20-year sentence. His sentence was commuted under President Barack Obama’s clemency initiative, and he was released in September 2018 after completing a residential drug treatment program.

Raymond Jordan, another Media Justice Fellow, was commuted from a life sentence by Gov. Wolf.
Raymond Jordan, another Media Justice Fellow, was commuted from a life sentence by Gov. Wolf.

‘I felt like a Martian’

What’s one thing you wish more people understood about reentry?

That you had a life before prison that you’re returning to. That’s why I use the term returning citizen instead of, say, person in reentry. I was commuted from a life sentence, but even if you’ve just done three years, five years, or if you’re been paroled — you are a returning citizen, because you were a citizen before incarceration.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your reentry experience?

The toll you carry from your years in prison doesn’t disappear when you leave. When you’re incarcerated, [officers] can tear down anything you’re wearing to search for contraband items; they regulate your phone calls describing you as an “inmate” calling from a “correctional institute”— you feel your humanity get stripped away every day that occurs. There comes a time when you don’t feel like you have it anymore. When I left prison, I felt like a Martian — like I really didn’t belong.

You’re focusing your current work on community centers, also known as “halfway houses," where many people live after incarceration. Why?

First off, it’s close to home — that’s where I live now. These centers widely provide the necessary services for transition. After you’ve spent three decades in prison, leaving is like, you take someone from an undeveloped country, drop that person off in the middle of New York City, and say: OK, just navigate the way native New Yorkers do. Community centers have to get people up to speed. Yet sometimes our options are minimal. Take employment — I got my associate’s in accounting in 1992, while in prison. By now the skills I’ve learned are as outdated as using an abacus to do math. What can community centers do to fill those gaps?

Raymond Jordan is an aspiring mentor wanting to share principle, character, and integrity with young men in communities that interact frequently with the criminal justice system.