Ex-drug dealers turn their lives around at ShopRite, but what about the misery they caused on the street?
No doubt Jeffrey Brown, the chief executive of Brown's Super Stores Inc., a chain of 13 ShopRite and Fresh Grocer supermarkets, deserves praise for hiring people released from prison. It helps them and it helps Brown's business, because the ex-drug dealers, in particular, have real retail expertise.
But what about the drug dealers' victims?
What about John Panizza's brother? "The message in your article disgusts me," Panizza wrote in an angry email that described his heartbreaking struggles to help his drug-addicted brother.
"Shame on you."
That's how some readers reacted to articles that ran earlier in March in the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com. The stories described how three former drug dealers, Louis Rivera, Anthony Jackson, and Carlos "Omar" Alvarez Carrion, transferred the skills that made them successful as drug dealers to leadership at Brown's supermarkets.
What was missing, some readers wrote, was remorse and compassion for the addicted victims of drug dealers.
So, how do people like former drug dealer Carrion, 36, now at ShopRite, handle the shame of what they've done to people like Panizza's brother?
"All the mistakes I did, all the people I harmed, I feel really bad," said Carrion, who sells seafood at the Haverford Avenue ShopRite in Philadelphia. "I'm living it."
Family members are in prison for dealing drugs; others are addicts. He sees former customers on the streets of North Philadelphia, where he still lives with his wife and three children. "One lady, she's old enough to be my mom's mom, and she's addicted. I feel bad. I feel sorry for her."
Panizza, of Downingtown, particularly reacted to the story of Louis Rivera, now an assistant manager at ShopRite's East Norriton store. Rivera, 40, had a big business selling drugs in Lancaster, went to prison, and came out determined to turn his life around.
"So Mr. Rivera was a successful drug dealer who saved his money? Would you please ask Mr. Rivera to reimburse me for the money I spent helping my brother in his many attempts to rid himself of the poison Mr. Rivera sold? Maybe he can help me with the funeral expenses I incurred when I buried my brother who died at the hands of drug dealers like him?"
And from another reader:
"On the one hand I like the idea of hiring ex-cons. I think it is important to give these folks a second chance in life," wrote Jim Taylor, from Bensalem.
"However, the remarks by CEO Jeff Brown about how drug dealers make savvy business people are disturbing," he continued. "Not even mentioning in your column that drug dealers cause much pain and suffering and cost taxpayers millions of dollars is doing a disservice to all those young Americans who play by the rules to become successful."
I asked Brown about these reactions. He said most of the formerly incarcerated job candidates he interviews express remorse for what they've done to their families and for the misery their drug dealing has caused. As an employer, he wants to see a determination to change and a willingness to work hard for a hand up.
They have been punished for their crimes, Brown said. And whatever they have been, they, and their families, remain his customers and neighbors. "Creating opportunity for returning citizens also creates less victims and safer communities for all of our futures."
Brown began to hire people fresh out of prison in 2008, partnering with social service groups such as the Salvation Army and the City of Philadelphia's reentry program. He estimates that 250 to 350 people are hired each year through those programs. The company employs 3,000.
Our readers noticed. "What an awesome man with a heart for community. What he is doing is outstanding," one reader wrote about Brown.
"I believe there are actually some very good people in the 'hood," another reader wrote about Brown's employees. "If they can market drugs in that environment, they can sell ice cream. Win-win-win for sure! Ex-con, proprietor, society!"
Readers raised a broader issue: When products cause problems, how culpable are business owners, whether they are dealers in illegal drugs or retailers of legal ones, like cigarettes or alcohol? What about other harmful products?
Defending Brown and the former drug dealers, phillyinATL wrote in philly.com's online comments section: "Do you wonder about the lost lives of the families as a result of fortune 500 companies like Philip Morris selling cancer sticks? How about the families of people who died as a result of asbestos manufacturers?
"Is it the bartender that `destroyed and enabled' the victim of the drunk driver?" phillyinATL continued.
Brown said business owners have to draw lines. He won't sell cigarettes, which hurts profits. But he acknowledges that customers can buy sodas, candy, and other products that can, if unwisely consumed, have grave health consequences.
A commenter, Bad Barbie, laid blame squarely on the addicts. Maybe what she wrote goes for Rivera, Jackson, Carrion, and Brown and the bartender at the corner taproom.
The dealers were "selling but not making them buy or use," Bad Barbie wrote. "Addicts need to take personal accountability."
The readers' reaction made me wish I had asked about remorse when I interviewed Rivera, Jackson, and Carrion.
So I called Carrion back, because when we met, he told me to call him anytime, days, nights, weekends, with any questions.
Why? Because for him, his personal mission is to make amends by telling his story. He hopes it will encourage people like him, people coming out of prison who might feel they have no choice but to return to drug dealing.
Carrion started out selling drugs when he was in sixth grade. By the time he got out of prison in 2006, he had never spent more than a year out of jail.
"I know I'll never be able to pay back" the harm he caused, Carrion said. "The only way I know is to show people that I can go on with my life" and that they can too.
"There is hope. But you have to be strong," Carrion said. "You can change. I've changed."
No one forced Rivera, Jackson, or Carrion to talk about criminal pasts they could have easily buried in the stability of their current lives. For them, as Carrion said, it's another way to repay their debt to society, to a nation where an estimated 65 million people have criminal records.
"If I could stop somebody, one person," from selling or using, Carrion said, "if that person has kids or a family, that's good.
"If I just forget about my past, if I didn't try to help nobody, that would be pretty selfish."
One in an occasional series, part of a region-wide collaborative news project about the challenges — and solutions — of prison reentry in Philadelphia. Click here to read more work by our partners.