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Now he slings ice cream, instead of cocaine; ShopRite finds talent in former drug dealers

Anthony Jackson, frozen food manager at the Roxborough ShopRite, transports boxes of frozen food at the store, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Philadelphia. Jackson is a long-term employee at the store; he formerly served time in prison.
Anthony Jackson, frozen food manager at the Roxborough ShopRite, transports boxes of frozen food at the store, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Philadelphia. Jackson is a long-term employee at the store; he formerly served time in prison.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

One in an occasional series, part of a collaborative news project about the challenges — and solutions — of prison reentry in Philadelphia.

When Jeffrey Brown looks to promote employees within his 13-store supermarket chain, he looks for people with hustle, ability, commitment, all that.

There's another unlikely attribute that has turned out to be a predictor of success at Brown's ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores.

Drug dealing.

"What we realized is that a lot of the people we hired were in the drug trade," said Brown, founder and chief executive of Brown's Super Stores Inc. "We were surprised that some of the people we hired have fairly good business skills. The drug trade is a business, it's an illegal business.  You are buying. You are selling. You have inventory. You have some of the common problems that any retailer has. A lot of them are accelerating into management."

That's the kind of human capital insight that Brown would never have imagined in 2008, when, at the urging of an outspoken customer, he decided to make it his company's mission to hire people coming out of prison.

"Now it's not crack or dope. It's broccoli and ice cream," said former drug dealer Anthony Jackson, 43, who manages the frozen-food department at the ShopRite store in Roxborough. In the past, he said, he'd pay $20,000 for a kilo of cocaine, and then "you flip it. Now we have 123 cases of macaroni and cheese on one pallet. That's a $7,000 order. We have to retail it for $14,000 or $15,000. I've got to make that profit."

Many experts say employment is key to keeping people from returning to prison. It makes a lot of sense for the workers, their family, and society if former inmates remain crime-free and contribute to the economy.

But, what's in it for the employer?

"Someone needs to lead the way," Brown recalls hearing at a town-hall neighborhood meeting he held before opening his store in the city's Parkside section.

Nice sentiment, but isn't the company just hiring trouble?

Brown's loss-prevention people thought so.

"The loss-prevention side of the business – they were saying, `They're criminals,' " Brown said. His managers pictured shoplifting, an epidemic of internal shrink, fraud, even violence.

In many firms, such objections would have derailed that initiative. But "that is why that is a decision that has to be made from the top," Brown said. "The CEO has to say, `I know this is a risk,' and you figure out how to do it.  And we're going to get good at it, like we do. And, you don't have a choice."

"It was more fear talking," he said.

"We hired the first batch," he said. "And the first problems were not the problems we thought. They were conflict resolution, what's appropriate to say or not say. They were more human resource problems, because on the street, it works differently. Time and attendance, a lot of soft skills, were really the issues."

These days, even the loss-prevention people are on board. Craig Gage, a relative newcomer at ShopRite, has a 30-year career in loss prevention. "I'm all for it," he said.

"It used to be you'd never want a criminal working for you, but the U.S. has one of the highest rates of incarceration," he said. So having a workforce without criminal records "is not sustainable anymore. There are not enough people to hire."

When it comes to hiring people like Jackson, whose long arrest record in Allegheny County meant he never spent more than a full year out of prison from age 12 until his release in 2009 at age 35, ShopRite's business presents an opportunity and a challenge.

Most of the grocery chain's 3,000 workers, more than 80 percent, work part time and earn close to the minimum wage, under $8 an hour to start. A criminal who succeeded in the drug business couldn't expect to earn enough at ShopRite, at least initially, to keep him from more lucrative criminal activities without another job or support from friends and family.

But not everyone gets rich selling drugs, Brown said. He's managed to learn a lot about the drug trade from his employees.

"Top drug dealers may be rich, but, in a lot of cases, the net money you [as a lower-level dealer] make is not that uncompetitive with society. The street people aren't so profitable, so a good job in the grocery business – a full-time job or a department-manager job -- is competitive."

The Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, found that people who come out of prison and obtain jobs with higher-than-minimum wages are less likely to return.

On the other hand, higher pay may make employers more risk averse, said Atif Bostic, executive director at UpLift Solutions, the nonprofit Brown started. He worries that a move to raise the minimum wage to $15 might price some risky employees out of the job market. "For $15 an hour, we can get a college graduate," he said.

Like many retailers, ShopRite faces the challenge of high turnover -- 87 percent. That means most people who start at ShopRite on New Year's Day won't be there by Christmas.

The churn presents an opportunity for former inmates, because the supermarkets can absorb a steady stream of new employees.

The churn also means that those who can stick it out will advance quickly through myriad small promotions, particularly as Brown adds stores. It took Jackson four years to become a department manager earning nearly $21 an hour for full-time work.

"People say there are no jobs, but we have jobs," said Marie K. Wagner, human resource supervisor at Brown's Super Stores' base in Westville, N.J. She was a human resource manager at the store level when Jeff Brown began his plan.

"A supermarket is a sustainable career," she said. "You can excel in it. We promote from within. Our stores are union shops and you get progressive raises."

If the stereotype is that employees hired out of prison "would come, steal from us, and go, I found that to be the total opposite," she said. "In general, they are grateful for the chance, appreciative and more motivated, because they want a second chance. Sometimes they need the job as a condition of their probation."

Most of the time, she said, managers won't know who has a criminal record.

In fact, Brown's ShopRite doesn't conduct criminal checks for most positions -- mostly because of "ban the box" rules that prohibit employers from asking about criminal records until they've offered employment, but also because, given the turnover, it's not an efficient use of resources.

Wagner said the company checks backgrounds of people promoted into management and for two positions – security and cash-room workers. Those who have committed financial crimes can't  handle a store's money or record financial transactions, but they can still be cashiers.

A violent background prevents someone from becoming a security guard. "Someone might push you and you don't want that person blowing up," Gage said.

The only way the store's hiring managers know who has been imprisoned is if the employee is one of 250 to 350 people a year who are hired through the city-run reentry program or through community groups, including the Salvation Army and Philabundance. Each has programs for the formerly incarcerated that provide job-readiness training in soft skills, which help with retention, Wagner said.

Beyond those programs, there is no special support for former prisoners, other than a company-wide awareness of the challenges they face. Store managers call social service groups in their neighborhoods if someone needs help.

UpLift Solutions will soon launch its own soft-skills and cashier-training program for the formerly incarcerated with Brown's ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores pledging to hire every successful graduate, Bostic said.

"How I communicate when I'm in the 'hood, where the language is littered with expletives and where I talk derogatorily about the opposite sex – well, you don't want to do that with your coworkers or customers," said Bostic. "Most people take an aggressive, offensive posture and that's to ward off an attack, but that's not conducive to success in any type of business."

One goal, Bostic said, is to track hires and determine what interventions work best. Right now, the company doesn't keep statistics, so it's impossible to tell, except anecdotally.

In any case, it's not easy.

Both Wagner and Brown said they've received an education in dealing with the justice system. In Philadelphia, 36,000 people pass through city jails each year, the equivalent of half the population of Cherry Hill. In any given month, about 8,000 are behind bars, nearly as many as live in Doylestown.

Pennsylvania's state system releases 20,000 inmates a year. Of them 4,032 return to Philadelphia. To appreciate the impact, imagine if nearly every Jenkintown resident had just gotten out of a state penitentiary.

With criminal records, Brown said, people "can't [get] work, and now they have these burdens that never go away for the rest of their lives. They can't get a mortgage or live in public housing. I didn't know about any of this."

"We would hire people and they would disappear. We'd find out later that they didn't make their full child-support payment and they'd get rearrested," Brown said. Unfortunately, the timing was off, since the child-support payments would be due in the beginning of the month, just when the stores got busier and employees could count on more hours, giving them more ability to pay when their checks came a week or so later.

"Why is there not a smarter system?" Brown said. He said they are trying to train employees in those circumstances to call or to have a relative call instead of assuming they can't return.

Wagner said she grew up in a middle-class bubble, but her work in supermarkets has taught her about "the challenges our associates face. We have people call out when they have to take care of a younger sibling because the father is in jail and the mother is a drug addict. We had a poor kid who was jumped and they took his transportation pass."

Then there's the unique challenge of dealing with the post-release bureaucracy: officials at halfway houses, probation and parole officers.

When she worked in stores, Wagner got used to faxing work schedules to halfway houses. If, at the last minute, the store got busy and managers wanted workers to stay longer, "it would be challenging to call the halfway house and ask for permission. If we could get someone on the phone, maybe the worker would be allowed to stay."

On the upside, Brown's Super Stores average about $4,000 per employee in business privilege tax credits for the 35 workers who come through the city's reentry program. But Wagner called it bureaucratically "excruciating" to apply for those credits.

Over the years, Brown said, the company has become more experienced.

"You need an extraordinary amount of motivation to pull yourself up from being a felon because of these obstacles," he said. "Right off the bat, you can see a person who needs to do it, who has to do it, vs. one who is indifferent.

"The more you [hire people out of prison], the more street-wise you become. You learn what to avoid," he said. "The story of someone who is going to be successful is that the reason they need to be successful is beyond themselves. It's family, children, setting an example for their kids, supporting their spouses, often a belief in a higher power."

Taking a break from unloading truckloads of frozen food at the Roxborough ShopRite, Jackson said how much the ShopRite job meant to him and how he wanted his story to inspire others.

"I've been gang-banging since I was a baby," he said, incurring multiple arrests for drugs, possession, and distribution, a robbery that included stealing a car, and eluding arrest.

A 1992 arrest for simple assault at age 18 and a 1994 arrest for indecent assault were both misdemeanors, punished with probation. Later, drug crimes sent him to state prison, but even that didn't keep Jackson out of trouble. In 2007, while locked up, he was arrested for possessing marijuana and contraband, charges withdrawn when he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.

"It's hard out here," he said. "You have to take your time. Don't rush. Focus. Always listen and ask God for guidance."

Now he comes to work with a smile on his face, ready to work. "I'm going to show you, prove to you what I can do." Other than selling drugs, "this is my first job ever," and his pay gives him a stable life in Norristown with his wife and three children.

Employers, he said, "should be compassionate. People coming out of jail are emotional. You are scared. You are lost and then, you have something to prove."

"Mr. Brown is not my best friend," he said, "but he treated me like a gentleman. This man took a chance on me. There is nothing I wouldn't do for him, as long as I'm not breaking the law."

But it's not just a matter of loyalty. Just as Jackson once knew what drugs to market to which customers, he now knows what ice cream needs to be in ShopRite's freezers to drive business. "Everybody's favorite is Breyer's, or Turkey Hill," he said.

"I'm a born hustler," he said. "I can sell anything. If I can conversate with you, I can sell you. Now I'm in ShopRite selling."

About this Project

The Inquirer is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on issues facing people coming out of prison. The piece is part of an occasional series — across the region and across platforms — on the challenges of reentry and what can be done about them.

To read our collective work, and read more about the project: