In the prison gymnasium, the faint smell of bleach wafts through the air. The graduates, in the crisp new blues they requested, hug and mingle before their ceremony.

They have much in common: 13 young black men, caught up in drugs, in and out of jail, and now part of a statistic that offers little hope beyond these jailhouse walls.

Pastor Ernest McNear, standing off to the side, wearing a dark suit and clerical collar, is working to change that.

The inmates - ages 24 to 35 - are the first to graduate from his latest effort, a program that works with inmates and then mentors them for a year after release to help keep them focused.

"If you are going to have successful reentry," McNear says in his raspy voice, "you have to have someone welcoming you into the community, not just a program."

McNear, 59, has stood where these men stand. In another life, the South Philadelphia pastor and community leader was a lost-eyed, tattered heroin addict many had given up on.

Although a small step, the graduation at the Philadelphia County jail is considered special. The warden insisted it be held in the gym, with catered food, a colorful cake, and family and friends, who sit on one side of the room in metal folding chairs, smiling stoically.

The men will be released over the coming months. The graduation ceremony on this day symbolizes achievement in a life riddled with bad choices, and a resolve to stay out of prison.

Leaning over in a chair, John Scarbrough, 24, with a tattoo on his neck that reads "One Man Army," flips through index cards, going over his talking points. With his mother and 11-year-old sister looking on, Scarbrough, one of six inmates who will speak, will share his journey and how he lost a leg over drug money.

A former basketball star of Strawberry Mansion High, he made his way to college but hardheadedly quit after a fight with his coach over playing time.

Back home in Hunting Park, "I just went full throttle," selling drugs in the streets, making stacks of money, doing stints in jail. One night, two men opened fire on him while he sat in a parked car. Scarbrough ran, then fell to the ground, shot seven times, his legs on fire. "I had on a platinum chain and a cross," he remembers, "and I just prayed on it."

When he takes the stage, he'll walk with a limp, a metal pole where his leg used to be.

He's been in jail on an old drug case. He had a chance at a halfway house but got caught with contraband. He has served almost two years of a mandatory two-to-four-year sentence.

"Everything happens for a reason," he says. "I had to get better at decision-making. That's one thing the program has helped me do, make better choices in my life. It's the decisions you make that make you a man, not having sex with a lot of girls, standing out on the corner, and selling drugs."

Out of his church at 16th and Mifflin Streets, McNear shepherds a 700-member congregation, a day school, an HIV outreach program, and the Kingdom Care Reentry Network to support inmates and ex-offenders.

In his roomy office, there's a bronze Liberty Bell he received from the mayor last year, recognition for heading a program that resulted in 1,300 fugitives' surrendering at his church in four days.

It's just one of the innovative programs he's sponsored to help ex-offenders return to their neighborhoods. His latest is lobbying for felony records to be expunged after a period of no offenses.

To reduce recidivism - 56 percent of inmates return to prison within two years - McNear believes the men need someone to believe in them, someone "who says, 'There's something in you that's godly and beautiful, let's go get it.' "

McNear grew up in North Philadelphia's Johnson Homes projects. His mother did piecework at a factory, and when he was 9, "she really sacrificed and bought me an old sax from the pawnshop," a gift he would later pawn.

McNear, self-taught, joined the band at Gratz High, where he was senior class president and earned scholarships to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

In his sophomore year, he dropped out to play sax at nightclubs, colleges, and resorts. His drug use started with a little marijuana to prepare and unwind; then he graduated to using and selling cocaine, then to shooting heroin. "Drugs just took me over," he says. "It became an everyday, all-the-time thing."

McNear was in and out of jail for drug and gun possession, but at 27 his life changed. A rival dealer pistol-whipped him and left him for dead in a gutter.

"I was glad to be pistol-whipped," McNear says and chuckles, "because the guy who did it was a killer. I believe that it was the prayers of my mother that saved me."

Two months later, at his 10-year high school reunion, "I began to revisit the talent and potential that had somehow been smothered by the drugs and the darkness."

When a classmate invited him to hear her play the organ at her church, he agreed, once again drawn to music. His regular attendance eventually led to divinity school and his doctorate in urban ministry from Regent University in Virginia. A year later, he founded his church, bent on reaching out to ex-offenders.

The reentry program is funded for the first year with $45,000 from the Jewish Educational Vocation Center.

It began with 40 inmates selected because of their chances for success. For two hours twice a week for seven weeks, they create individual assessments, learn job readiness and how to manage relationships, and design reentry plans.

The program was a hard sell.

"All you hear are broken promises when you're incarcerated," Scarbrough says. "People tell you they're going to visit, put money on your books, get you a good lawyer. . . . Being incarcerated, all we have is our word. Without that, there's not much else to look forward to."

But soon the walls fell.

"I got something they need," explains program director Greg Thompson, who's worked with McNear for a decade, "and they know I'm giving it to them respectfully, and challenging them respectfully, and respecting the fact that they are men."

In a class on value judgments, an inmate asked what to do when a friend is killed and another friend wants to exact revenge.

"The question becomes," Thompson says, "how do I talk to a guy who's known me all my life, who knows I'm a gun guy? How do I make him understand we're not going to kill anybody and keep my street cred? That's their life."

The men also learn how to confront the feeling of failure when they can't get a job.

"If the first door you knock on is not a positive experience," says the Rev. Joseph Connor, an instructor and prison social worker for 30 years, "you can't go back home and sulk and say, 'I knew it wasn't going to work,' and go back to the street. We prepare them for disappointment."

Out for a month, Karriem Muhammad returned for the ceremony.

"Yo, how is it out there, man?" Scarbrough asks.

"It's what you make it," Muhammad, 34, replies, his lanky frame in a burgundy polo shirt, jeans, and wearing blue-and-pink-tinted shades.

Muhammad says he started selling drugs when he was 11. Tired of that life, three years ago he took his "hustle money" and bought some tools and a rusted pickup truck. He revived an interest by starting a contracting business, but an old drug case derailed him, putting him in jail for two years.

With Thompson as his mentor, Muhammad has completed a string of remodeling jobs. "I still hang with my homies," he says. "But I don't have the urge to sell drugs. I know how to tell them: 'I'm cool.' "

Hearing his testimony, McNear grabs Muhammad's shoulder and shakes his hand.

The graduates soon take their seats near the makeshift stage. From the front row, an incoming class of inmates looks on.

To both groups, McNear offers hope.

"This is only the beginning," he says, in the singsong cadence of the pulpit. "We're going to walk with you when you leave here. Somebody say, 'I'm leaving here.' "

"Say it again," McNear shouts. "And we're going to walk to success."

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Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601 or kgregory@phillynews.com.