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The struggle with life in Philly, after serving time in prison

Leroy “Beyah” Edney was 11 the first time he got locked up.

Leroy "Beyah" Edney was 11 the first time he got locked up.

Edney was at a Philadelphia rec center when an argument with another kid turned violent. It didn't turn out so well for the other kid. Edney spent six months at a juvenile detention center as a result. A few years later, he began stealing cash from supermarkets. He worked his way up to robbing banks and stores at gunpoint.

"My appetite got bigger and bigger," Edney says.

Edney, now 56, has served half his life in prison - 28 years to be exact. He's determined not to go back and works seasonally now as an artist at that same rec center in Overbrook. Edney has no employer benefits but recently obtained health insurance.

Edney was released for the last time in 2008, making him one of the more than 85,000 inmates released from Pennsylvania state prisons between that year and 2012, the most recent data available.

That number is growing: More than 19,000 Pennsylvania inmates were released in 2012 alone -- nearly twice the number from a decade earlier. In Pennsylvania, New Jersey and across the country, the number of people incarcerated has been leveling off in recent years, after decades of steep increases. And the number of federal inmates could soon fall further, under new plans to ease sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Thousands of former prisoners are back on the streets in cities like Philadelphia. They are trying to readjust, find jobs, and just stay out of trouble. For many, it hasn't proved easy.

"People have to know that if they get behind you, you're not going to cross them, you're not going to make them look bad," Edney says. "People are afraid you'll mess up on them, so they're real slow to help you."

Thousands of men and women like him are uneducated. They find themselves stuck in part-time, low-wage positions and are unable to own homes because they don't have employment or credit histories. Most lack health and retirement benefits. The hole is hard to climb out of even for the most motivated.

Unless better efforts are made to help the tens of thousands of inmates being released from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and federal correctional institutions each year find jobs, stay away from crime, and reintegrate into society, there's a high chance a significant number of them will end up committing more crimes and back behind bars, say those trying to help them.

"The reason we go back in: We didn't do what we were supposed to the first time," Edney said.

Edney, a short gregarious man with a sturdy build, said he's had to learn how to stay out of fights and "other people's business." He shares his story with at-risk youth and other ex-offenders in hopes that they won't repeat his mistakes.

Edney's mother died while he was jailed, and he laments that her time with him was spent attending court hearings or supervising him when he was home from school while suspended.

"Her memory inspires me," he said. He said that his time behind bars has prepared him to confront challenges in post-prison life.

"I learned that the only way to get around struggle in life is to die," he said.

Philadelphia officials estimate that about one-fifth of the city's population -- roughly 300,000 people -- has a criminal record.

And the number of former federal inmates in the city and nationwide could be poised to grow dramatically: The Justice Department announced on April 21 that it was expanding criteria for clemency petitions from nonviolent drug offenders, and the U.S. Senate is preparing to consider measures that would reduce mandatory-minimum sentences, also in nonviolent drug cases, and make it easier for such inmates to earn early release.

That's pushing authorities to help former inmates like Edney readjust to life outside the prison walls.

"The new pressure is really on reentry," said Heather Thompson, a history professor at Temple University and an expert on mass incarceration.

Men and women getting out of prison are often returning to impoverished or violent neighborhoods, she said, and a criminal record can make someone "virtually unemployable."

Ex-inmates feel those challenges whether they are everyday citizens like Edney or professional sports stars. At a conference in Jersey City this month, former NBA player Jayson Williams -- who served time for fatally shooting a chauffeur and driving drunk -- said he had a hard time finding housing after he got out in 2012. Reentering society, he said, was "more difficult for me than any one of my days in prison."

Williams told conference attendees he thought life would return to normal after his release: "Boy, was I mistaken."

Returning home

Every year, thousands of men and women return to Philadelphia after serving time in prison or jail.

Bill Hart, the executive director of the Mayor's Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders, tries to connect them with job training, life-skills classes, and educational opportunities in their first year out from behind bars, when the risk of recidivism is highest.

A Pennsylvania Department of Corrections report last year found that six in 10 released inmates were rearrested or re-convicted within three years, and the vast majority of those repeat offenses occur during the first year out.

Hart's office, known as RISE, begins working with inmates before their release; a six-week post-release program teaches financial literacy, job-search procedures, and other skills. Case managers can assist ex-offenders for up to a year.

"We're trying to get guys as soon as they walk out," Hart said.

In a single month, 2,000 or more people can come into the office on South 11th Street near Market, looking for assistance or advice.

Ex-inmates often don't have current skills or know enough about technology. At RISE, they use the center's technology lab to create resumes and learn about online job sites. Instructors film them conducting mock interviews, and they discuss how to answer questions about their criminal records.

Through late March, the office had moved about 360 ex-offenders into jobs so far this year, Hart said. Nearly 1,000 have been placed into jobs in the past three years.

For those with decades out of the job market, no position is too small. RISE helps former inmates find short-term projects to start building up experience. For the past two years, Hart said, a group has joined clean-up crews at the Philadelphia Marathon.

"It's a resume entry," he said.

Dori Ray, a job-readiness trainer, teaches classes that run 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Her students are mostly men, ranging in age from 18 to 60. Most will apply for blue-collar jobs, such as maintenance, construction, and kitchen positions. Some women seek secretarial work.

Ray says a big part of her job is building students' confidence. As she sat her in cramped office -- barely large enough for a desk, chair, small filing cabinet and extra seat -- she asked nearly every man who walked by her door, whether he was bouncing with excitement or looking glum, "Are you all right?"

She wants them to realize they're doing OK, after years of hearing someone -- a parent, the courts, a cellmate -- telling them they're not.

"If they say it 10 times, they'll believe it," she said.

Ray describes her style as "motherly, but not the mom you want."

Instead, she's the mom who's on your case about a bad attitude or signs of drifting back to criminal behaviors, like wearing expensive clothing while unemployed.

"I'll let them know, 'I see you,' " she said. She's blunt with her students about consequences: "If you mess up, they've already built a new jail cell for you."

Ray said her students, often accustomed to serving as "the family's police," can have a hard time backing down from fights if a relative feels slighted or can resent not having the money they used to gain through illicit means. Those temptations can be too strong, she said, if there's not some strong force -- usually their parents or children -- motivating them to stay clean.

"If you don't know why you don't want to go back to jail, you're going back," Ray said.

Indeed, many do.

The Pennsylvania DOC's recidivism report highlighted the "very, very bad outcomes" at the state's approximately 60 community corrections centers (also known as halfway houses), as well as the struggles of ex-offenders who are sent straight home, said Bret Bucklen, the department's director of planning, research and statistics.

In the past year, he said, the state has developed performance-based contracts for the two-thirds of halfway houses that are privately run. If a center reports recidivism increases for two consecutive six-month periods, its contract will be terminated.

Pennsylvania corrections officials are also beefing up efforts to connect newly released inmates with reentry services that help with issues like employment, drug and alcohol abuse, housing, mentoring and mental health.

Early this year, the department began developing contracts with such organizations, the first time the state has paid directly for ex-offenders to access non-residential services, Bucklen said.

About 1,600 former inmates were referred to the programs in the first two and a half months, he said.

‘Can’t keep up’ with demand for help

Connecting those returning from prison with resources is a task that's gotten harder as the number of returning inmates rises.

"We kind of can't keep up with the sheer volume and intensity of services that people need," said Hannah Zellman, director of Philadelphia FIGHT's Institute for Community Justice, where ex-offenders and others take classes ranging from life skills to yoga to career development.

Her center's classes focus on helping released inmates reintegrate into a community and find and serve as mentors.

"I think that's something that can be transformative, more so than a token or food voucher," Zellman said.

In a writing class this spring, nearly two dozen students, one with a toddler in tow, sat in folding chairs crowded around tables in a multipurpose room at the organization's Center City office. The day was cold -- the temperature didn't make it out of the 30s -- but many students kept their sweatshirts and hats on in the warm, stuffy classroom.

That day's class was focused on description, and Camden resident Kyle Dorsey wasn't shy about sharing his work with the group. He wrote about his past, sleeping on a park bench: "I did wish I had a better pillow than my hands."

Dorsey has taken a number of classes at the center since serving five years for robbery and spending another five on parole. His parole ended a decade ago, but Dorsey still finds the classes useful. He said yoga lessons have helped him relax, and talking with others at the center about incarceration reminds him that no crime is worth losing his freedom again.

"Coming here keeps me focused on moving forward," he said.

At RISE, Hart, too, says he sees more recently released men and women looking for help every year.

Rodney Coleman was released in May 2012, after serving 18 years in state and federal prisons for possessing crack cocaine.

The Southwest Philadelphia resident went to RISE after he saw a note about it on a halfway house bulletin board. His release terms required him to get a job. After nearly two decades out of the workforce, he was struggling.

"Everything was new," said Coleman, who obtained his GED while incarcerated and now works in furniture maintenance. "It seemed like I was learning everything all over."

Coleman, a bald, bearded man who is working to improve his credit score and aims to become a homeowner, said he's had to focus on "soft skills" since returning from prison.

The reserved former inmate has learned about eye contact during interviews and good handshakes, and how to identify jobs that match his qualifications. He said he knows his criminal record will be a challenge for the rest of his life but has worked to stay positive.

"I didn't want to come home and be bitter," he said.