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What works to keep ex-cons from returning to prison? Work

WHEN HE was released from state prison in 2002 after doing 15 years for aggravated assault, Reuben Jones, of North Philadelphia, was no longer the young thug whose greed drove him to commit violent robberies before his 1987 arrest.

Ray X. Johnson (left) and Reuben Jones. Both men have turned their lives around after serving time in prison. Employment helped them make the change. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)
Ray X. Johnson (left) and Reuben Jones. Both men have turned their lives around after serving time in prison. Employment helped them make the change. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)Read more

WHEN HE was released from state prison in 2002 after doing 15 years for aggravated assault, Reuben Jones, of North Philadelphia, was no longer the young thug whose greed drove him to commit violent robberies before his 1987 arrest.

Prison left him middle-aged, cooled down, wised up, reflective and remorseful.

Jones wanted to be a father to his teenage son, and a regular working guy dedicated to giving back to the society he once preyed upon.

He wanted redemption.

He needed a job.

But, at the time, Jones said, re-entry programs for ex-offenders did nothing for him.

"Re-entry programs were basically keeping people who had never been in prison employed by dangling a carrot on a stick in front of ex-offenders — job-skills training — but never delivering actual jobs," Jones said.

So, he relied on the only re-entry program he trusted — networking with men he had known in the State Correctional Institute in Dallas, Luzerne County, who were leading honest lives after their release. Men like Ray X. Johnson, of South Philly.

"Ray was the first to come home," Jones said. "He started working as a barber, started a new family. When I came home, he helped me out financially, and with transportation. His heart is in the right place. He was there for me. He led the way."

Johnson, 40, who spent 10 years in prison for robbery and gun possession, said that Jones was there for him, too.

"I don't wallow in the past because I didn't accomplish nothing but my own misery," he said. "If my life means anything, it's about resiliency. Reuben has helped me as much as I've helped him."

Both Jones and Johnson spent their years behind bars immersing themselves in black cultural history, holding poetry slams with like-minded inmates in the prison yard, publishing a book of inmates' writing and starting a support group for incarcerated dads that continues to this day.

Working hard to work  

Although Jones found work for the first couple of years after his release — data processing at the Pennsylvania Prison Society, then supervising a Philadelphia Prevention Point syringe-exchange mobile unit — he hit the ex-offender wall in 2005.

Jones was fired from the syringe-exchange job after his supervisory position led to personality conflicts, and then spent 18 months being rejected, unemployed and desperate.

"I had five dollars a week to spend on food," Jones, 46, recalled. "So for dinner, I'd eat Bush's Baked Beans out of a can one night, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich the next night, then back to Bush's Baked Beans. I was willing to do any job. I mean, anything."

He called about a low-paying job cleaning portable toilets.

"The guy sounded fine on the phone," Jones said. "He told me, 'I don't have a lot of people jumping out of windows to clean toilets.'"

Jones made the 20-mile trip from North Philly to Lansdale, Montgomery County, for the interview. He could smell the place before he got there — a huge lot filled with portable toilets that needed cleaning. Jones didn't care. He needed the job.

The interview went well until the manager came to the line on the application that identified Jones as an ex-offender. "His whole demeanor changed," Jones said. "He said he'd call me. I felt like crying. He'd decided I wasn't even worthy to clean toilets. Do you know what that does to a man?"

Everett Gillison, the city's deputy mayor for public safety, knows what it does to a man.

"We know that if ex-offenders can't find work within three years, 65 percent of them are back in the criminal-justice system," said Gillison, who directs Mayor Nutter's Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders (RISE).

"We have thousands of people in Philadelphia who have criminal records. Are we going to tell them, 'You'll never work again'?"

Gillison said that before Mayor Nutter refocused it, the city's re-entry program provided "soft skills" training, such as resumé writing and job-interview techniques, but did not deliver jobs.

"I was impressed by the passion of the people in the re-entry office, but there was no hard data on outcomes where we could say that jobs were being produced," Gillison said. They are now.

Gillison, who was a public defender in Philadelphia for more than 30 years before joining the Nutter administration in 2008, said that the re-entry program has found jobs for 500 ex-offenders in the past two years.

Recidivism among those in the program is less than 2 percent.

Gillison said that the program's partners place ex-offenders in jobs ranging from installing solar panels and hot-water heaters, wiring homes with fiber optics (which Gillison calls "the new copper"), cooking in the hospitality industry and working for supermarkets and major retailers.

In a sprawling Goodwill Industries warehouse, on 7th Street near Callowhill, the change in the city's re-entry focus from soft skills to hard work is graphic.

Under one 19,000-square-foot roof, dozens of ex-offenders run an online used-book business that maintains a 99-percent customer-satisfaction rating on

Another business refurbishes thousands of Comcast remote-control units. Another sorts mountains of discarded computers for shipment to Dell Reconnect recycling centers. Another sorts textiles for sale.

After three months to a year at Goodwill Industries, most of the workers leave for permanent jobs that pay 150 percent of minimum wage. A new group of ex-offenders takes their place.

The bustling warehouse is the brainchild of Mark B. Boyd, president and CEO of Goodwill, who believed that the sheltered-workshop program — successful for decades with disabled clients — also would work for ex-offenders trying to re-enter the job market after years in prison.

Nutter agreed. The program is fully funded by a three-year, $1.4 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

"We are on track to make this program profitable when the Knight Foundation grant ends next November," said Boyd, citing the Dell Reconnect recycling program's growth from 1 million pounds last year to 2.5 million pounds this year, to a projected 4 million pounds in 2011—and the equally-bright prospects for the Comcast contract and the used-book e-business.

The mayor's job-centric reentry program, and a similarly refocused one at the Pennsylvania Prison Society that teaches work skills to ex-offenders with children and then sends them for job placement, are light-years ahead of what Jones faced when he was released from prison just a few years ago.

'A transformed man'  

Today, Jones is a thoughtful, articulate man who has an almost Old World sense of respect and politeness.

There is no hint of the violent robber he was as a teenager, just as there was no hint from the home he was raised in — married, churchgoing parents, and a dad who worked hard as a truck driver to provide for his family.

"When I was 15 to 17, I'd go to church on Sunday morning with them, and go rob somebody Sunday night," Jones said. "I got locked up five or six times in Philadelphia and Montgomery County. I was constantly putting daggers in my mother's heart."

Why? "The streets were calling," Jones said. "My mother and father came from the South. They were about sacrificing now for something later. But the streets were about instant gratification. Greed and girls, sneakers and gold chains: that's what drove me. I robbed people. That's how I made a living."

Jones' criminal life came to a crashing halt in September 1986, when he was 22. "I robbed this man and it really turned violent," he said, "I beat him up and stabbed him. I thought he was dead. I knew, in that minute, it was a life-changing event for me. I thought, 'You're going to pay for this. You're going to jail.'"

He was arrested on May 9, 1987. On May 14, his son was born. Jones was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault and robbery.

His son was 9 when Jones won visitation rights after a long legal battle, and 15 when Jones got out of prison. Two years ago, he was the best man at Jones' wedding.

For Jones, re-entry was surreal. "I'd been in prison for 15 years, and when I came home I'd lost touch with crossing the street, because in prison there are no streets," he said.

"I would often get on the wrong bus. I thought I knew where I was going, but I ended up going to the wrong place. I'm standing there, looking stupid, thinking it's like I've got a target on my back and everyone who sees me is saying, 'He just got out of prison.'"

In the eight years since his release, Jones has worked as a conflict mediator at a public school through Men United for a Better Philadelphia, counseled at-risk youth at Neighborhood First, in Bristol, and earned his master's degree in human services from Lincoln University.

He spent almost three years as a case manager for adjudicated youth in the "Don't Fall Down in the Hood" program — until the FBI did a background check and forced him to resign because he had a violent criminal past.

Today, Jones is a licensed addictions counselor at New Journeys in Recovery, a North Philadelphia drug- and alcohol-rehab program.

He continues to volunteer in Frontline Dads — the program he started in prison, which mentors men who have families and who were incarcerated.

Jones, who has a wife of two years and a seven-month-old daughter, also teams up with his longtime friend Johnson to feed the chronically homeless who spend the cold months in the SEPTA corridors under City Hall, and to produce poetry slams, such as the one they're doing at The Rotunda, on Walnut Street near 40th, at 7 p.m. on Dec. 12.

The theme of the poetry slam will be redemption, which is the theme of Jones' life.

"Many of us volunteer to mentor at-risk youth because we believe that if we can save the life of a young person, somehow we can redeem ourselves," Jones said. "When we go to our graves, we want to know we did everything we could to keep someone else from making our mistakes.

"Will that make up for what we did? Probably not. But every day, we're trying. I know this in my heart: I'll always be judged by what I did that got me into prison. But I also know in my heart that I am not the same person I was back then. I am a transformed man." *