Hard Times

Citywide re-entry programs put ex-offenders to work.

By Daniel Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 9 | Posted Mar. 17, 2009

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What’s in a name: Leonard Freeman is hoping to finally escape the cycle of incarceration.

Photo by Michael Persico

Every year roughly 40,000 ex-prisoners are released back into the Philadelphia area from prison and jail. Stigmatized by the “ex-con” label and its accompanying perceptions, many of these men and women find it difficult to find jobs and, without other resources, fall back on what they know: old friends and habits from their criminal pasts. Recognizing the need to provide alternatives, the city is now implementing innovative ways to help them obtain and keep jobs.

Last month Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey and the city of Philadelphia announced the creation of what appears to be the country’s first sheltered workshop specifically designed for recently released prisoners. The Mayor’s Office for the Reentry of Ex-offenders (MORE) is coordinating the project, funded by a $1.4 million grant from the Knight Foundation.

For decades, sheltered workshops employed people with physical and mental disabilities to do a variety of low-skill tasks. The workshops don’t provide exposure to traditional employment contexts—they “shelter” their employees from the rest of the working world. For that reason, the workshops have been falling out of favor with disability advocates, who say they fail to integrate people into the community. Many advocates for ex-offenders, however, think that the model—appropriately tweaked—might work with former prisoners.

Last Friday, Leonard Freeman and 22 other former offenders graduated from the first phase of the Philly ReNew Program at the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s North Broad Street office. The 36-year-old and his classmates received certificates from Cameron Holmes, a Prison Society staffer who spent 22 years behind bars and faced his own employment challenges when he was released almost three years ago. Like the city’s new sheltered workshop program, Philly ReNew is designed to ease the transition from prison to community.

The participants in ReNew spent six weeks doing mock job interviews, discussing common difficulties and building up each other’s self-esteem. It also offered hope to men like Freeman, who are determined to stay out of jail but haven’t had much success in doing so.

“Before joining the program,” he says, “I had some work, but not 9 to 5. Just some guys who needed help sheetrocking with cement. I want consistent work.”

That’s something that would be new for him. Leonard has been in and out of the criminal justice system for two decades. His first arrest, for a schoolyard fight, was at 15. Now, he wears an electronic monitor on his ankle to ensure that he’s home by his 9 p.m. curfew.

In a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, a first arrest often leads to a second, pushing the chance of a regular job and a life in the community increasingly out of the picture.

Freeman’s story isn’t atypical. He grew up living with relatives in West and Southwest Philly and says he was a good student until high school, when he started to get distracted by the opportunity to make money by dealing drugs.

But he kept himself out of it, and joined the Job Corps in Woodstock, Md., a federal program offering job training and a GED to people ages 16 to 24.

“I saw it as an opportunity to travel, to be independent,” he says. “I thought I was an adult.”

He was expelled five and a half months later due to a serious fight with another student. Another attempt at regimented life—the Army reserves—also ended poorly, after Freeman had disagreements with his commanding officer.

When he got back to Philly, Freeman got a job selling perfumes and colognes.

“The money was all right,” he says, “but not enough to really be independent. When I was back here, I started to see everyone in the life of making money, selling drugs.”

It wasn’t long before Freeman was back in cuffs, this time for possession of crack cocaine. He was given two years probation and got a job recycling paper.

But the lure of the game proved irresistible. “I still had a little bit of street in me,” he says. In May of 1996, he was arrested for robbing two women and was sentenced to five to 20 years in prison.

Like many inmates, Freeman used his lengthy stint in prison to rebuild his fractured life. He participated in programs for his drug use and took stress and anger management classes. After five and a half years in prison, he was ready to re-enter the community, a task that would prove difficult.

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Comments 1 - 9 of 9
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1. kelly said... on Mar 18, 2009 at 11:07PM

“I am a convicted felon with a masters degree (MBA) and 20 years sales experience in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. I have not been able to find a job in the five years since my release. I cashed out two 401K's to support myself. I can only imagine the difficulties of finding permanent employment without a high school diploma. The challenges are real and quantifiable. It is time for some type of programs to aid in finding employment that supports real life expenses. I don't know what they are, but we need to have a dialogue with input from employers to find out what they need to assure them that giving a felon a job is not the wrong decision.”

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2. Mercedes L. Henderson said... on Mar 24, 2009 at 03:31PM

WOMEN ARE GOING TO PRISON at a faster rate than men.
75% are mothers, 36% have mental health issues, 80% were abused
at some time in their lives and 90% will return to our communities.
For this return to be successful, they need housing, employment,
clothing, medical and mental health services — for starters.
The Pennsylvania Prison Society
April 16, 2009 6 pm – 8 pm
Bryn Mawr Film Institute
824 W. Lancaster Ave. #5
Bryn Mawr
The Panel Discussion will be moderated by
Hon. Katherine Streeter Lewis
Panelists will include former prisoners, human
service providers, public officials and others.
Cathy Wise 215-564-6005, ext. 106
The Pennsylvania Prison Society is a statewide
non-profit organization headquartered in Philadelphia.
Founded in 1787 to advance humankind
by ensuring just and civilized treatment of prisoners,
it now advocates for needed changes in the
criminal justice system that make communities
stronger and neighborhoods safer. The Prison Society
provides prison visitation and monitoring
and direct services to prisoners, former offenders,
and their families.
245 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107
www.prisonsociety.org > 215-564-6005
A panel discussion”

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3. Michele said... on Feb 3, 2010 at 02:03PM

“It doesn't help, that when a Ex-Felon is released from prison and if convicted of a Delivery Charge , they find Pa. has suspended their Drivers License. How can they even search for work to comply with their parole conditions. Not everybody lives in the city or where there is mass public transportation.”

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4. xoffender said... on Feb 9, 2010 at 04:05PM

“There's finally a website that is trying to help ex-offenders all over the country called notout.org. It's a work in progress but they're on the right track. People can post resumes and anonymously discuss opportunities and frustrations. I think most importantly it addresses the problem on a national level and it's a hub for networking local ideas. Good luck and keep ur head up!”

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5. Barbara Roane said... on Feb 24, 2010 at 10:23AM

“Good Morning,
I have a family member that was released from prison two months ago,
He can not fine a job. You have some programs in philly.
I gave him information for a program that i knew of . He went to the program that send him for a job. He get to the company. They did not have any more job. But this should have been checked befor he went to new jersey for the job. What do wee do as a people . I have a grandson what chance does my grandson have growing up in philly.

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6. Wil said... on Jul 28, 2010 at 02:15PM

“I am writing a college paper about this topic of repeat offenders and their return to society. Thanks for your comment as it sheds light on just how serious this problem can be. And the choices that man and women are faced with when trying to readjust to society.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Aug 5, 2010 at 12:30PM

“It must be hard for an inmate with a turbulant life and no long credit and money to come up with anything resembling a "home plan" that the department of corrections want for inmates to be released or get thrown back into prison. They all plan for a job and place to stay, but no one want to hire an former con, so both are very difficult to get especially with a down economy. "Home plan" might as well be a "dream plan".”

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8. Jose F. Torres said... on Aug 19, 2010 at 09:07AM

“To Whom it mai concern

Do you have an updated list of companies hiring ex offenders in the Philadelphia, PA area
Your expertise will greatly be appreciated

Thank you

Jose F. Torres
Life Skills Instructor/Certified Peer Spec
Impact Services, Vet Program, Labor Dept
215-739-5774 Ext: 435”

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9. Anonymous said... on Apr 18, 2012 at 08:06AM

“My son parole date is in July. He will be sent to a halfway house in either philly where he grew up or in Harrisburg where he was incarcerated. He has spent many years off and on in jail due to his drug abuse and the way he chose to support his addiction.. He always tried when he got out and even got some good jobs. I have researched the re entry programs. I am not sure if I should send him all the information I researched or let him do it. I do not want to appear as a mother hen hovering over him. He knows he has all of our support and we love him unconditionally and want to help him, We have always been there for him. In the past I guess we were so glad he was out, we ended up doing every thing for him. We do not want to repeat this mistake. We do not owe him anything. We only want him to be strong and do the reentry for himself. I guess I am asking where do we draw the lines in helping where it will be for the good of and not crippling to his re entry success.”


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