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Ex-Cons: End of the Line

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By Frank Rubino

Attempting to converse with Nichelle Smith while she's buzzing around the spacious and arty lobby of the apartment house where she works is like trying to corner one of those blue-shirted Best Buy kids for iPad advice on a busy Saturday.

Exasperating.

Smith, a concierge at Lofts 640, a posh development at Broad and Mt. Vernon in Fairmount, is forever excusing herself - to graciously direct a gaggle of twenty-something visitors to their friend's apartment, to notify a tenant that his cab has arrived, to monitor security cameras, to answer the desk phone incessantly. 

To do all manner of concierging, if you will.

"It can get a little hectic," the poised and articulate 45-year-old says on a chilly, late-winter evening, referring to her four-nights-a-week, $11-an-hour, no-benefits gig.  "But I'm happy to have this job."

Well, sort of happy.

Nichele Smith.JPGActually, Smith, a divorced mother of 16- and 11-year-old boys, has been desperately seeking a better-paying fulltime job with benefits since 2009, when she lost her $45,000-a-year administrative position at MAACO after the auto body repair chain's founder died, his family sold the company, and many longtime employees were let go.

Smith had been with MAACO since 1988, so that pink slip hurt.  Still, she'd just earned her bachelor's in business administration from Strayer University, and she's an optimist, so she figured she'd land a similar position elsewhere.

It hasn't happened, and for once the sagging economy isn't principally to blame. 

The most formidable obstacle in Smith's path to a rewarding career is that she is an ex-con. In 2002, she entered a no contest plea to a felony drug charge and served a brief period in jail.

A year ago, the closed doors that typically confront ex-offenders trying to reinvent themselves as law abiders became news. City Council passed "ban the box" legislation, requiring Philadelphia employers to remove criminal background questionnaires from job applications. There was also  the roguishly loveable tax evader Milton Street, during his entertaining -- if brief -- run for mayor, asserting that roughly 300,000 ex-offenders live here.

It sounded like an exaggeration, but the number was confirmed by Professor Ram Cnaan of Penn's School of Social Policy and Practice. He says the number could be as high as 400,000 if you include anyone who has spent at least one night in jail.  Additionally, federal, state and local prisons release in excess of 35,000 inmates a year back into society because they have served their time.

But this story isn't about the numbers, it is about people who did the crime, did their time, and are working to get back on their feet. Some have succeeded; others have not, some are in limbo.

It isn't easy to escape the fact that you are an ex-con.

 

One stupid mistake

Of her felony Smith says: "It was an isolated incident, a one-time mistake."   She sighs.  "And when I go on interviews, I think they're impressed, I think they like what they see.  But then, well, you know. They don't let it go."

A Norristown native who moved to Philadelphia in 1990, Smith got sideways with the law in 2001 in her hometown when she attempted to pick up a package containing a large quantity of marijuana for a drug-dealing friend who asked her to do him the favor.  The package had been mailed by a supplier to the apartment of another friend, but police had intercepted it.  When Smith showed up asking for it, they arrested her.

Reflecting, she says, "I was hanging around with all the wrong people."

She was sentenced to a 30-days-to-a-year sentence in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.  Smith served the 30 days over 15 weekends, walked off her parole and probation without incident, and put the awful experience behind her.

But it keeps catching up to her.

Over the past several years, she's received offers of administrative jobs -nonpermanent positions she'd sought through staffing agencies - with four major companies including AT&T.  All would have paid her close to what she was earning at MAACO, and she hoped that being a temp would afford her a chance to shine and latch on permanently.

But when the firms ran criminal background checks, each pulled its offer.

"It's a big trip when it happens," she says.  "It's very disheartening.  And then I have to take a break from interviewing, because it wears you down.  I believe in second chances.  Not everyone seems to."

For now, she's keeping her 32-hour-a-week night job while fretting over what her sons Devon and Ricky are up to and whether she can keep making the $800-a-month mortgage payments on her Mt. Airy home.  For extra cash, she and a friend clean apartments three days a week.

"I'm good with money, so I'm managing," she says. "But there are no extras."

Steve Blackburn serves as president of X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, an advocacy group that battles what he calls "economic apartheid against formerly convicted persons" seeking jobs, housing and other needs.

 

The last minority

Blackburn, who holds a master's degree in social work from Temple and works as a site director for the nonprofit Frankford Neighborhood Center, knows Nichelle Smith.

He also knows about second chances, having served 15 years in state prison before Gov. Robert Casey commuted his life sentence for murder in 1991 (in 1975, a companion of Blackburn's shot and killed a young man with whom Blackburn hadSteve Blackburn.jpg fought). 

"A whole lot of my success depended on the goodwill of other people," Blackburn says.  Of course, not everyone enjoys as much bonhomie as he did.  Of Smith, he says, "She's working at a job that's below her skill level, but she has to take what she can get.  We're the last minority against whom it's still legal to discriminate."

Pamela Superville, a reentry specialist for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, doesn't know Smith, but she's familiar with her predicament. 

Conjuring up a hypothetical conversation between a job interviewer and her human resources superiors after the former has concluded an initial face-to-face with an applicant, Superville mimics, "I liked her, she looks good, I think we should take it to the next level and seriously consider her.  And now of course I have to inquire about her background."

These days, learning whether someone's been naughty or nice is super-easy.

"This is the age of technology," Superville says.  "There's big money in background checks.  All they have to do is put your name in a search engine.  And bet your bottom dollar, unless it's a very mom-and-pop operation, they're going to."

And if the check reveals blemishes?

Superville says a few companies will tell people verbally they can no longer consider them.   But putting that in writing can create liability, says Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services, since in Pennsylvania it is illegal for employers to engage in hiring practices that discriminate against ex-offenders unless their crimes relate directly to the jobs they're seeking -- a convicted shoplifter wanting to stock shelves at Rite Aid, for example.

Fortunately for Broderick Carroll, who got locked up repeatedly between 1999 and 2006 for "boosting" items from Home Depots, Rite Aids and other stores to support his crack addiction, he's more interested in cooking than in inventory. 

Unfortunately for the burly yet amiable 51-year-old father of two, no one seems willing to hand him a spatula.

 

"I love to work..."

Carroll says he's applied fruitlessly for countless jobs - at restaurants, diners and fast-food joints, not to mention janitorial services and yes, convenience stores - since his welfare-arranged, temporary janitorial gig at the Land Title Building in Center City ended in April 2009.

Broderick Carroll.JPG"The thing is, I love to work," says Carroll, sipping a bottle of water inside a Dunkin Donuts on Girard Avenue near 63rd Street on an overcast morning.   "Before my chemical dependency, all I did was work.  It was mostly in restaurants, Red Lobster and this little restaurant down my way where I was a short-order cook.  Even through my incarceration I always managed to be the head man in the kitchen."

Carroll grew up around 17th and Norris Streets in North Philadelphia.  Although he dropped out of high school in 11th grade (he hasn't yet gotten his GED), he mostly stayed out of trouble until crack led him to commence his seven-year rendezvous with the city's State Road jails.

"I was in all of 'em," he says, adding that sometimes he was actually relieved to go in and start eating and sleeping again.

Now clean for nearly six years, he talks a lot about how his religious faith keeps him upbeat.  His income comes from welfare, which pays him $102.50 every two weeks, plus $367 in monthly food stamps.  His 9-year-old son Rasool, who lives with Carroll in a $600-a-month apartment near 65th and Race Streets, gets a $700 monthly disability check that helps (Rasool has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). 

But money's tight, to understate.

"Just the same, God has blessed me," Carroll says.  "For example, I get a monthly Tranpsass through my organization (Blackburn's X-Offenders).  It's an uphill struggle, but I know I have God on my side."

Bill Hart, who runs the city's revamped reentry program (Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders, or RISE), wants to join God in helping Carroll better himself.

Hart's first observation is that, like a lot of the guys who walk through RISE's doors at 34 S. 11th St. (6th Floor, Municipal Court Building), Carroll needs to get his GED.  ASAP.

"Some of the employers I'm cultivating are offering jobs cleaning, picking up trash," Hart says.  "And (even) their minimum requirement is a high school diploma or GED.  That's the baseline, so our first prerequisite is, I'm enrolling you in a city-sponsored, paid-for GED class.  There's no wait, but you have to avail yourself of this opportunity.

"It's almost a litmus test for us to see if you're serious about reentry."

 

A certain mindset

Besides helping clients obtain GEDs, Hart says RISE teaches them to market their attributes, cope with on-the-job stresses, and shed slipshod mentalities.

"There's a mindset," he says, "that all I need is a job, and everything else will take care of itself.  But that's not true.  If you don't have a different attitude than you've had in the past, you won't be able to keep the job."

Nonetheless, putting people to work instead of watching them revert to criminality isRick Piper 2.jpg the bottom line, and Hart, who notes that about 92 percent of his clients are black men, says RISE has thus far helped nearly 250 of them get entry-level jobs in the janitorial, waste management and hospitality (largely banquet set-up) industries, to name several.

It isn't the penthouse, but they're ostensibly on the road to better things.

"At the end of the day, our goal is to minimize the number of guys who are committing crimes and going back to jail," Hart says.

Carroll is still eligible for RISE's services, although he won't be for long, since the program doesn't consider applicants whose ties with the state or county correctional systems ended more than seven years ago (Carroll maxed out his last sentence in '06).  He connected with RISE after being interviewed for this story.

Hart, incidentally, who has a human resources background, thinks some HR types have adopted more progressive attitudes about hiring ex-offenders, and maybe he's onto something.  Although several large and midsize local employers, including Comcast and iconic diner maven Michael Petrogiannis (who owns the Melrose, Mayfair, Country Club, Tiffany and several more), didn't return phone messages, one small employer did, and he underscored Hart's optimism. 

Rick Piper, who owns Center City's 12th Street Gym, won't disclose whether any of his present 28 employees have criminal records.  But Piper says he's hired numerous ex-offenders through the years with few regrets.

 "The fact is, we've had extraordinary success with them," he says. "I require a personal recommendation from either a staff member or gym member to consider them, and we've had a couple who have disappointed us, that we had to let go.  But for the most part, we've found that these are people who have tasted punishment and matured as a result.  Overall, they've proven to be great employees for us.

"Strangely enough, we sometimes view it almost as a positive."

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