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Ex-Cons: Making It Outside

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By Frank Rubino

He has a great name for a basketball player, and at a wiry 6-5, the perfect physique for one, too.  But Karriem Muhammad, who did indeed play ball for West Philly High, didn't relish jumping through hoops for prospective employers when he left the State Correctional Institution at Pine Grove in 2006.

So the Southwest Philly native - who started selling crack around 52nd and Kingsessing at age 11, got shot at 19, and later beat an attempted murder rap before finally ending up in prison for drug-dealing - launched a home remodeling business instead of trying to convince "the man" to hire him.

Karriem.jpgToday, Under Construction Carpentry is in the black and then some.  It's also perfectly legit.   "Oh yeah," Muhammad laughs.  "I just did my taxes."  The father of four and his wife, Kisha, own an Olney row house, and they're mulling relocating to the 'burbs.

In Part One, we told you how, for many ex-cons, finding work and a stable life outside of prison is a difficult, tenuous, sometimes unreachable goal.  But, not everyone with a criminal past is shunned by society's gatekeepers upon going straight.  Some ex-offenders catch breaks and land jobs they adore.  Others, like Muhammad, make their own breaks. 

"I knew my record looked terrible, and I wasn't going to be able to get the kind of job I'd want," he says.  "And I just said, 'I have to get my own business, be my own boss, and that's how I'm going make my money legally'."

Reclining on a leather sofa in his living room after mowing his lawn on a day off, Muhammad, 35, says of his burgeoning enterprise, "It's not too bad, but my goal is for it to get a lot better."                 

He remodels virtually everything in the home: kitchens, bathrooms and basements, windows, floors and doors.  He learned carpentry at Orleans Technical Institute in the Northeast, which he attended after leaving Pine Grove.

Mohammad has an artistic flair, and he's delighted that most of his customers give him enough latitude to show it off. 

"I'm a bright colors guy, greens and oranges and stuff," he says.  "I tell them, this will make this color pop, this floor would go with this, that sort of thing.  And they take my advice, and they love it."

Muhammad's basement is a testament to his talent:  cheery orange walls, a beautifully tiled floor, a walk-in tool closet, a glass-enclosed washer-dryer space, a refinished little bathroom and an expertly-hung big-screen TV.

"This is where I relax," he says, smiling.

Beneath his Islamic beard, on either side of his neck, Muhammad, nicknamed "Big Riem," sports street-style tattoos bearing the names of boyhood friends who didn't survive Southwest Philly:  "RIP Molly" (a nick for Jamal) and "RIP Tahir."

Asked whether he ever considers that, had things gone differently, someone might have "RIP Big Riem" on his or her neck, he says, "Yeah, that could've happened.  Fortunately, it didn't, and I realized I didn't want that lifestyle anymore.

"With the things I did," he adds, "I'm not going to sit here and say I'm a good person, but I'm not a bad person either.  I just chose to do stupid things."

Bishop Ernest McNear, who runs the Kingdom Care Reentry Network out of his True Gospel Tabernacle Family Church in South Philly, became acquainted with Muhammad when Karriem was locked up locally.  McNear disagrees with part of Muhammad's self-appraisal.

"He is a good guy," McNear says.  "He really shined in our program, and he talked about how he wanted to start his own business, and he used his energy and the support that we gave

him, and he began to work his own magic.  And he went out and did it."

 

Tony Roberts

Eight months after leaving Graterford prison in February 2011 for what he vows will be the last time, Anthony Roberts, a former point guard at Germantown High, found a job that's worth a lot more to him than the $27,000-a-year he started at.

Roberts, a 51-year-old father of five, is a street worker for the Philadelphia Antidrug/ Antiviolence Network, a nonprofit that contracts with the Department of Human Services.  His mission:  Steering the young adults on his caseload, all on county-level probation, away from the sort of two-decade relationship he maintained with the state's Department of Corrections.

Tony Roberts.jpg"Altogether I probably did 17 years on the installment plan," Roberts, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and a beige sport coat, quips in his mother Arlenia's Brewerytown living room.  "In and out, again and again.  And all my time was upstate, up the river."

Roberts' signature crime was walking into auto dealerships, persuading salesmen to let him take cars on solo test drives and never coming back.  His motive?  To use the wheels as a means to score crack.

"I knew if I had a car," he says, "I could find a way to get high, by dropping someone off somewhere or whatever."  Of his addiction, he says, "I'd be the first to say that when I first tried crack I became instantly addicted."

Now clean - and very savvy - Roberts keeps close tabs on the 24 young people (he calls them YPs, for youth partners) assigned to him.  They range in age from 17 to 24, and all live within the boundaries of North Philly's perilous 22nd Police District.  Three are female.  All have been deemed by judges to be at risk of being killed or killing someone else.

Naturally, they're savvy, too.

"They'll try you," says Roberts, whose father Kenneth is a retired deputy sheriff.  "But I set boundaries right away.  I tell them, 'Look, where you been, I been there and beyond.'  I know a lot of their mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles.  I'll tell one, 'Go ask your Uncle Johnny about me.'  The next day he'll come back and say, 'Yeah, I heard a lot about you last night, Mr. Roberts.'"

Beyond letting them know that he knows what time it is, Roberts acts as a liaison between his YPs and their probation officers.

"The PO will call me and say, 'What's up with so-and-so, is he working?'  And I'll call the individual and say, 'Hey, did you check out that ShopRite job I told you about?'"

LeRoy McKinney, Roberts' boss, assigned Roberts one of his former personal caseloads.  "I believe they relate to Anthony," McKinney says.  "And I think they realize he's concerned about them."

Roberts himself has a strong mentor - Tyrone Werts, one of three lifers whose sentences then-Gov. Ed Rendell commuted in January 2011. 

Roberts likes to talk about the day at Graterford prison when Werts queried him as to why he kept bouncing in and out, to which Roberts replied, "Well, you know I got a drug problem."

Werts retorted that in his view, drugs weren't Roberts' problem, but rather his wrongheaded solution to his problems. 

"I never had anybody break it down to me like that before," Roberts says.  "Tyrone was right.  I was using drugs to escape my disappointments.  It's the best insight anybody ever gave me about myself."

Now Roberts returns Werts' favor and urges troubled young men and women to look within themselves for answers. 

"This is my chance to give back," he says.  "I care about these young people.  I'm old enough to be their father, and a lot of them never had fathers.  They're one mistake from going back to jail, like I did many times.  I'm getting back as much as I'm giving."

 

 Dorothy Benson

Inside the charming flower shop on 5th Street in Olney where she works six-days-a-week, Dorothy Benson is surrounded by soft and happy sights and sounds:  pretty-hued flowers, of course, but also doves and party actors wearing Mickey Mouse, Spongebob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer costumes.

"It's such a nice place to come into every day," Benson says in her characteristic gentle voice. 

Dorothy Benson.jpgThe environment contrasts starkly with the grimness surrounding the State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs in northwest Pennsylvania, a locale the 49-year-old Benson left just six months ago.

"It snows real bad there," remembers Benson, who spent three-and-a-half years of her four-to-eight-year sentence at Cambridge Springs after being convicted on drug charges.  "You have to shovel snow a lot.  You get like three outfits to wear, one coat and a hat. 

"It's amazing," she continues.  "It's a whole world nobody knows about."

Among the nearly 1,000 women assigned to Cambridge Springs are MOVE sisters Debbie, Janet and Janine Africa.   On her first day there, Benson, who'd never been incarcerated before, found herself sitting at a lunch table with the trio.

"It was an experience," she says.  "They gave me some inspiration, like, 'You'll be able to make it,' and, 'Just do what you're supposed to do.'  I couldn't believe I was eating with them, because I was like 16 when they went to jail."

Of course, not everyone one encounters in prison is kindly.  Benson cringes while recalling a day when she managed to maintain her composure after another inmate spat on her for no good reason.

"I just dealt with it," Benson, who's married and has a 15-year-old son, says.  "I knew I was eventually coming home.  I never got any misconducts, never broke any rules.  I smiled all the time, tried to be pleasant." 

The red gloss she wore daily earned her the nickname "Lipstick" from the staff and her fellow inmates, many of whom told her they'd miss her when she left.  

Peggy Sims, who works with Benson at the reentry center Sims runs out of Rev. Derick Brennan's Canaan Baptist Church in Germantown, admires Benson's tranquil demeanor.

"She has no bitterness," Sims notes.  "She's just plain nice."

Although she doesn't come up for parole until June, Benson's conduct gained her a transfer last October to the halfway house, or community corrections center, where she now lives.  She's one of approximately 1,600 state prisoners residing in 18 halfway houses the Department of Corrections operates in Philadelphia, according to DOC spokesperson Susan Bensinger.

A stipulation for inmates afforded that privilege is that they be employed or trying to find work.  Of course, inmates needn't be holding down two jobs, but Benson is doing just that, working weekend evenings as a customer service rep for Germantown Cab.

"I'm the person you talk to when you call," she explains.  "Then I give the ticket to the dispatcher, who radios the cab."  She laughs.  "I get to use my nice telephone voice."

Asked about her plans should she win parole, Benson says she's considering making fragrant candles and perhaps selling them in the flower shop.

"We don't have candles, and everyone's always coming in and asking for them," she says.  "So that's my next mission.  I can do that in my spare time.  And then I can give back.

Somebody that comes home will need a job like I did, and there I'll be with my little candle business. 

"And I can give them a job." 


Photos: Frank Rubino

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