For Ex-offenders, Program Builds Hope

Posted: July 01, 1999

Although over the years I have written about the criminal justice system and visited many if not most of the older penitentiaries in the state, it has been some time since I last had been in a prison or talked to men who are incarcerated.

For two hours on Tuesday night, I talked - but mainly listened - to 10 men who live in a halfway house run by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections just six blocks from my office.

The men meet each week in a group session called the "End the Violence Project," run by volunteers who help the men make the adjustment back into their communities.

They have been told how to use public transportation. Some get computer training; others get advice on how to re-enter the family, how to talk to their wives and children after being away for many years.

The program was started in 1988 by Mahin Bina, a middle-aged Iranian woman who migrated here 33 years ago. The State Department of Corrections considers the program to be one of the best of its kind in the country. It has won national awards for its success in helping inmates resume their lives and stay out of trouble.

To get as far as the halfway house, the inmates must have proven to be model prisoners and have served their minimum sentence.

The racial and ethnic make-up of the group, which sat around a large, brown, rectangular desk, nearly reflected the make-up of Philadelphia's inmate population: one white, five blacks and three Latinos. The men, who ranged in age from 25 to about 60, all have committed serious crimes, and most have committed violent crimes. Drugs was a factor in most of their convictions.

One man who could not have been more than 37 has "been down," in the lingo of the offenders, 16 years, meaning he has spent almost half his life behind bars.

The young men ranged in height and weight. All were physically fit, with toned muscles indicating many hours in the prison weight room, both for physical fitness and for defense in a prison environment prone to violence.

The discussion was led by Bina and Jerry Davis, a Sun Oil Company executive who has come every week over the past two years to be involved in the discussions.

As the men around the table made their comments, I could get the sense of their various personalities. All shared the common language of prison slang. What surprised me was their common theme: how each of them, to a man, conceded that he was responsible for having landed in prison.

"I blame nobody but myself," said one. "I been down six years. I had options, but I made the wrong decisions, and that's why I was incarcerated." The others around table nodded their heads in agreement.

"My family has suffered," said another, a big man of 38 who is married and the father of one. He told the group that he had been running a legitimate business in his neighborhood before drugs and alcohol took control of his life.

Most in the group said they were committed to staying clear of prison in the future, to getting and keeping a job. All said they were angry at the system but had learned how to control their anger.

Most of the anger, they said, stems from the attitude they see around them: that even after you do your time and pay the price for your crime, people still want to punish you.

"If I can do the job, and tell the truth about my incarceration," said one, "I still can't get a job."

As part of the program, each of the participants has to go to his job every day. One is a barber. Two are construction workers. Others wash dishes. They go to their jobs by public transportation, some traveling to the outer suburban areas for work.

One of the men, about 30, has four years of college. A finance major, he now wants to be a writer and best expressed the awareness of the group that violence can end only when the violent take responsibility. With this line, he summed up the question neatly: "Before succumbing to your chosen destiny, you ask: 'How could I have avoided this?' "

Acel Moore's column appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays. His e-mail address is

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