Karen Heller: Milton Street has a point about ex-prisoners

T. Milton Street is running for mayor and says Mayor Nutterwill refuse to debate him "because I am pregnant with information."
T. Milton Street is running for mayor and says Mayor Nutterwill refuse to debate him "because I am pregnant with information."
Posted: February 20, 2011

There he was, T. Milton Street, jaunty beret tilted just so, large as life, possibly larger, sneakered feet planted aboard a U-Haul flatbed truck at the vigorous confluence of 52d and Market, announcing his candidacy for mayor.

Brother Milton, activist, former state senator, state representative, truck driver, hot-dog vendor, candidate for dogcatcher, garrulous older sibling of the former mayor, rhetorical pugilist, and, as he is the first to tell you, ex-offender. And he's ready to get back into the game.

Street, 71, was released in November, after serving 26 months in federal prison and a halfway house for failing to pay taxes on nearly $3 million in income. When he rants about the "penthouse people" who won't vote for him, it's wise to remember how much money he once earned.

With "zero" financing, no union support, and crude black-and-white buttons that might have been crafted by a fourth grader, Street is, to date, Mayor Nutter's only challenger in the May Democratic primary.

Street is an engaging, uncensored, and entertaining orator, in part because he never lets facts get in the way of a robust argument.

He challenged Nutter to a debate and assumes the mayor will decline.

"He's got no shot. He will not stand up in front of voters of Philadelphia and debate Milton Street," he said, simultaneously adopting a street-fighting stance and the regal tendency to refer to himself in the third person. "And I will tell you why. Because I am pregnant with information. And I am prepared in any debate to wax eloquent all up and down."

Pregnant with information! Wax eloquent all up and down! What's not to love?

This time, Street contends that he resides in the city. In 2006, Brother Milton was ruled ineligible to run for a state House seat - mind you, a Pennsylvania House seat - because he happened to live in New Jersey.

Did this thwart Milton? No, it did not.

The next year, he ran for mayor for 19 days before switching to an at-large City Council seat, coming in 17th of 19 candidates. When experts discuss attention-deficit disorder, they do well to include recovering politicians who will do anything to stay in the limelight.

Milton has a platform. "There are 300,000 ex-offenders in the city of Philadelphia," he said, and he wants them to help keep the peace.

Actually, no one is clear on the number, "but it doesn't strike me as high," says the Prison Society's Betty-Ann Izenman. Philadelphia's system annually releases 35,000 ex-offenders.

"The day I am elected, I'm going to put 3,000 ex-offenders in the community," Street says. How will he find the money? "It costs $30,000 to keep them in prison. I'll pay them $20,000, and we'll save millions."

Well, no. Street is right about the average cost of housing inmates, but not about the source of funding. Many of the city's ex-offenders served time in the state system, under a different budget, or, like Street, were incarcerated in federal prison.

And good luck with hiring former inmates to keep city streets safe. Residents of Southwest Philadelphia, a neighborhood with a high concentration of ex-offenders, are protesting a proposed prisoner-reentry facility.

But Street raises a serious problem. This city has a lot of ex-offenders and, without work, recidivism is high, around 56 percent. "Employers are a tough nut to crack," says Louis Giorla, Philadelphia prison commissioner, "though we have some pretty prestigious ex-offenders who land work. If Lindsay Lohan, as crazy as she is, can find work, and Charlie Sheen can get a job, why not someone else? Like Vince Fumo."

Well, Fumo is still in the slammer. But here's Brother Milton. Joining him at the small kickoff gathering was former Councilman Jimmy Tayoun, who served 40 months in federal prison for racketeering and mail fraud. Tayoun wrote the advice pamphlet Going to Prison? that recommends "leave at home keys, wallet, pens and pencils, credit cards - you won't need them," and also relationship advice. "Straight sex is nearly nonexistent in prison. What is available is homosexual activity. You should know that if you get yourself involved in a relationship, you are treading on very thin ice. . . . Trying to make it with a guard is the quickest way to get into very serious trouble."

Uh, where were we? Much of what Street says doesn't track. The crowd at 52d and Market seemed to lose interest in his single issue. One observer, definitely not a penthouse person, asked me who was the man preaching on the truck. When told, he sniffed and left.

But Street makes a valid point about finding employment for ex-offenders, though that doesn't have to include him as our next mayor.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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