Around the same time, Harun Fox was already about 20 years into a life sentence on a first-degree-murder conviction.
The West Philly native was tired of seeing kids like Phillips rotate through the criminal-justice system, following the same path he had walked.
In 2004, they met at a penitentiary in the rolling hills of Montgomery County.
And, with sage advice from the convicted murderer, Phillips made a complete turnaround, breaking away from what Fox calls a "culture of crime" and earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
Now Phillips, 44, brings the process that Fox used to mold him to youths whom he considers at risk of following in his footsteps. The two men, interviewed by the Daily News, are living proof that redemption is never out of reach.
On a recent afternoon, in an office 6 miles and 20 years removed from his old stomping grounds at 15th and York streets, Phillips spoke about his past.
At the height of his "career," he said, none of his peers really gave much thought to the future.
"I knew I'd either spend the rest of my life in jail, or I'd get killed; that was the game," Phillips said.
"There's no story of successful drug dealers."
In 1999, that philosophy took him to a nightclub on Brown Street at the border of Old City and Northern Liberties, seeking revenge on a rival who had wounded him and killed a friend in a gunfight.
Phillips was armed, he started a scene - and he got arrested.
He was convicted of aggravated assault and entered the state correctional system, eventually landing in Graterford penitentiary, near the Perkiomen Creek.
"If it wasn't for the lifers in Graterford, I don't know where I'd be," Phillips said.
"Actually, I don't even want to think about where I'd be."
'Save those babies'
Harun Fox, 70, looks like someone's kindly grandfather, with wispy, white hair and a beard to match. He greets new acquaintances with a firm handshake and a big, infectious grin.
He's used that warm demeanor to melt the anger and fear of hardened criminals, drug dealers and thugs through a process he calls "cognitive transformation."
Fox works with a captive audience, literally: He helped start the Public Safety Initiative with other lifers during the crack epidemic of the late '80s, and he handpicks inmates to take under his wing.
John Phillips was one of those inmates.
"He looked like a real baby back then," Fox said of Phillips recently, with a laugh, inside Graterford's visiting area. "He was fearless; he wasn't afraid to ask questions: where to go, what to do."
So, Fox invited Phillips into his cell, telling him that he wanted to talk.
Fox's cell faces Graterford's recreation yard, affording him (and any visitor) a clear view of the men pumping iron, shooting hoops and milling about.
On that afternoon, Fox told Phillips to look out over that yard.
"He asked me if I saw those 'babies' out there," Phillips recalled. "I didn't know where he was going with this.
"He said, 'I need you to do me a favor: When you get home, I need you to save those babies for me.' "
That request accomplished two things: It heralded Phillips' entrance into Public Safety Initiative, and the program changed his life forever.
"John is the poster child for what we are trying to do," Fox said.
Mind over matter
To hear Phillips tell it, he fell into crime because he didn't listen to his parents.
He said that he had strong role models growing up, people who told him to stay off the corners, to avoid the hustlers who ruled his neighborhood.
"Those were the guys I grew up with, guys who watched me grow up; it wasn't unfamiliar company," he said.
"I saw what they had, and I wanted it. I had positive people in my life, but I looked up to the thugs."
And so, Phillips joined what Fox and his fellow program members call the "culture of crime," a self-perpetuating cycle of violence, greed and incarceration.
The values central to that culture, according to Fox, bridge the generation gap: Criminals get arrested, go to prison and then return to the streets, where wide-eyed kids who admire their lifestyle get swept up and follow in their footsteps.
"We saw that it's our job, while we have these men in here, to address this cycle," Fox said. "It's all about thought: If you think in a new way, you behave in a new way. And if you behave in a new way, you create new outcomes for your future."
That, in a nutshell, is what the program calls "cognitive transformation."
Members reach that transformation in a variety of ways. Roundtable discussions and debates about crime, government and law are common, as are assigned readings on religion, philosophy and how the brain itself works.
Emphasis is placed on education and vocation, with members urged to pursue academic degrees or trades.
But the real secret to the program's success is empathy.
"A transformed offender is one who's proven he can change," Fox said. "His message is infallible."
The lifers' message resonates with participants in the program, Fox said, because it's grounded in reality: Lessons are handed down by former criminals, not academics.
Take Fox, for example.
Like Phillips, Fox joined a gang in his youth. It was out of necessity - "for protection," he said - as he grew up on 59th Street near Osage Avenue, in West Philly.
In June 1978, about a block from Fox's home, steak-shop proprietor Paul Lynch was gunned down outside his shop. A jury found Fox guilty of the slaying.
Fox maintains his innocence, and is seeking to appeal his case to the Supreme Court.
Paying it forward
The most convincing mentor in the world can't get through to an inmate who doesn't see the error of his ways.
"The first step to success is, you have to be looking for change," Fox said. "You need to want to succeed before we can prepare you to leave here ready to succeed."
Newspaper reports convinced John Phillips that he was ready to succeed.
As he sat in Graterford, he read story after story about his friends getting gunned down, dying young in a lifestyle he had shared with them.
"These were guys I knew, whose houses I used to hang out at," he said. "I thought, 'Wow, I could've been with him that night.' "
So, when he looked out over the recreation yard with Fox, he accepted his offer to "save the babies" and entered into the program full time.
Two years later, in 2006, Phillips walked out of the prison's gates a new man.
He put the program's philosophy into practice immediately, fighting the culture of crime through several organizations.
Through staff positions with state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and state Rep. Ron Waters, he helped to ease the re-entry of released inmates, connecting them with job-placement services and other necessities.
He brought kids to the Criminal Justice Center as part of the city Sheriff's Office's Junior Posse Program, walking them through the holding cells amid the catcalls of prisoners and parading them in front of a city judge.
He ran "alternative-discipline programs" at various high schools, including Frankford and Overbrook, trying to break through to kids who started fights with each other and, occasionally, with their teachers.
"I'm trying to be a positive role model for these kids, because I was there, I know what it's like," he said. "If you don't experience it, you can't relate to what they're going through."
Through the years, Phillips has kept in contact with the kids he's helped.
Kids like Laroi Divine-Little, 22, who now has a child of her own.
In 2009, Divine-Little was a rebellious teen in her senior year at Overbrook. Her quick temper led to a fight with another student, and she found herself barred from her graduation and prom.
"He just talked to me, told me about his life," Divine-Little said.
"He helped me realize that that wasn't the life I wanted, that I didn't want to fight anymore."
After a few sessions of cognitive transformation with Divine-Little, Phillips lobbied on the teen's behalf, and she was welcomed back into graduation and prom.
"I was ecstatic," she said. "What teen doesn't want to go to prom?"
Phillips' influence continued after she received her diploma: She broke things off with her longtime boyfriend, a kid she said was "heading down the same path John took."
She also credits Phillips with keeping her away from teen pregnancy, persuading her to focus on her studies before starting a family.
"I never knew anybody who was incarcerated, who had that experience," she said. "When I heard from someone with that background, it opened my eyes.
"If we had more men like John out here, there would be fewer boys in jail."
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