PhillyDeals: Ex-con starts a business to help future prisoners

David Downey: Help others bound for prison.
David Downey: Help others bound for prison. (RON TARVER / Staff)
Posted: August 19, 2014

Eight-and-a-half years after the judge sent him upstate, Pennsylvania's parole board sent David Downey home from Waymart State Correctional Institution, after stints at Graterford and Camp Hill, to suburban Philadelphia, and his business plan.

He had been convicted of drug delivery resulting in the 2005 death of a teenage escort-service worker, Ashley Burg. She was killed by a cocaine overdose at Downey's home.

Downey had been a government intelligence veteran and then turned to being a business consultant. He was an old source of mine before he slid out of control.

"Doc" was lighter, clean-shaven, and silver-haired when we met for breakfast at a diner near King of Prussia a week after his release. And blunt as ever: "I've been a drunk. My dad was a drunk. If I took a drink tomorrow, I'd be dead in a month," he told me.

Like any good consultant, Downey is leveraging his recent experience: He has been pitching his new firm, In - Gear L.L.P., to lawyers in Philadelphia and Washington. He intends to be a security consultant and adviser to previously solid citizens convicted of crimes.

"Prison is not facilitating any recovery," Downey says. "It is dangerous and scary."

An inside-trading corporate officer, a suburban multiple-DUI offender, a nonprofit embezzler, or state legislator typically has no idea about prison.

"I can train them on what to expect," Downey said. "I can save them anxiety and emotional pain."

Downey reports firsthand on the impact of tight state budgets: "Degradation, the declining scale of food, facilities, and blankets. They give you less. There's issues now with toilet paper, with soap distribution."

Sometimes, there is too little water. Filth spreads.

Most of all is the human element: ethnic factions, rules, manipulations, diseases, physical, and mental power struggles, lies.

"For guys who have not been exposed to prison, who never got the word on the street on what it's like, this becomes a real culture shock. I've seen it," said Blue Bell lawyer Thomas Egan III, who helped with Downey's appeal. "David might have something valuable to offer them."

Downey was better educated than many prisoners. "But people like college guys, military, have to understand their standing doesn't matter," Downey said.

Downey preaches consistency - not seeking enemies, figuring when to stand your ground and push back. And helping others, for self-respect and profit. He says he made peace with urban inmates of all races.

"You have to regard the Muslims," Downey said. "They just want to have their religion respected."

He had a tougher time with small-town whites: "Some of those people don't respect human life, or anything," Downey said.

Corrections officers have it rough, he explained: "They wear a vest for two reasons. The front, to protect them from us. The back, from each other. It's all about control."

Not that he is bitter: "I don't have a beef with the state prison system. I'm not angry about how it operates. I can be helpful in helping men and women deal with it."

What might Downey change? End the soggy breakfasts, improve the two other meals.

"Make a better library, and put people in charge who are considerate," he said, more thoughtfully. "End the weight programs, create aerobic programs instead. And certify teachers, give people incentives to take a course."

Realize the day will come when the prisoner is back among us all.

215-854-5194 @PhillyJoeD

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