Ex-Convicts Connect With Kids

Print More

Position wanted: Working with kids.

Education: High school dropout.

Honors: Top drug salesman for street gang. Convicted of drug trafficking and weapons possession at 17.

Recent accomplishment: Taught to read by fellow con in prison.

Special motivation: Younger brother shot to death by cops.

William Morales got the job anyway.

On the Boston streets where he once guided youths to get high, rob neighbors and shoot other kids, Morales now pushes them to field grounders, ace algebra and mentor each other - then sits at a desk to pore over a budget for the YMCA youth center that he directs.

The redemption of this ex-con is just half the puzzle; lots of criminals turn their lives around. But even people who preach giving ex-offenders second chances hesitate to give them that chance with youth. More states are barring ex-cons from working in areas such as foster care and child care. More youth-serving agencies are using computer databases, private services and sex offender registries to check the backgrounds of prospective volunteers and employees.

So why hire an ex-offender like Morales as a youth worker?

Why take a chance with Jim Jones, a former crackhead fresh out of prison for a string of store robberies in Nebraska, to work with youths who need tutoring?

Why let Carolyn Gabbard, a former car thief, drug user and teen mother who'd "been in quite a few detention centers," serve as a youth pastor in Ohio?

Why hire Ronald Laney - now a director at the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention - as a juvenile probation officer in Florida after he'd done time for breaking into cars, robbing restaurants and assaulting sailors?

Because adults who've done crime, drugs and violence, or got pregnant at 15 (like Gabbard) can sometimes connect with youths in ways that straight-arrow adults cannot. "I'm different than virtually every other counselor working at the center," says John Artis, the alleged murder accomplice of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who after 15 years in prison is now a youth counselor at the Norfolk (Va.) Juvenile Detention Center. "I've been where they are."

And because many agencies are finding it increasingly unrealistic to turn away all ex-cons, especially agencies that serve poor, high-crime communities. The growing U.S. prison population stands at 1.8 million, with about 500,000 inmates released every year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Another 4 million are on probation or parole. The issue is especially apt for agencies that are trying to recruit more young African-American men to work with African-American kids: In 1999, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one of every nine African-American men between age 25 and 29 was in prison.

"What better mentor for an at-risk kid who's headed into a life of crime than someone who's just come out of prison? It's an effective concept," says Melanie Herman, executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, a D.C.-based agency that helps nonprofits assess and manage risks to the people they serve, including youth. Yet Herman realizes that while ex-offenders can bring street smarts to youth work, they also bring risk.

Need Not Apply

People around Egleston Square in Roxbury welcomed Morales back from prison in 1994 like a disease. Not only had he been a violent pusher for the X-Men street gang, but while he was locked up his younger brother, Hector, had fired on police and been killed by the return bullets. When Morales heard about it on his prison TV, he thought, "I'm gonna get those cops."

Then he got mad at himself. He'd always tried to protect his little brother, and realized that "being incarcerated, I can't guarantee anything for my family." Embarrassed that he didn't even understand when TV reports described Hector in "critical condition" (a prisoner had to explain it), Morales went on a learning spree. He learned to read, earned a GED, and became an inmate activist, pushing for drug treatment programs in Spanish.

Ex-cons gone good often point to a person or event that turned them around. Gabbard says having a baby at 16 "caused me to grow up." In Nebraska, Jones says prison visits by a woman from a local church "helped me realize that I had something to give, that I'm not a throwaway." For Laney, the prospect of serious time for an underage drinking charge, and the intervention of a juvenile judge and a cop who'd arrested him as a kid, convinced him to join the Marines.

While Hector's death inspired Morales to go straight, he found employers unenthused about hiring an ex-offender. Police visited Morales to gauge his intentions, while young gang wannabes hung nearby, "looking for somebody to lead them," he says.

Morales found inspiration in former X-Man Jose Ojeda, who'd been paralyzed by gunfire; Ojeda traveled to local schools in his wheelchair urging youths to avoid drugs, gangs and violence. Morales joined him. Soon he was tutoring, speaking at assessment centers for kids who'd been suspended from school and coaching a basketball team for an Hispanic youth association, IBA. "Nobody was trying to give me work or break new ground" by bringing on an ex-con, Morales says. His work was volunteer.

The payoff was not cash, but something more lasting: credibility. By doing honorable work after prison, ex-cons can sort of launder themselves. For instance, Eddie Timmons started robbing gas stations, liquor stores and houses in the San Jose suburbs at 14; he was arrested at 18. Released after serving nearly three years, he volunteered at the Jubilee Christian Center in San Jose. "I cleaned tables, washed toilets and served food. I did whatever I could on a service level," he says. That service launched his career as a youth minister.

Churches are the quickest to open their doors to ex-offenders, what with forgiveness and redemption at the core of many churches' missions. At youth-serving agencies, the belief in redemption clashes with fears of youth being harmed (or badly influenced) by an ex-offender, and the agency being sued because of that harm. One exception is Wolverine Human Services in Detroit, which serves about 650 delinquent youth in mostly low-security facilities under government contracts. Executive Director Robert Wollack estimates that there are 30-plus ex-offenders among his staff of more than 700.

"If you believe in rehabilitation of kids, then you believe these ex-offenders have been rehabilitated," Wollack says. "You're hypocritical if you don't give them a shot."

(Giving them that shot, agency directors and ex-cons say, depends on the ex-offenders disclosing the convictions when they apply. Discovering a conviction on their own can make employers distrust the applicant.)

Two other powerful cleansers for ex-cons are college and the military. After two stays in San Francisco's juvenile hall - for stealing and selling watches from an arcade, and for stealing a gun - Dennis Sweeny joined the U.S. Marines. After discharge he enrolled in college and became a part-time counselor in the juvenile hall where he'd done time. Were those who hired him concerned about his juvenile record? "Once you've done four-and-a-half years in the Marines," Sweeny says, "they don't hold it against you." Sweeny retired four years ago as the chief juvenile probation officer for San Francisco.

The Need for Cons

Like Timmons, Morales volunteered at a religious organization: Boston's United Methodist Urban Services, a community service nonprofit. Morales worked with the agency's nascent community policing program, which sought to improve communication between local cops and youth - the kind of program, Morales thought, that might have kept his brother away from that fatal shootout with police. Within months Morales was hired as coordinator at one of the sites. It was his first paid job in youth work, about $15,000 a year part-time.

Rev. Wesley Williams, the agency's executive director, had worked in prison ministry and believed in rehabilitation. Morales justified that faith, taking the program "to a whole 'nother level," Williams says. The program includes regular roundtable discussions between kids and police, and a weekly law class for youths. Morales became a sort of conduit between police and gangs, helping to cool conflicts before they exploded.

This work routinely brought Morales to properties run by Urban Edge Housing Corp., a community development corporation and one of the neighborhood's largest landlords. Violence was wrecking many Urban Edge apartments, recalls community services director Larry Stoddard. One complex "was suffering from the worst form of gang takeover and drug- and gang-related intimidation and violence. The street life was ruling the area and the property, making it impossible to ... provide decent housing and safety to our residents."

Stoddard saw Morales as someone to befriend and consult "because of his manner, his openness and his seriousness ... We saw him as a person through whom one could be in touch with youth issues and with youth leaders in the area." In 1996 he hired Morales as a youth outreach worker.

"Not a soul" at Urban Edge objected to hiring a convicted ex-gangster, Stoddard says. "We hire heavily from the neighborhoods we serve. We do not back off from people because of what they've been through in life. We'd cut ourselves out of a large pool of good and qualified people."

Ex-offenders might be particularly qualified for some types of youth work. When Jitu Sadiki started the Black Awareness Community Development Organization in his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood after his second stint in prison (for assault), he sought out ex-offenders for his staff because he felt they could connect well with certain youths on the street, and because his community had so many ex-offenders that it was impossible to avoid them. "I knew that if we were going to be sincere about trying to make our community safer, then these are the type of individuals you have to deal with," Sadiki says.

In Roxbury, Morales focused on the most violence-plagued Urban Edge properties, working with both gang members and the police to resolve conflicts and head off trouble. He walked a thin line, making it clear to gang members that he could not just ignore criminal activity he witnessed or learned of, but making it clear to police that he could not serve as their snitch, because he'd lose credibility with the youth (and maybe get hurt). Morales also linked families to social services and job placement, and created an after-school program staffed by parents.

He operated largely by instinct; his youth work education came from "things I knew and went through growing up." The job, however, taught him about management, budgets and administrative leadership. Those skills emboldened him to answer an ad three years ago for director of the Egleston Square Youth Center - started by the YMCA in 1991 at the urging of community leaders after the death of Hector Morales.

Beacons of Hope

An established youth agency like the YMCA has good reason to avoid hiring an ex-con, even if he lives a clean life. Consider some headlines from the past 18 months: "Trouble mars foster parents' past; Analysis reveals criminal records" (Anchorage Daily News); "The Criminal in the Next Room: State fails to bar the dangerous from day-care homes" (Newsday); "Charter School Leader Served Prison Time" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

Even Wollack, at Wolverine in Detroit, declined to discuss the ex-offenders he's hired, saying, "I don't know if I want that kind of publicity."

The Roxbury branch of the Greater Boston YMCA knew Morales' criminal history, says Executive Director Harold Sparrow. But, he adds, "We knew he had come back to the community and had turned his life around." Morales' work in the neighborhood had impressed the local YMCA staff, and his references included cops. Sparrow saw Morales as "a beacon of hope and reconciliation" for young people.

The youth center was a drop-in facility with few teens dropping in. Under Morales the center has doubled in size (to 7,000 square feet), opened a GED preparation school, expanded several programs (such as the after-school program, now serving 120 youths), started new ones (such as a youth baseball team that also focuses on academics), and lived within budget (then about $200,000) for the first time.

Today the budget has more than tripled, to $700,000. A 1998 Boston Globe story about the resurrection of Egleston Square said, "It would be hard to overstate the impact the Y is having on the youth of the area today. There are pingpong and pool tables for kids now, after-school programs, a clean, safe place to go. The spirited, muscular teenage boys who, in an earlier day, might have been X-Men hanging on the corner, spend hours in the weight rooms, pumping and sweating while they listen to rap and rock."

The center expanded largely with funds from local agencies (such as the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, the Boston Police Department and the Hyams Foundation) that enthusiastically answered Morales' calls for help. Other ex-cons have found funders to be open-minded as well. In Los Angeles, Sadiki found several funders for his youth-focused Black Awareness project, most notably the Liberty Hill Foundation, which supports grass roots efforts to overcome inequality in Los Angeles County. Liberty Hill has given Sadiki's group about $60,000 since he started it in the early '90s. A conviction "has never been a concern for us," says program director Margarita Ramirez. "Anybody who takes the initiative to do something to turn around their lives and turn around the lives of youth is something that's very positive."

Several foundations feel the same way about Luis Rodriguez, a former Los Angeles gang member who did time for burglary and attempted murder. Rodriguez was a published journalist and poet when his son's gang involvement prompted him to start Youth Struggling for Survival (YSS), a Chicago nonprofit that focuses on mentoring, arts and community leadership. YSS has been funded by the Crossroads Fund (a Chicago-area foundation) and the Milarepa Foundation (started by the Beastie Boys).

The money doesn't always work as planned. Sadiki said that his strategy to hire only ex-offenders or ex-gangsters "in concept was good, but in reality it didn't work." Some of the staff "had not really made a commitment" to turn their own lives around. They socialized with old gang friends and engaged in some of the activities, like substance abuse, that they told youths to avoid. One staffer was rearrested on drug charges; others have been fired.

And in Chicago, Rodriguez couldn't save his son. Ramiro Rodriguez is serving 27 years for attempted murder.

Talk the Talk

But YSS lives on. The youths "see me as somebody who's been through something they're going through," the elder Rodriguez says. "They see this guy can do this [be successful], and he was such a terrible guy before. It helps them see that they can do it themselves."

"With the high-risk kids, there's a sense of credibility," Morales says. "There's a sense that I'm real about what I'm coming to them with. I understand what they're doing and what they're dealing with."

Ex-offenders like Laney feel that young offenders immediately give them a certain street respect, and that the youths have more trouble conning them because they've pulled the same cons themselves. One common mistake of well-trained youth workers, Laney says: overusing the language of therapy, which youths often pick up not because they understand, but because they figure it will help them get by. Laney recalls from his early days as a probation officer: "One child said to me, "I'm easily aggravated.' I said, 'What do you mean, easily aggravated?' It was a term they'd picked up from the adults in the system." Laney told the youths to drop such talk. "We talked in a language they could understand."

But an ex-con's story might inspire the wrong kind of inspiration, Sweeny says: "They look at you and think well, he's been through the system and been successful, so I can continue to [screw] up. I'll get real serious when I hit 18." He and others try to de-glamorize their past and focus on when they turned their lives around. "The first thing I tell kids was I was a loser," says Timmons, the youth minister.

Morales takes the same tack, even though he was a 1999 winner of the BRICK award, issued by the nonprofit group Do Something to honor young community leaders. Morales plays down his rehabilitation as a model for youth; his objective is to keep kids from following his footsteps. "I try to tell a lot of young people I'm not a hero," he says. "I'm just lucky to be here."

Patrick Boyle can be reached at pboyle@youthtoday.org.