PHILADELPHIA- At the corner of North Broad and Vine Street the men of Philly ReNew sat around a long conference table and waited with journals in hand on the first Friday of December.

A broad-shouldered man with a smooth, authoritative voice, stood up from the group and read.

“Through this congregation, through us being together, I’ve got a new belief in how to deal with things in life,” said Benjamin Wright, 47 of Philadelphia, a participant of Philly ReNew. “I got a different kind of pride and I’ve got a different kind of idea and this old battleship will float again.”

Philly ReNew, an ongoing 12-week program conducted by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, was created to help fathers with criminal backgrounds find employment and improve their overall quality of life during the transition from prison to community. Groups of members are called cohorts. Each cohort participates in ReNew’s two phases: life skills education courses at the Pennsylvania Prison Society and case management — utilizing the skills learned during the first six weeks to help members find employment — at the National Comprehensive Center for Fathers in Philadelphia, PA.

Although the focus is on job placement, ReNew takes the process one step further.

“We realized journaling is very therapeutic,” said Pamela Superville, ReNew Program Manager. “We have something in the room called black box journaling.”

Members of Philly ReNew sit around a conference table and read from their journals on Dec. 3, 2010 in Philadelphia, PA. ReNew is a reentry program for fathers with criminal background. Photo by Elyse Ann Mickalonis/Pavement Pieces

The concept of ReNew’s black box journaling is simple: the men of ReNew share entries out of their journals.

Members are encouraged to write in their journals every day to promote positive thinking and actions. During readings, participants are given a chance to discuss entries and reflect on their own experiences to relate with one another — helping each other identify and work through the difficult life situations that can occur post-prison, at home and pre job placement.

“Time to choose the road less traveled and it makes sense to me now, that on a road less traveled, there will be less traffic, so if I stay in my lane there’s nothing but checkered flags and victory laps,” read one member.

Members stayed positive and supportive of each other. They clapped, hollered and praised peers for their passionate prose during journal readings.

In order to participate men must be 18 years of age or older, high school graduates, unemployed or living below poverty level and a legal parent of a minor child, because ReNew is a father initiative program — helping the men become better, more responsible parents.

Cameron Holmes, ReNew Life Skills Educator and Job Coach, draws on his own criminal history to motivate group members to change the way they think, act and cope with the difficult issues that arise after prison.

“The 22 years I spent away, although I didn’t think it was just or fair … I understood it,” Holmes said. “But I really think it makes it not a waste if I’m able to help someone else avoid going through that same situation.”
Paul Mowatt, originally from Camden, NJ, came to ReNew to hone his interviewing skills for job placement, but discovered how love can be more powerful than money.

“My son’s birthday is Sunday and I can’t go out and buy him anything,” Mowatt whispered from his journal, “but I can show him my love. Mr. Holmes told me that … I don’t have to focus on what I can’t do and focus on what I can do.”