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Philadelphia Life: Ex-inmates are given hope through innovative program

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.”

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2 Comments

  1. nina merendino says:

    I live with a former veteran of the Iraqi war. He was a Sargent at Scofield barracks in Honolulu. He was an expert sniper and selected to kill 2 men in Iraq during Desert Storm. Upon returning he suffered severe PTSD, but was even seen by a psychiatrist. The army would not admit that these veterans were suffereing and it would have showed weakness to ask for help. The base was filled with drugs of all kinds, and started using marijuana to stop the nightmares. Then he caught up selling it, and took full responsibility for his actions. Because he sold on base, he was sentenced to one year at Fort Lewis federal prison, but was released in 10 months due to good behavior. He was given a “bad conduct” discharge, was given no money, nothing. He had served from 1985-1982, and was not considered a veteran anymore. His wife and family left him. He ended up on the streets, with little help from any social services. He was in and out of sober houses, and then eventually started selling drugs to stay alive. He lost everything. He was sentenced in 1999, for approximately 5 year term. He spent 6 years in prison, given 200 dollars and placed back on the streets. I met him in 2007 and found him suffering still from PTSD, with no hope for a future. He still suffers fugue states, nightmares, but can’t even get disability. He is a hard worker, an able carpenter, construction worker, who was working off and on. He still has trouble getting work, even though he has had no criminal activity for over 7 years. Does anyone know how he can get his records expunged, and be able to feel like a whole person again? any advice would be greatly appreciated. We live in Seattle, and he tried and tried in Honolulu, but refuses to believe there might be a way to at least be called a Veteran again. That is all he wants. He did not want to kill the people he was forced to, it still haunts him, but he knew if he didn’t he would have been kicked out of the Army which he still hold so dear. Nina ( his significant other, who will not give up!)

  2. Nina,

    Google expunging and you should find the resources you need.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expungement#Who_can_get_a_court_record_expunged.3F

    At the same time, it sounds like what he needs most is counseling to get him over PTSD (which can also be intertwined with depression) and maybe this would help him in other areas, too. His records should not hold him back- especially for doing carpentry etc.

    Good luck and best to you both.

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