Forum focuses on challenges, possibilities former offenders encounter in Philadelphia

 The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY file photo)

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY file photo)

Reuben Jones is a humble man, but talking to him, you know he’s proud of how far he’s come since his release from prison in 2002.

After serving 15 years for robbery and aggravated assault, Jones worked a string of odd jobs to sustain himself — including a stint at a poultry factory processing turkeys.

Today, he has a master’s degree in human services from Lincoln University and is executive director of Frontline Dads, a Philadelphia nonprofit that advocates for and supports ex-offenders, mostly in the form of job training.

“Not to toot my own horn, but I think I’m pretty successful,” said Jones.

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Still, he’s never forgotten the tough times — his criminal record once stopped him from getting a job cleaning portable toilets.

Jones said he was demoralized after believing he had that job. He still remembers how he was treated when the interviewer found out about his past.

“Immediately, everything changed. His demeanor, his body language, his tone of voice, and he kindly gave me the ‘Don’t call us. We’ll call you’ excuse.” said Jones. “I never heard back from him again.”

Because of that kind of personal experience, Jones never tires of working with the city’s former inmates. It’s also why he agreed to be a panelist for a Monday night event at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, “If These Walls Could Talk: Solving Re-entry and Recidivism.”

Listen to a live audio stream, May 8, 2017 at 5:30 p.m.

Ask Jones to name his top priority, and you’ll get three answers.

For starters, he wants the city to invest more in RISE, its Office of Reintegration Services.

“A deeper investment meaning more opportunities, more resources, more staff and a larger operating budget,” said Jones.

RISE’s budget this fiscal year is roughly $1 million. It’s estimated that more than 300,000 Philadelphia residents have a criminal background.

Jones said the city should also make it easier for businesses to reap incentives for hiring ex-offenders.

Former Mayor Michael Nutter created a program offering $10,000 municipal tax breaks to companies if they provide former prisoners with tuition support or vocational training, but critics say the program has far too many restrictions.

Lastly, Mayor Jim Kenney needs to be more vocal about encouraging the business community to employ ex-offenders, said Jones.

“There’s no reason — with all this construction and business that’s going on around the city — that a large portion of those jobs should not be going to Philadelphians, specifically to folks with a criminal background to help them get a strong footing,” said Jones.

Mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said Kenney has been “very vocal about the importance of hiring returning citizens, ” pointing to programs now in place that are aimed at achieving that goal, including The Fair Chance Hiring Program through the Commerce Department and the “City as Model Employer” through the Managing Director’s Office.

The Fair Chance Hiring Program, currently in a one-year pilot phase, offers grants to businesses who employ people with criminal records.

The “City as Model Employer” is a workforce development program aimed at connecting 200 seasonal or temporary city employees to so-called “bridge positions.” The hope is that those positions will “help develop the skills required to secure and retain entry-level positions with the City or an employer partner.”

Hitt said RISE is being relocated to Center City in September to make it more accessible. It’s currently on Spring Garden Street.

Monday’s event also includes former Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Leon King, freelance journalist Emma Restrepo and Valerie Todd-Listman with Mothers In Charge.

WURD radio host Solomon Jones will moderate.

The two-hour, free event begins at 5:30 p.m. and was organized through a collaboration between WURD, WHYY, Philadelphia Media Network and the Reentry Project.

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