Reclaiming Life After Prison
A Look At Re-Entry
Photography by Dani Fresh
“You never really know a person until you understand things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
– Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
Atticus Finch’s famous sentiment to his daughter, Scout, goes farther than encouraging a mile-long stroll in someone else’s shoes. It asserts that none of us can ever truly understand what life is like for another individual. We can envision what it might be like, but even our imaginations are affected by our own realities, our own circumstances and our own privileges.
The best we can do is offer compassion and empathy, and remember that, as Vladimir Beaufils, a successful ex-offender and president and chair of the Capital Region Ex-Offenders Support Coalition, puts it, “We make all sorts of erroneous assumptions that everybody has what we have. And they don’t.”
A prime example of this, he says, is how we view work ethic.
“Where do we get the work ethic? Most of us, if not all, had a mom and/or a dad get up, get dressed and go to work every day. This stuff is caught, not taught. No one had to teach you work ethic. You understood early on that you’d go to school, get a degree and make something of your life in the middle class. But that’s not the reality in poverty,” he explains. “What happens to that kid whose mom goes off to a mailbox, gets a check for a week or couple of weeks and then goes back to ramen noodles and ketchup and mayonnaise sandwiches? Where does that kid get work ethic from? Where could he possibly get it? We look at that kid and say, ‘What’s the matter with you? What’s your problem?’ …Most everybody does what was modeled in front of them. That’s a lot of the problem we have, especially in pockets of poverty. Dysfunction has bred dysfunction for generations. People are doing the best they can with what they have, but what they have is extremely limited.”
Tim White – a successful ex-offender who now works as a program coordinator, mentor and group facilitator at Amiracle4sure, an organization his mother started about 10 years ago to assist with the re-entry process for ex-offenders – practices pulling from his endless well of empathy and compassion in his line of work, as well as his general lifestyle, each and every day.
“There is such thing as a boogie man. I don’t want to sugarcoat ex-offenders and say we all just made mistakes. Some of us made big mistakes and did some really violent things,” says White. “But people need to understand that ex-offenders need a third chance. Some people will say, ‘I’m done with you. I’ve given you a chance, and I’m done with you.’ For some people, it’s their fourth or fifth time in the system, and now they’ve finally got it. They may not have gotten it the third time you tried to help, but they’re ready now. But they’re faced with ‘Nah. You already had your shot.’ So it’s, ‘Well alright, I’m going to go get high.’”
White and Beaufils work hard to provide resources that help ex-offenders navigate the complicated and shocking re-entry process. According to the 2013 Annual Statistical Report from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC), over 14,000 individuals were released for part I and part II offenses that year, and of those individuals, over 12,000 of them were serving sentences of two years or more, with the average time served being 46.3 months.
And those 14,000 individuals need guidance, which is where White, Beaufils and many others come into play, bringing along their empathy and compassion, as well as personal stories and experience.
Both men proudly identify with the term “successful ex-offender,” their chosen way of describing how their criminal histories do not define them as human beings.
“We specifically use ‘successful ex-offender’ because we don’t look at our backgrounds as a bad thing. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I’ve been to prison,” asserts White.
“I focus on the ‘successful’ part and the ‘ex’ part,” adds Beaufils. “Yeah, I did offend, but who hasn’t? I’ve told a room of cops and all kinds of people – I’m a motivational speaker – that there are only two kinds of people: the caught and the uncaught. There’s not a third category.”
Tim White is a happy man with a smile so big and a laugh so infectious that you can’t help but feel at ease around him. He’s the father of two young girls, and he and his fiancé have another little one on the way. He’s a homeowner in Harrisburg, he has a good job that he’s passionate about, and he is surrounded by his supportive, loving family, which includes his mother, Marsha Banks, and seven siblings.
Together, White and Banks offer a wide selection of resources to each person that walks through their door at Amiracle4sure, as well as a sense of compassion that comes from a place of experience: as successful ex-offenders themselves, Banks and White know just what it’s like to have been thrust back into society after serving their sentences in state prisons.
“We call what we do ‘empathetic mentoring’ because we speak from our personal experiences of being in prison,” says White.
After graduating from Harrisburg High School in 2002, White decided to take a year off before heading to Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology to further his automotive technology education. During that time off, he got sucked into a dangerous, destructive lifestyle, and in November of 2003, he wound up getting a five- to 10-year sentence for a range of charges including robbery, kidnapping and a gun charge. He spent 2003 to 2008 in the Camp Hill maximum-security prison.
“You see three barbed-wire fences outside, and then 20 feet further, there’s another fence. And another fence. Sometimes there were 23-hour lockdowns, where you’d spend 23 hours in a cell. The cells are so small that I couldn’t do this,” he says, while stretching his arms out straight on either side of his body. “The length of the cell would be like eight feet. And two men would live in there. You’d have a bunk bed, a sink and a toilet. When you want to use the bathroom, you have to put up a sheet or a towel. Prison is one of those things that you can’t over exaggerate. It’s so bad.”
He’s certainly not exaggerating the crammed quarters. Prisons in Pennsylvania are, quite literally, overflowing. As of March 31, 2015, there are a reported 50,500 inmates in the PADOC’s jurisdiction, meaning it’s at 107.4 percent capacity. The nearest state prison in Camp Hill houses over 3,550 inmates alone, making it almost 9 percent over capacity.
And the cost of the system is quite large, clocking in at close to $2 billion a year. According to the PADOC’s 2013 Annual Statistical Report, there’s a yearly cost of $37,267 per inmate, which, for perspective, is more than double what you’d make, before taxes, at a full-time minimum wage job in the state in that same time period.
White spent his 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th birthdays in jail while other young people his age were going to college, beginning their careers or starting their families. His mother – who had spent three years at the Muncy State Prison herself while her eight children were split up in the foster care system – was realistic in her support, making sure not to make light of the situation her son was in.
He was then paroled back to Harrisburg in 2008 where he stayed on state parole for the remaining five years of his sentence, struggling to find jobs and explain the five years of nothingness in his work history. But for White, there was no turning back to his old way of life.
“Making 17 cents an hour in prison changes you,” he says. “I worked in the kitchen. Everybody does the kitchen. And then I got on a maintenance crew, so I did maintenance for a couple years. You work your way up to a strong 45 cents an hour, and then you come home and you have bills and have to clothe yourself and feed yourself.”
That sudden change of lifestyle takes its toll on ex-offenders. According to The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) pamphlet entitled Pennsylvania Reentry Survival Manual: Manual For People Leaving Prison, “Living in the community after prison is not easy. Many people fail at living in the community or die trying! The research suggests that most people who leave prison return within three years. People who left prison report experiencing depression, disappointment and frustration after they returned to the community. New evidence also shows that people who left prison are more likely to die in the community during the first weeks, months and year after release compared to people their age already living in the community. These deaths were caused by homicide, suicide, drug overdose and cardiovascular problems.”
The pamphlet goes on to say that this bleak outlook is not meant to discourage those reading it, but rather to offer a dose of reality. This very real process is one that White and his mother Banks have helped countless people navigate.
“If you’re going too fast, you will crash and burn. Your re-entry has to be paced. It took me 10 years to get where I am. If you had talked to me six years ago, every time you would have asked me what I was doing, I would have said ‘working,’” says White. “Work will not save your life. You have to find something else outside of work that you like. Some ex-offenders overwork. Then they wonder why they crash and burn. Work won’t save your life.”
Furthermore, Amiracle4sure is one of the few organizations that won’t turn anybody away, regardless of an individual’s record.
“Helping ex-offenders every day is what we do. Not everybody helps all ex-offenders. People pick and choose sometimes what crimes they’re comfortable with. Not too many organizations will help sex offenders. Not too many people will help those with current drug habits. They’ll be like, ‘You need to be clean for two years or six months or whatever,’ but they need the support to make that happen,” explains White. “We have a housing-assistance program. We have a family-reunification program. If you’re an ex-offender in need of a bus pass before you get your first paycheck, we give people weekly bus passes for free. One of our priorities is our mentoring program. I run two support groups throughout the week – one on Tuesdays, one on Thursdays. And I do individual one-on-one mentoring all day, every day.”
Amiracle4sure also offers resources that are easy to take for granted, like access to a computer. They have an open computer lab that features 13 laptops, free Internet access as well as access to a copier, fax machine and phone, which are all resources crucial to the job search process, a process that is quite daunting to those with a criminal history.
“I faced a whole lot of discrimination when looking for jobs. The whole, ‘Where have you been the last five years?’ conversation is very tough,” says White. “Then I got my résumé written – well, rewritten for the 50th time. We preach résumé stuff a lot. You’ve got to sell yourself. Your résumé tells your story. I did every temp service from here to Carlisle because jobs just kept saying ‘no.’ My offense was violent, so most jobs right out the door will not even talk to you.”
That’s why White is a firm supporter of Ban the Box, a movement that encourages employers to leave the “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” question off of job applications. It doesn’t, White explains, say that employers can never ask for a potential candidate’s criminal history; instead it just allows successful ex-offenders a chance to at least be offered an interview without being written off completely because of the way they’ve answered that question in the beginning paperwork. Movements like this, White feels, would help banish negative stigmas surrounding ex-offenders and would help them gain employment, which will lead them down a path to greater self-sufficiency.
“I’ve probably worked with at least 600 people since I’ve been with Amiracle4sure,” says White as he contemplates his years of service and commitment to the cause, “but then there are people like my mom and Vladimir [Beaufils] who have been doing what I’ve been doing for years and have helped thousands.”
Vlad Beaufils has a calm disposition and a subdued yet powerful voice that both commands authority and soothes the listener. He’s mindful of each word he chooses and each story he tells of the twisting and turning pathway that’s led him to this very place as a father, grandfather, husband, president and CEO of Sound Community Solutions, a life coach and motivational speaker and the president and chair of the Capital Region Ex-Offenders Support Coalition.
Beaufils had been a firefighter for 11 years before making a career change to sell insurance, which he did for seven years. It was during that time that he discovered crack cocaine, and quite quickly, the drug overtook his life. He found himself homeless on two different occasions, once in Phoenix, Ariz. and another time in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y. And during his struggles with his addiction, he served two different two-year sentences, each as a result of being caught with $40 worth of the drug.
“I was not a criminal. I was an addict that needed help with his addiction. There are so many in there that are not criminals. They need help with their addictions because they’re addicts,” says Beaufils. “They did criminal behavior to feed an addiction, but they’re not a criminal. But you put somebody in a prison with real, sure-enough criminals, and guess what happens? They become a criminal.”
According to the PADOC’s 2013 Annual Statistical Report, 26.8 percent of all court commitments are related to narcotic drug laws, which is more than manslaughter, murder, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, forcible rape, homicide by vehicle, kidnapping and statutory rape offenses combined, and that’s not factoring in the effects that drug use and addiction may have played in all of those offenses.
It was after his two sentences that, in January of 1993, Beaufils moved to Harrisburg “without two nickels to rub together” so that he could be closer to his daughter, who lived in York. In two-and-a-half years’ time, Beaufils was director of a program and never looked back. How exactly did he conquer his demon of addiction?
“It was me being self-driven and hearing from motivational people, reading my Bible, having conversations with the Lord and a lot of internal motivation. I knew what to do, but I had allowed the drugs and the alcohol and that life to swoop me away,” says Beaufils. “And I had to get back centered again and reconnect. I tell people that the best thing that ever happened to me was going back to prison a second time. I needed to give it my attention. I was ripping and running too hard out there.”
Beaufils advocates for alternative sentencing for those who have addictions, and he’s glad to see that it’s starting to happen now in Pa. In 2010, he and eight others represented the state at a three-week training with Offender Workforce Development Specialists in St. Louis, Mo. The group included members of the Pa. Board of Probation and Parole, the Department of Corrections, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and Beaufils as the community member.
“It was a real eye-opener because there were about six different states there going for the training, and to hear how much more progressive they were than we were here in Pa. was like, ‘My God, we’re in the Stone Age.’ But it’s starting to happen, like with Justice Reinvestment, which was signed into law by [former Governor] Corbett. It’s the first major transformation of the Department of Corrections and re-entry in Pa. in decades. It basically is what is releasing a lot of people out of prison today, mostly non-violent offenders and people who have drug charges. Justice Reinvestment is happening all over the country. We modeled ours off of Texas…Texas, really amazingly – because you know Texas was the lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key state for a long time – with their Justice Reinvestment, as of last year, has saved billions of the taxpayers’ dollars and actually shut down a prison.”
Beaufils continues to act as a mentor and motivational speaker and runs a variety of workshops aimed at helping members in the community who need it most, specifically ex-offenders, like with his Ready 4 Work training. One thing he’s adamant about is changing the current expungement laws and some of the regulations surrounding criminal records.
“With the laws in Pennsylvania, you have to be 70 years old to get an expungement unless you have a stipulation upon sentencing from the judge regarding ARD [Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition] or a drug court situation that you successfully complete. But outside of those specific stipulations, you have to be 70 years old to even apply for the expungement,” says Beaufils. “And I’ve seen a lot of people’s criminal record sheets where they may have seven or eight charges but only two guilties. But all the charges are listed. So when an employer looks at your rap sheet, they see all these charges, even though you were never found guilty of all of these. So it looks really bad. And technically those that you were not found guilty of shouldn’t be there. You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. That’s supposed to be the way it goes. In fact, if you aren’t found guilty, they should be removed. But they’re sitting right there for the world to see, and that’s wrong. You actually have to go through the expungement process to get a charge off that you were never found guilty of anyway.”
Beaufils sees there being many connecting factors that lead to crime and addiction, factors that also affect individuals as they navigate the difficult path of re-entry. Two of those major factors are poverty and lack of education.
“If you look at what those behind bars have in common, it’s low reading level and poverty. And in our urban pockets of poverty anywhere across this country, who is there? Mostly people of color,” says Beaufils. “There are white people in rural poverty, but the cops and the media especially aren’t going to the hollows of Kentucky with the cameras and filming. They’re not going to the plains of Montana and Utah to film. They go to those urban pockets, like in Detroit, Chicago, Philly, New York, Baltimore.”
As he continues to advocate for ex-offenders, Beaufils’ sentiment remains the same: “It’s not about being hard on crime; it’s about being smart on crime.” He, along with Tim White, Marsha Banks and others throughout the state, continue to treat the delicate re-entry process with that same train of thought so as to successfully help reduce the number of ex-offenders who slip back into crime and drug use by instead offering them a chance to step up and step out of the circumstances that lead to their crimes in the first place.
Conversation with an Activist: Angela Kirkland
Angela Kirkland is part of the local Black Lives Matter movement, This Stops Today Harrisburg, which formed back in December of 2014. She and others attended the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit in February, where there was a panel with Decarcerate PA, which inspired a local chapter to form that same month.
“I’ve been going to the meetings since then, and there’s a good amount of overlap between the Black Lives Matter movement and what Decarcerate is trying to do, because the fact is that people of color, specifically black people, they do get harsher sentences. They are more likely to be put under suspicion by cops and caught for certain things,” says Kirkland. “The risk factors associated with mass incarceration go hand in hand with the difficulties of re-entry into society as an ex-offender. Poverty and lack of education breed crime, and maintaining those same states after incarceration leads to a greater risk of re-offending and landing right back into prison.”
According to Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Disparities in Sentencing: Evidence From The U.S. Federal Courts, a report by the University of Georgia’s David B. Mustard, “…after controlling for the offense level, criminal history, district and offense type, blacks, Hispanics and others received sentences 5.5, 4.5 and 2.3 months longer than whites, respectively, and females received 5.5 fewer months than males… Offenders who did not graduate from high school received longer sentences, and offenders with college degrees received shorter sentences… Having no high school diploma resulted in an additional sentence of 1.2 months. Income had a significant impact on the sentence length. Offenders with incomes of less than $5,000 were sentenced most harshly. This group received sentences 6.2 months longer than people who had incomes between $25,000 and $35,000.”
The PADOC reports that one in every 249 Pa. residents goes to prison – that’s one in every 505 white residents, one in every 129 Hispanic residents and one in every 58 black residents. And for black males, the ratio narrows even further: one in every 28 black male residents will face incarceration at some point in their lives, and one in every 14 young black males between the age of 20 and 34 go to prison. Black men who do not graduate from high school have a 69 percent lifetime probability of incarceration in either a state or federal prison.
“Frankly I think we are doing a terrible job as a country when it comes to giving opportunities and resources to those who lack them,” expresses Kirkland. “Clearly there’s a problem when education budgets are getting slashed while multi-million dollar prison complexes are getting built. Clearly there’s a problem when many people, particularly ex-offenders, have trouble finding work to support even themselves, much less a family.”
For example, the PADOC’s data states that between 2003 and 2013, there was a 32 percent increase in court commitments, and 23 percent of all new court commitments were in Philadelphia County. Philadelphia’s schools have been hit hard by cutbacks in the state education budget, and according to Fund Philly Schools, “Philadelphia educates 10 percent of Pennsylvania’s students but has endured more than 25 percent of the [former Governor] Corbett budget cuts.” And then, at the end of the 2013 school year, Philadelphia closed 24 schools.
“Our way of doing things revolves around punishment instead of rehabilitation; it revolves around pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and if you don’t succeed, well that’s just too damn bad, and there’s no one to blame but yourself,” says Kirkland. “We can’t continue on like this and call this country the greatest in the world. We need to start investing in those people who are not seen as worthy or valuable, rather than leaving them to drown in a muck that is not entirely of their own making.”