Is There Hope for the Survivors of the Drug Wars?
Photo Credit: Laurin Rinder / Shutterstock.com
Travis Jones got out of prison in 2007, but he talks about his time there like it ended yesterday. It surprised him, he says, the stuff he missed. He knew he’d long for his family, and his girlfriend, but it was the absence of everyday things that kept him from feeling human. “When you open your refrigerator and that cool air hits you? I missed it like crazy,” he says. “They cut the lights on you, and they flip the switch. Little things like that.”
But when he was released, returning to a compact corner of the unfinished basement of his girl’s mom’s house in West Baltimore, he turned it into a cell: bed, TV, weight bench, stacks and rows of books, DVDs, and video games, accumulating dust and teenage-boy-bedroom smell. He rarely left. When he did, he was jumpy. He was no fun at parties. “It seemed like when he came home, he was still locked up,” says his childhood friend Kendall Wilson. “It seemed like he was still in jail for a long time, just in the basement.”
Travis is 32. He’s short, at five feet six, but broad and muscular. He keeps his hair shaved close to his head and maintains a slim goatee. He has a way of sitting with his legs splayed and his head hanging slightly forward but his eyes looking up and his mouth unsmiling—half-relaxed and half-tensed. Around new people, he’s shy and suspicious that they’re talking about him behind his back, but he can be funny, too, and draw a crowd around him. In the basement, Travis spent a lot of time reading, as he had in prison (Black Boy, Native Son, books about Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela). He binge-watched premium cable. The Wire. (“It was sad how Dukie ended up being a fiend.”) The new show that the guy who played Omar, Michael K. Williams, is in. (“I like him better on Boardwalk Empire.”) Game of Thrones. (“Khaleesi, she shaped herself up toward the end. She turned out to be a real force. When she freeing slaves you know I always get behind that. I ain’t like her at first; I fucks with her now.”) He played a lot of video games with his girl, Joyce Fisher, and a few other friends who’d stop by. Travis especially liked Call of Duty. He’d always wanted to be a Marine, but when he’d finally caught the charge that sent him to prison in Hagerstown, Maryland—police found vials of cocaine in his house—he’d given up on that. Just like he had on everything else.
When his stepdad left after two years of marriage to his mom, Travis was 14. They’d done father-and-son things like go fishing together on weekends and been close in a way he never was with his own dad, who was in the Navy and had never lived with him. His stepdad’s absence fed Travis’s teenage rebelliousness. He dropped out of school his junior year. His mom blames his attention deficit disorder, which was diagnosed when Travis was 12. (“Did she talk about the ADD?” he asked me one day and shook his head. “She always brings up that ADD.”) But Travis says he just acted out. He’d been a Boy Scout and his mom was a teacher, and he wanted to fit in. “Nobody likes a church boy,” he says.
Travis grew up in the same West Baltimore neighborhood where he now lives with Joyce, who is ten years his senior. It’s the kind of place where a walk to the 7-Eleven could get him robbed and where everyone is hustling all the time. People talk about the 1980s as the good days, when guys in the neighborhood could do well for themselves, when crack and heroin pumped money through the streets and gave neighborhoods an economy of their own; now, there is just violence, little money, and a lot of prison.
As a teenager, Travis came into frequent contact with police, but his first arrest didn’t happen until he’d just turned 19 and was charged with firearm possession and resisting arrest. The judge gave him probation and said she would dismiss the charges if he made it through without a violation. (“I violated that shit like 6 times,” he says.) A year later, he was picked up because he and a friend had beaten a man so badly the victim required stomach staples and had a contusion on his kidney. (“I didn’t think he was beaten that bad at the time, but it caught up with us.”) Travis says the guy had hit on a 13-year-old girl in the neighborhood, asking if she’d gotten her menstrual cycle yet. The charges were dropped when the victim failed to show up and testify. (“I guess somebody told him what’s what.”)
When Travis was 21, about a year before he landed in prison, his best friend was killed right in front of his face. “His homeboy died—he did go a little bit harder after that,” Kendall Wilson says. “We all hustled. We all did everything. But a couple people were wilder. Travis was one of the wild, wild ones.” I asked Travis once how many deaths he’d witnessed. He said, “It’s like saying how many red cars did you see this week.”
The year after he came out of prison, Travis worked a few jobs. The last one, cleaning cooking equipment in restaurants at night, paid $40 a store, which was better than anything else he could find. He was caught stealing brisket from Boston Market and was fired. He put in a few more applications but never got a call back. That’s typical. Nationwide, black men with prison records only get callbacks 5 percent of the time; for black men without prison records, the rate is 17 percent (the same as for white men with criminal backgrounds).
Travis didn’t want to deal anymore. Guys he knew were working jobs, had become husbands and fathers. “I wanted to be one of the people who get up and go to work every day without breaking the law and have a quality of life,” he says. “I wanted to be one of those people, and I felt like I couldn’t.” He remained unemployed after 2009, and it bothered him, not chipping in. “Your family will be supportive, saying, ‘Oh, yeah, take your time,’” he says. “But after a couple months with no money coming in, you just a bum.” So he started dealing again. Only pot, no hard drugs, out of his house to trusted clients—straight-up people, he says, working people, older people. He limited himself to selling $100 worth a day and figured he was making between $30,000 and $40,000 a year just by being there to pick up his cell phone. Travis was an almost-daily pot smoker himself and didn’t see the harm, but he still wasn’t happy about it.
In the spring of 2013, Travis met a guy who’d gone to college in Canada, come back to the old neighborhood, and landed a construction job through his aunt, Catherine Pitchford, who worked at the Center for Urban Families. The center was just a mile down the road, and it provided job training and fatherhood classes for men in Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods. Travis needed certification for a construction gig, so he went to the center. Normally, every client must go through the center’s four-week job-training course, called Strive, before being placed in a job. But Pitchford, who’s completing a degree in social work, had a soft spot for Travis from the start. He wanted a job so badly, plus he seemed sharp and ready. She decided to let him take the certification test without the Strive class. He failed to qualify by two points.
He was leaving the center, upset, when he passed Wayne Cooper, an amiable 67-year-old counselor who works with ex-offenders. “I said to him, ‘You look like you’re angry,’” Cooper recalls. “It was a simple statement.” But not to Travis. “I kind of lost it,” he says. “After being in that depressed state like I was, being down like that, and realizing that your dream could come true, making that kind of wage, a respectable living, and then missing it by two points.” He took off his coat and lunged at Cooper. Another center employee came between them. Cooper, though, laughed and turned to Travis, saying, “I hope I’m not going to have to get your ass locked up in here today!” Travis got even more upset. “I was going to strike that man,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about it.” Cooper had seen a lot of guys blow up, but not like this. “I don’t know if Travis is on medication or not,” Cooper says, “but he acted like he was.” When Travis finally stalked out of the center, he figured he’d never go back.
The Center for Urban Families, finished in sparkling pink cinder block in 2009, is one of the newest buildings in its neighborhood. It’s surrounded by a church, a vacant former child-care center, a thrift store, and a freshly repaved, block-long parking lot with no business attached. Just down the road is the Mondawmin shopping center, which locals call the “hood mall.” Amid the boarded-up row houses, the occasional neatly kept home often bears a simple plaint on the front door—“No loitering, please!”—in an attempt to prohibit the stooping practiced by the neighborhood’s hoodie-wearing men. Corners have no garbage bins, and crosswalks dissect few intersections, so trash and pedestrians make their own way across streets. Every few blocks there’s a blue flashing dome above the stoplight just to remind people that the cops are never far off, but it does nothing to deter the knife-wielding bar fighters from spilling out into the street, or to reduce the lines for the neighborhood library bathroom, where people shoot up, or to slow the quick-step vibrancy of a streetscape where everyone has to watch his back.
What sets the center apart from the rest of the block isn’t just its still-new gleam but the dozens of men (and a handful of women) filing in every day around 8:30 A.M., or out after 5 P.M., wearing suits and pressed dress shirts, hair pulled back or cropped close. Clients must adhere to a strict dress code; for most, the clothes are provided by donors like Men’s Wearhouse. The center, which started operating in 1999, provides a range of services in addition to workforce training: It collaborates with employers to place people in jobs; it provides fatherhood classes; it helps men navigate family-court problems; it counsels ex-prisoners as they transition back into life; and it offers a class for couples that operates a bit like a group therapy session.
The nonprofit center was among the first in the country designed to help low-income men with such a wide range of issues. Its founder and CEO, Joe Jones, calls himself a “recovering knucklehead,” who dealt and abused drugs when he was young. He grew up in Baltimore and had gone through an intense two-year recovery program in which Wayne Cooper was one of his counselors. Jones wanted to help men like himself, and West Baltimore has no shortage of them. More than half the prison population released in Maryland returns every year to the neighborhoods around the center. They come out burdened not only by their records but by family estrangement and debt. Child-support arrearages are allowed to accumulate in prison, and about 3,000 men who live near the center owe more than $50 million in back child support.
The center has a tough-love ethos that’s based on the kinds of therapeutic programs that were instrumental in changing Jones’s life. Women are also welcome in the job-training courses, but in a city where “family” is code for “mothers and children,” the focus on men is unusual. In the years since the Great Recession, more people with high-school diplomas and college degrees have come looking for help finding jobs, but the core population the center serves is the least educated, those with a high-school diploma or less.
One of the center’s most important functions is also its simplest: It gives men a safe spot to hang out in West Baltimore. Most of the workforce-training graduates who still visit the center—watching the classes, meeting with counselors, using the computers—told me they come because being there keeps them out of trouble. “There aren’t too many places in Baltimore where men can be positive together,” says one Strive graduate.
The men are what policymakers euphemistically call a challenging population: Lacking high-school education or formal work experience, they’re the most likely of any group in America to die young and to die from violence. Most of their life experience, the skills that have helped them survive the streets or prison, works against them in the legal world. The biggest problem the center has spent 15 years trying to solve isn’t how to get these guys jobs, or how to encourage them to be more involved in their children’s lives, or how make the streets safer, though those are tough enough. The problem is more profound: How do you give these survivors of the drug wars, men who are criminalized and discarded by society, who are at the bottom of every statistic, hope?
After his confrontation with Cooper, Travis stayed in touch with Pitchford, his friend’s aunt. He still wanted a construction job, and it seemed like she could help. They’d have long conversations about his temper, and his goals. “Travis,” she’d say, “I see your potential—you just got to work on your anger.” Finally, she convinced him to try Strive, an intensive four-week program that was developed by two ex-offenders in Harlem in the 1980s.
Every new class is assigned a number. Travis showed up for Cycle 179, which began last August. Wearing the new suit he’d been given, he filed into the biggest room at the center, full of white folding tables and green rolling chairs, for orientation. The instructors were Baltimore natives Sean Robinson and Tiffany Davis. Robinson, who’s 40, spent seven years in the military before studying sociology. Davis, who’s 31, is earning a degree in community service. Strive instructors in West Baltimore are always a male-female pair, in part so that the men can get used to taking orders from women. They instruct the class from 9 A.M. until 3 P.M.; the last two hours shift to remedial math instruction, which gets some ready for their GEDs and helps others prepare for construction jobs like plumbing and pipe-fitting, where they’ll need to add and subtract and understand fractions.
Strive is boot camp—one that turns soldiers back into civilians rather than the other way around. Robinson calls it “attitudinal training.” Students learn how to give a job interview, how to write a résumé, how to communicate in the workplace, how to save money, how to follow a budget, how to deal with depression and low self-esteem. A major goal is to help them develop a professional attitude toward a job—being on time, wearing business attire, speaking appropriately for an office environment—the kinds of skills that middle-class people pick up throughout their lives like oxygen from air.
When Robinson and Davis take over at orientation, they bark at the new recruits to stand up, then issue their first command: “Smile.” Students will learn a lot of things in Strive, but the first lesson is how to smile. The first few days are devoted to it. The new class members are always confused, and then they start to smile—except for about 20 percent of the room, who stand stone-faced. Robinson calls out those who don’t smile, pulls them up to the front of the room, and says, “This is my smile crew.” He tells the rest of the room to cheer until they can get these men and women, mostly men, to finally crack a smile.
The claps and hoots and whistles rise in a crescendo heard throughout the building. Meanwhile, Davis and Robinson walk up and down the line, yelling, “Smile,” and pantomiming it, using their fingers to pull the corners of their own mouths back. The reluctant recruits roll their eyes. Some get tense, their faces get stuck in passive displays of aggression, as Robinson goes up and down the line and mocks: “Is it painful? Is there a medical condition? Smile!” He and Davis continue their full-on assault of well-wishing and joking and silliness until one by one, the students fold. A smile is the Strive game face, they explain. “I’m not asking you to smile on North Monroe Street at two in the morning,” Davis says. “I’m asking you to smile in here.”
It’s usually the youngest men who bow out at this stage—the 19- and 20-year-olds who are too cool to tolerate the corniness, the guys who’ve been strongly encouraged to try Strive by some parole officer or social worker attempting to keep them from spending their twenties in prison. It’s the older guys who are eager to cooperate. They’re hungry.
Travis wasn’t called out as part of the smile crew, but he could feel himself winding up. He didn’t like these mind games. After the first break, he went out to smoke a cigarette and returned chewing gum. Davis came toward him, yelling at him to spit the gum out. Instead, he cursed at her and demanded to know why he had to do something she didn’t have to, since she was chewing gum, too. “If you don’t like it, you can get out!” Davis hollered. Travis turned to Robinson, the other trainer: “Why I gotta leave? She’s chewing gum, too!” Robinson said, “You’re not submitting to the process.” So Travis said, “Fuck you and this process,” and stomped out of the center for a second time.
“He fussed about that for weeks,” Joyce says. “He couldn’t get over it, and he couldn’t let it go.” A week or so later, Travis applied for a stockroom job. He wore the suit he’d gotten from the center, and on the way to the interview he could hear Davis’s voice in his head, telling him to smile. “This woman I couldn’t stand at the time was the first person I thought of,” he says. “I took the advice she gave.” He landed the job, and it paid $9.50 an hour, but he quit at the end of the first day for reasons even he didn’t entirely understand. The tape gun he was supposed to use to put boxes together didn’t work properly, and it annoyed him. Mostly, though, he worried he wasn’t ready. But he did feel ready for Strive. “In an hour and a half, with the information I got here, got me further than I got since 2007 when I came out,” he says. “That’s what it took for me to realize that I can get where I want to be. I can. This is the avenue that I’ve been hoping and praying for, the opportunity and chance for something to go right.” He called his old friend Kendall Wilson, who, after six years of working at KFC, had become a manager. She hired Travis as a part-time cook at the suburban restaurant she managed. That allowed him to quit dealing weed. He worked nights so he could keep the job while he went back to the center.
On the first Friday morning of October, Travis wore his suit—plain black and a little too long, so that it hung past his wrists, waist, and ankles—and took a seat in the back for the beginning of Cycle 181. (Outside the center, he still wore jeans and T-shirts and a canvas jacket with a brass-knuckle knife in the pocket, because you could never be too careful.) Eighty-seven people came to orientation. Only 68 returned on Monday for the first class. Robinson and Davis passed out workbooks and assigned homework, introducing them to the course’s strict rules and etiquette. Students had to stand and say their full names before they spoke in class. No slang words were allowed—“yeah” and “nah” counted as slang. Every morning, the students would be inspected to see that they were following the dress code. Homework would be checked first thing, every day.
Whenever they broke a rule, the students had to pay fines. The price schedule was listed in the workbook: A hand in a pocket cost $1, while a ringing cell phone cost $5. “In what part of life do mistakes not cost you?” Robinson said by way of explanation. Payment was due immediately; loose change and dollar bills began to fill a giant empty water-cooler bottle that became almost too heavy to lift by the end of the four weeks. If students didn’t have money, they couldn’t wait until the lunch break or dart out of class. They had to turn to the room and ask for a loan. “Does anybody in the community have a dollar I can borrow?” they would regularly ask, before picking quarters and dimes out of outstretched hands. There was a lesson in this, too: “Stop looking for someone outside of your community to come rescue you,” Robinson said. “Your help is here in this community.” Some students paid as much as $10 in the first few days. At the end of the first week, one woman was charged $1 and broke down crying before leaving the class for good. Travis got caught with his hands in his pockets a few times, and had to pay $3. But he was smiling on cue, working hard at cooperating.
Travis watched as the instructors called out others for refusing to crack even a grin, or for sighing, or sucking their teeth, or not wearing the right clothes, down to the socks. He watched as Robinson and Davis focused in on a group of three men—two were brothers—barely out of their teens, who still hadn’t smiled in the first three days and wouldn’t say their names loud enough for the class to hear. One by one they were called up, heads held back. “You have permission here to be square,” Robinson said. None of those guys would make it through the first week. Only 50 students did.