In 2010, I got a visit from Lawrence Harris who was sentenced to 60 years in prison under the Rockefeller Drug Laws (RDLs). Because of a series of legal challenges he made, his sentence was later reduced to 17 years to life. Out on a work release, he had only three days to find employment or he would be sent back to prison.
After pondering how I could help Lawrence out of his bind, I connected him with John Valerdi of the Osborne Association, an organization who provided services for ex-offenders.
Valerdi had asked me to direct any eligible former prisoners to him, especially those who had served time for a drug conviction in New York. If eligible, they would receive two weeks of “soft skills” training and four weeks of training in marketable skills, such as environmentally-friendly construction and weatherization. Osborne then placed these participants in career-track jobs in the Bronx that pay living wages. To accomplish this, Osborne had partnered with local Bronx employers like Frank Cruz of DEC Green, as well as organizations like Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 10, who provided Osborne’s participants with training and are one of the few LIUNA locals to specialize in green construction.
I informed Lawrence that their Green Career Center had received $2 million to provide job opportunities and support services to formerly incarcerated people. He was particularly in luck since their program gave special emphasis of people who were convicted under the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
A few weeks Lawrence informed me that he had been accepted in the program. I knew it was not going to be easy for Lawrence. At that time it was very hard to find a job. In the Bronx where I lived, the employment rate was at 14 percent. The unemployment rate for people on parole at that time was more than six times the general population. In fact, fewer than one out of six people on parole had a full time job with benefits.
I told Lawrence that the road following imprisonment was not an easy one and I knew because I had walked it. When I was released from imprisonment, I found that returning to the real world was both frightening and unbelievably difficult.
Just recently, I was surprised to receive a thank you note from Lawrence. I had not heard from him for years. I was very surprised to hear what he had to say.
He now is the director of Social Enterprise Field Operations of Green City Force, an AmeriCorps program that engages young adults from low income communities in national service related to the environment. He said in his email “I appreciate you for paving the way for brothers and sisters like myself coming home. I thank you brothers for directing me to place that led me to where I am today after I came home nearly 10 years ago.”
Reading his message brought tears to my eyes and made me feel good about the work I have done throughout the years to reform draconian measures like the Rockefeller Drug Laws. It also reinforced my thought that if you give former offenders a second chance, their lives can be changed in positive ways.
Anthony Papa is manager of media relations with the Drug Policy Alliance.