Realside Helping Ex-Offenders as published in the Baltimore Times

By R.B. Jones | May 1, 2011

The voice was quiet yet forceful over the phone line to the studio of WOLB. The caller was an ex-offender who spoke of his terrible experience with exploitation by an organization funded to help former prisoners. He spoke of how he met all the requirements of the program and stayed in the group’s shelter for homeless me. After filling out documentation of his participation in the program he was turned out into the street once again. Ellsworth Johnson Bey, founder of F.O.X.O. has heard the stories numerous times. “Reentry is an industry and many people who are in the business are in it for the money and they don’t really care about the people. Antonio had to go back to his former criminal ways, reluctantly because survival trumped good intentions.{{more}} “An important aspect of reentry is resilience. People who have been out there in the streets doing criminal activities are used to doing what they want when they want. It is instant gratification. Coming out of prison and dealing with reentry and recovery requires resiliency. If people are not ready to persist then they will fail. When people come to FOXO we don’t accept any game from people and we keep it real because we have been there and done that. Before we put our credibility on the line, we develop a relationship with the people and we do a three part analysis. Our credibility is important.” Reentry and recovery are two processes that are of the utmost importance especially for the African-American Community. At both the adult and juvenile levels, African-Americans are disproportionately represented in secure custody. Approximately 40% of those in prison in the United States, over two million people are African-Americans. Of those persons who are released from prison roughly 43.3 reoffend within three years according to a Pew Research Study. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and simple logic would dictate that the country should have the largest reentry effort in the world. However, the punitive, Puritan strain in American culture brands ex-offenders as “bad” people who need to be punished even after they have served their time. My association with FOXO has given me a much deeper appreciation for the troubles of ex-offenders. I had a vague understanding of the problems of ex-offenders, but talking regularly with FOXO members has opened my eyes even more. The branding of thousands of African-Americans every year with the label convicted felon is like condemning them to being victims of discrimination the rest of their lives. When I first encountered Brother Bey years ago, I mistook his righteous indignation for surliness. Now the question that comes to mind now is why the black community isn’t angrier along with him. Our people for the most part are given assembly line adjudication which has nothing to do with justice, through plea bargaining and overcharging by prosecutors to force defendants to plead guilty to felonies to avoid long sentences. Once they accept plea bargains that get them classified as felons it is difficult or nearly impossible to access financial aid for school, public housing, and licenses from the state for various careers. With the odds arrayed against ex-offenders the agencies that are supposed to help them are especially critical. Antonio’s experience of being exploited and then turned back into homelessness and the streets is too typical.FOXO believes that the ex-offender population needs to become a movement for change and since civil rights groups, elected officials and others do not see effective reentry as a priority the work must be done by the people who have the most at stake, ex-offenders. “They are the only ones who can make their needs part of the agenda. Other folks are not going to do it,” said Brother Bey. “A lot of us are caught up in just receiving services and not seeing ourselves as a constituency that can make demands.Ray Lanier, Ellsworth Johnson Bey’s cousin is an employee of FOXO and one trusted by Brother Bey to conduct groups and conduct workshops alone. He has witnessed the uphill fight of the organization. “One of the things we teach in the organization is that people helped by the group have to give back. We don’t want people to just receive services. They have to pass it on to others. Just as I have seen Brother Bey advocate and speak up, others have to do it too. Also we want people to know that it is just an ex-offender’s fight. Family and community members can join in too.”Helping ex-offenders is the mission of FOXO. It is a mission of tough love, honesty, and crime prevention. “You can’t do better until you know better and changing one’s thinking changes one’s behavior,” are two phrases Brother Bey repeats often. His passion for the mission seems undiminished a decade or more after I first met him. His dream is a powerful movement led by ex-offenders that demands that society takes seriously reentry and provides the necessary resources. Those who need FOXO’s assistance or want to contribute to the group can call 410-262-4456 or email the group at Thinkingisdestiny@Yahoo.com.