Parole models: Lifelong friends work with city to help former inmates

From today's Daily News:

Wayne Jacobs and Steve Blackburn grew up in North Philly together in the '60s, served long prison terms separately for unrelated crimes in the '70s and '80s, and reunited after their release in the '90s to help ex-offenders who are dragging criminal histories around like a ball and chain.

Blackburn fought a man who owed him drug money in 1975. As the man ran away, one of Blackburn's friends shot him dead. Blackburn was sentenced to life without parole.

He was pardoned by Gov. Bob Casey in 1991, after serving 16 years as a model prisoner. He's been a model citizen ever since.

Jacobs spent 30 years in and out of prison for stealing to support his drug addiction. He's been clean, sober and law-abiding since his 1997 release.

When the two lifelong friends walked around their old Hartranft neighborhood recently, noting that Joe's Bar on the corner of 10th and Dauphin is now a church and that the once-bustling barbershop at 10th and Nevada is gone, they looked more like community activists than ex-offenders - which proves their point about rehabilitation.

Jacobs said that most paroled ex-offenders are neighborhood guys who committed crimes in their youth, served their time, have been law-abiding ever since, and just want to be middle-age working stiffs supporting their families, indistinguishable from everybody else.

But in too many cases, he said, their criminal past won't let them, even if it's ancient history.

So he and Blackburn, as co-founders of the nonprofit X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, headquartered on Broad Street near Dauphin a few blocks from where they grew up, work with longtime parolees to expunge and pardon that past, clearing the major obstacle to employment.

Blackburn, 62, is the quieter, more professorial of the duo, reflecting the years he spent at Graterford and after his release earning an associate's degree from Villanova University, and his bachelor's and master's degrees in social work from Temple University.

Jacobs, 63, who graduated from Wanamaker Middle School and earned his high-school equivalency diploma in prison, is more outspoken, a walking encyclopedia of legal knowledge he gleaned from years of hitting the law books in prison libraries.

Recently, Mayor Nutter appointed Jacobs to the oversight board of the city's new Shared Prosperity anti-poverty program.

Eva Gladstein, who runs that program, said Jacobs "is passionate; he can be angry, he can be very tough, and he kind of wakes people up here."

"He moves beyond his own individual experience, which you wouldn't expect, and connects with the broader world," Gladstein said. "He's been a strong voice around the need to help children enter school ready to learn, because if kids are not on track by third grade, it's very hard for them to catch up."

Ribbing his lifelong friend while they walked down 10th Street together, Blackburn said: "He's the politician. Haven't you noticed?"

Jacobs laughed, pointed at Blackburn and said, "Yeah, but he's the one with the education."

The two men paused to look at the ancient marble steps in front of a 10th Street rowhouse and remembered spending their childhood Saturdays scrubbing similar steps until they gleamed.

"Got paid 25 cents," Blackburn said, smiling. "Hard work."

"And if you gave your mother any attitude, if you said, 'How come I have to do this?' you might suddenly find yourself in need of a dentist," Jacobs said.

They've dedicated the rest of their lives to breaking down the walls that keep ex-offenders from true re-entry into mainstream life.

"If you're going to deny me my rights of citizenship, don't call me a 'returning citizen,' " Blackburn said.

They spent years working with City Council and others to successfully eliminate the check-box on employment applications that asked if the applicant had ever been convicted of a crime.

"If you checked the box, your application went into the trash and you never got an interview," Jacobs said.

But a year after the box was banned, employers can still ask the crime question in the job interview. Jacobs and Blackburn are pushing politicians to research whether a past conviction is still keeping ex-offenders from getting jobs.

Their other big issue is working with City Council to hold owners legally responsible for not reporting lost or stolen guns that are later used in the commission of crimes.

City Council President Darrell Clarke, who has known Jacobs for 25 years, said, "He and I worked very closely together on doing legislation that challenged Pennsylvania gun laws.

"He's pretty dogged when he gets on a particular issue," Clarke said. "Every time I looked up, it was, 'Hey, Wayne, you're here again.' I thought about getting him a desk and a chair here.

"In a collegial way, Wayne can be a pain in the butt, because he won't let go of an issue," Clarke said. "He kept coming at me, never wanted to take 'no' for an answer. I really appreciate that."

Clarke said his respect for Jacobs comes from their shared North Philadelphia pain of seeing illegal guns destroy lives. 

"Growing up in the 22nd Police District, which had the highest levels of violence in the city," Clarke said, "both of us had friends who were killed as a result of guns. So for Wayne and for me, it's personal."

As the men walked past Nevada Street near 10th, where Blackburn grew up, Jacobs recalled his childhood in the Norris Homes public-housing project along 11th Street near Diamond.

"A guard there saw we were all getting into trouble," Jacobs said, "so he grabbed us, took us to the wood shop and made us shoe-shine boxes. My mom was on welfare. I had three brothers. By giving me that shoeshine box, he gave me financial independence at age 11."

When Jacobs was hauled into court for violating a City Hall rule by shining shoes in the courtyard, the judge asked if he had anything to say. Then, as now, he sure did. 

"When I got finished talking," Jacobs said, "the judge told my mother, 'That boy is going to be a lawyer.' "

But by 18, Jacobs was a gang member, shooting heroin and supporting his habit by burglarizing students' rooms at Temple and houses in the Allegheny West neighborhood.

He spent the next 30 years in and out of prison. Clean and sober for 16 years, Jacobs wants to help ex-offenders put their criminal past far behind them. 

"All you hear about these days is a second chance for people just coming out of prison," Blackburn said.

"But what about people who are no longer on probation or parole?" Jacobs asked. "There's no conversation about their 'second chance.' That's who we help. It takes time. Years. We've got time."