From prison to Philly store cashier: Dan Garrison's new life

Daniel Garrison (right) hugs Jeff Brown, owner of Brown Super Stores, after speaking during graduation ceremonies Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. Twenty-two people, including Garrison, graduated from a six-week prison-to-productivity pathway that guaranteed them a job one of Brown’s ShopRite stores. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Daniel Garrison has three pairs of black pants — a nondescript pair, a cargo-style pair, and a set of black khakis.

And on a recent Thursday morning, it was almost more than he could bear to choose which pair to wear to begin his new life.

“I picked the khaki ones,” he said by phone. In the background were all the noises of his new life — supermarket customers banging their carts, the cheery sound of a loudspeaker, lots of talking.

New Life Day One: Daniel J. Garrison, 51, supermarket cashier at the Brown’s Super Stores ShopRite on Island Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia.

Not Daniel J. Garrison, 51, ex-con and career burglar, although those also would have been true, with Garrison having spent 10 years in prison, the consequence of a scroll of burglary, theft, and robbery arrests dating from 1984, less than a month after his 18th birthday.

“I’m so excited,” Garrison said. Garrison is grabbing on to his new life with both hands, as a recent graduate of a six-week program that paid him $125 a week to learn to be a cashier at ShopRite. If he graduated from the Uplift Workforce Solutions program at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, he could count on a job. He and 21 classmates graduated July 5 and started work on Thursday.

“I already had the black sneakers,” he said. ShopRite requires employees to wear a company shirt, black pants, and black shoes.

“From the door, they knew I had a record,” said Garrison, who has been living with his mother in North Philadelphia. “They interviewed people at outpatient drug clinics. I don’t have to lie about having a record. I didn’t have to not let them know that I had a drug problem. All that’s eliminated here. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s like a prerequisite. You don’t have to hide. Everybody has a similar situation.”

In Pennsylvania’s state prisons, about two in five, or 20,000 of the 49,914 state’s inmate population hail from Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, or Delaware Counties. Of the 20,000 released yearly, 6,831 return to the region, including 4,032 to Philadelphia.

So, will it work? Will Garrison and the 21 other people in the class be able to stay out of prison?

Employment certainly helps. Garrison remembers how devastated he was after he had managed to land a job at Taco Bell. Excited for the chance, he was 10 minutes early. That’s when he got the text. Its message? Don’t bother coming in — there’s no job for someone with a criminal record.

“I got fired,” he said. “It was so blatant.”

But employment alone isn’t enough. Results from research in Milwaukee studying how employment affects recidivism suggest that a one-size-fits-all model is ineffective in keeping people out of prison. A key component is assessing the risk of re-offending and then tailoring the employment program to fit. High-risk people need more than soft customer-service skills and help figuring out what pair of pants to wear; they need cognitive behavioral training.

How Garrison fits in is hard to tell. He’s older, which lowers his risk, according to other research. But, that same research indicates, people who commit crimes such as burglary or theft are more likely to repeat them, because those crimes are more similar to a profession, a way of earning a living, although illegal and upsetting.

What finally put Garrison away were burglaries at the homes of two young families while they were away on vacation.

“Burglary ain’t seen as a serious crime,” he said. “But there’s a sentimental value for some of the jewelry and there’s safety in your private spaces, although those things didn’t register when I was doing the crime. In prison, we had victims coming in and talking to us. People get up and move, but sometimes people can’t move.”

At class at Enon, Garrison got some of the behavioral and psychological training that might make a difference for him.

“What I liked most about this training was the first part of the program, the part about removing stumbling blocks. We had exercises in trust. We did exercises in forgiveness. Individuals had some problems with forgiveness — people who had been raped, child molestation,” he said.

“We learned that forgiveness is not for the other person, it’s for you. People are growing up around acts of violence. They are being raised around adults who say, ‘If you want something, take it.’ Who tells a child that? You have to forgive the little kid who learned that.

“You have to forgive yourself.”

About this Project:

The Inquirer is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on issues facing people coming out of prison. The piece is part of an occasional series — across the region and across platforms — on the challenges of reentry and what can be done about them.

To read our collective work, and read more about the project: https://reentryreporting.org/