Philly ex-offenders get a seat and a shout-out from Obama

Robert Warner said President Obama “seemed to understand . . . the reality that a lot of people are living out here, in the real world.” The former convict met with the president during the NAACP confab. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

APPARENTLY, President Obama has a little Philly in him. "Yo" was reportedly dropped a time or two during his conversation with ex-offenders before his address to the NAACP national convention Tuesday.

Jawn, however, was not. There's always next time.

El Sawyer, who told me about Obama's Philly swagger, and Robert Warner were two of four local ex-offenders who got a seat and a shout-out from Obama.

Turns out, the commander-in-chief was surprisingly easy to talk to.

"He was the most chill guy," Sawyer said. "It was like talking to an uncle, the coolest uncle you could imagine."

"He really seemed to understand what was really going on, the reality that a lot of people are living out here, in the real world." Warner said.

As Obama passionately outlined in his speech about criminal-justice reform, the real world for many means an unjust justice system that "remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth."

It's a world that Sawyer, 37, and Warner, 48, experienced first-hand. Sawyer served eight years for aggravated assault. Warner was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on drug and gun charges.

Although both have been out of prison for years, they remain on the front lines - Warner, as a program director for Philadelphia CeaseFire-Cure Violence, and Sawyer through documentary films about ex-offenders that he learned to shoot while in Graterford Prison.

In 2013, I wrote about Sawyer's first film, "Pull of Gravity," which he co-created with filmmaker Jon Kaufman. That film, shot over a year in North Philly, featured three men in different stages of re-entry into society. Sawyer's next film, which he is currently working on, takes the exploration deeper into the role that poverty plays in incarceration and re-entry.

"I don't want to take away from the fact that race is an issue . . . How cops view you, how judges view you, that all plays into this. But a lot of that stuff is downstream. The upstream thing is economics, poverty," Sawyer said.

"When people go to prison, sometimes it's the only time they are free from the trauma and stress and poverty of their environments," he said. "It is an opportunity to come up with a plan for their lives on the outside, but if they don't have the right programs and if they come out to the same environment . . . success may not be possible."

It's an obstacle Obama recognized in his speech and that increasingly the criminal-justice arena is focusing on with programs such as the U.S. District Court's Supervision to Aid Reentry program, or STAR.

Federal judge Gerald Austin "Jerry" McHugh would periodically see emails seeking donations of various items to assist STAR participants with their transition from prison life. As someone who long volunteered in Philadelphia prisons and co-founded a halfway house that served ex-offenders for more than 20 years, McHugh knew the needs of ex-offenders first-hand.

But it hit home again when he saw an email asking for a donation of a dress shirt to assist one of the men with an upcoming a job interview.

"I just remember it being such an unusual size that there was really no chance anyone would have it," he said. To help, he started a new fund with the Philadelphia Bar Foundation called the Judge Luongo Fund, named after his mentor, the late Alfred Luongo.

Many view employment as the key to re-entry, McHugh said. But the reality is that for many there are hundreds of steps, and potential missteps, before they even get to that point.

In his speech, Obama told the applauding crowd that the momentum for reform is building.

From his enviable fourth-row seat at the convention center the other day, Warner said it was hard not to believe it.

"I think people are finally getting that, for most people coming out of prison, the thing they want the most is to rejoin society, to be a good, working part of the world again."


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