MOST EX-CONS can't shed reminders of their jail time fast enough. J. Jondhi Harrell still has the shoes he bought at the commissary while serving nearly two decades behind bars.
They're nothing special; just a $20 pair of beige kicks. But to 58-year-old Harrell, they're a reminder of his journey from convicted felon to vocal advocate to Goodwill Industries International Graduate of the Year. The award, which comes with a $5,000 check, honors an outstanding graduate of Goodwill's career program.
"A lot of times where ex-offenders mess up, and I did it myself, we start doing well and we forget," Harrell said. "We forget the pain we went through. We forget the frustration. We forget the injury we caused to those we love. I look at those shoes and I remember: Those are the shoes you walked in when you were walking to the prison library, the rec yard, all the times you were walking behind bars. Those shoes symbolize all of that. I'll never get rid of those shoes."
Confession: When I met Harrell at the Cherry Street office of his burgeoning nonprofit, The Center for Returning Citizens, I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to hear his story, but I also hoped to pick up some tip, some secret to successful re-entry that I could maybe pass on to Colwin Williams, the ex-con I've been writing about since moving to Philly. Or any of the other ex-offenders who routinely call to talk about their struggles.
So when Harrell shared his story, I listened closely. And after hearing it, I suggest any ex-offenders reading this do the same.
Harrell served seven years for armed bank robberies in the '80s. When he got out, he was doing well. But three years after his release, he was back to his old habits and behind bars, this time for 18 years.
"My addiction was never drugs or alcohol. It was crime," Harrell said. The feds cured him of that. But when Harrell was in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa., he knew it was time to think seriously, and differently, about his future.
He aligned himself with positive people and programs behind bars. He mentored fellow prisoners and made great efforts to have a relationship with his children, even if it was 15-minute visits at a time.
But the key, Harrell said, was planning for his re-entry from almost the moment he landed behind bars the second time.
"A lot of ex-offenders start thinking about their life outside when they're getting close to getting out," he said. "By then, it's too late. You have to start planning it while you're still inside."
After being released from a halfway house, Harrell began pursuing his bachelor's degree online through the University of Phoenix. He's now working towards a master's in social work at Temple University.
But even with a plan, it wasn't easy. When Harrell got out in 2009, he couldn't find a job. By the time he walked into Goodwill Industries of Southern N.J. & Philadelphia, he was desperate.
"He was under the gun with probation," recalled his supervisor Ray Newstadt. "He needed a job. But it didn't take long to see that he was motivated."
Newstadt said Harrell, who refurbished remote controls in Goodwill's Ex-Offender Re-Entry Program, stood out - especially when he asked to keep a suit out back for potential full-time job interviews.
That story resonated with the award committee members.
"When I heard about how he'd keep a suit on hand in case of job interviews, I was really impressed," said Lorie Marrero, one of the committee members who chose Harrell from among the 165 Goodwill chapters in the U.S. and Canada for the award. "He's such a role model for others in his position. I think they can really learn from him."
Harrell, who is a service coordinator at Pathways to Housing PA, which helps the homeless find housing, plans to use some of the award money to grow his nonprofit. At the award ceremony, he also asked Goodwill officials to support his efforts with ex-offenders.
"I think people in general can see how important redemption is and I think everybody loves a story of someone who had a lifestyle that was destructive but came to a new consciousness," he said. "But you have to truly believe in yourself and what you're doing, even when others don't."
And, Harrell said, referring to those commissary shoes, it doesn't hurt to keep a reminder of where you've been. "Just so you know where you need to go."
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