(Screenshot via youtube.com)
Luis “Suave” Gonzalez might not be someone you’d expect to earn a degree from Villanova University. For one, he was illiterate until adulthood. For another, he was supposed to die in prison.
“I come from the streets where education wasn’t important,” said the former juvenile lifer, who was found guilty of homicide at age 17 in 1986. “My ignorance put me in jail.”
It was there that he learned to read and write and eventually earned his GED and a college degree thanks to in-prison programming and “a lot of help” from a tight-knit support system.
Three decades ago, he said last week, he made a promise to himself: “If I ever had the chance to come back to the community, I would do something different” — help young people stay out of jail, maybe, by offering them the support he lacked at their age.
Gonzalez now has that chance: He was resentenced and released last fall and is now working at Nu-Stop Recovery and Educational Center, a substance abuse and treatment facility in North Philadelphia that aids returning citizens.
Navigating the reentry process has been a challenge on its own, though.
The TEDxPhiladelphia event series returned in April after a months-long hiatus with a themed, discussion-based format. In honor of June as Reentry Awareness Month in Philadelphia, the second salon will focus on reentry and criminal justice.
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The event on Monday, June 25, is open to anyone who has been previously incarcerated, as well as those interested in “how policy, criminal justice, poverty, and systemic racism intertwine and impact the lives of incarcerated individuals, their families, and their communities — and what we can all do about it.”
"The face of reentry is changing."
Following a screening of past TED Talks and before a community discussion session, attendees will hear from Gonzalez about the difficulties many returning citizens face in securing housing, employment and basic necessities like clothing.
In prison, he said, certain reentry organizations (which he declined to name) “promise you the world” — including services they don’t actually have the capacity to provide. But people reentering society after decades inside need more than lip service and good intentions: They need psychological services, full-time work, support teams. In his experience, those are hard to find.
Nu-Stop offers concrete, community-based help to returning citizens, including job placement, Gonzalez said, which is why he’s proud to work there. [Editor’s note: Check out these smart practices for hiring formerly incarcerated individuals.]
But he has ideas for other fixes, such as an oversight commission that works as a watchdog for all of the city’s reentry organizations and ensures they’re doing what they say they do. Once the system is fixed, returning citizens — even those without college degrees — will be allowed to flourish.
“People do make mistakes, and for every returning citizen that we help to acclimate themselves back to the community, it’s a safer community that we’re creating,” Gonzalez said. “The face of reentry is changing. There are plenty of people who have been incarcerated who are doing wonderful work in the community.”
Psst, stay in the know about future TEDxPhiladelphia salons by joining the group’s mailing list here.-30-
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