It’s Monday night in the basement of the Belfield Recreation Center in Logan, and the 10 or so men and women seated in folding chairs, arranged in a circle, support-group style, are struggling to hear one another over the booming soundtrack of a Zumba class in the room next door.
It may not be the most auspicious way to launch a citywide movement aimed at curbing juvenile crime and incarceration, but this crew of ex-offenders, volunteers and one college professor is determined to do just that.
The way its founders see it, the Public Safety Initiative (PSI) Youth Transformation Project — a so-far unincorporated, unfunded and unofficial effort born out of the much-marveled-at Lifers Inc. group inside the State Correctional Institution at Graterford — could be the best weapon Philly has to change the outlook for its most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
“PSI is not a program, it’s a movement,” says Tyrone Werts, who while at Graterford helped dream up the plan to, among other things, pair kids caught up in the criminal-justice system with mentors who have done hard time. “It’s a movement to enroll thousands of men all over the city at one time, to call these men together, to empower them to change what we call ‘the culture of street crime.’”
But first, the volunteer-run effort must overcome the more mundane challenges of life, logistics and social-service work on the outside: obtain 501(c)3 status, build spreadsheets to track its successes, write grant applications, win funding, get a brick-and-mortar headquarters, perhaps pay some of its overworked volunteers — and, in the name of all that is good, get someone to turn down that Zumba music.
Fortunately, Werts and his partners have learned to be patient.
It’s been more than 30 years since the Lifers group was founded in Graterford by inmates who wanted to turn around both their lives and the violence in their communities. Werts, a former president of Lifers who had his life sentence commuted by Gov. Ed Rendell after 36 years in prison, says the concept of PSI has likewise been brewing for years, germinated from focus groups the Lifers held with Graterford’s new arrivals.
At the time, the Lifers wanted an explanation for the state’s skyrocketing prison population (besides, that is, its debatably draconian sentencing and parole policies). They found the culture of street crime itself was one pervasive, triggering factor.
The bad news — that kids were modeling behavior the inmates themselves had helped perfect — was followed by good: Those leaving Graterford had the ability to make a difference, and the Lifers could be the ones to train them for the job.
“Using the credibility we had from the streets, we could engage them more effectively than someone who didn’t live that lifestyle,” Werts says. He didn’t want to mentor just one kid or talk just one drug dealer into leaving the corner: He wanted to put in place enough mentors and advocates to begin changing the city’s culture on a broad scale, and to organize entrepreneurs to train and employ the young people, opening up alternative paths.
“I could help individual kids, but I’m saving individual lives. I’m not making my community any better,” Werts says. “What we’re attempting is a big job and it’s never been attempted before. And we’re going to do it because of the connection between the community and the prison.”
It’s a remarkable theory.
But implementing it has been a years-long challenge. And it has, so far, rested a great deal on the shoulders of the bionic Darryl Goodman — Bluetooth receiver perpetually jammed into one ear, the better with which to pump friends, family and new acquaintances alike for connections, volunteer work or anything else that can help PSI’s exploding number of teenage charges get their lives on track.
Unlike Werts, Goodman was never a “lifer”: He did 15 years in prison, three of them in Graterford. But his father, Bruce Goodman, was incarcerated at Graterford when Darryl arrived, so (to Bruce’s great sadness) he was able to show his son the ropes. Darryl, in turn, introduced his father to the Lifers group.
When Darryl Goodman was released in 2002, the Lifers heaped on him their hopes of founding a PSI movement outside prison walls.
Goodman began the way a guy with a day job, a family to support and no infrastructure behind him had to: very small.
Around North Philly or West Oak Lane, when he would see teens or twentysomethings dealing on street corners, he’d try to talk to them. He’d usually fail to get through. Eventually, the kids would get busted. But then their parents would call, wanting Goodman, who was working at the Sarah Allen Seniors Homes at the time, to help find the kids court-mandated community service.
Goodman and a slowly expanding circle of volunteers — including, more recently, his own father, who’d been reluctant to participate until he finally saw for himself the impact his son was having — began reaching not just young people on the street, but those already in the criminal-justice system.
Every two weeks for the past seven months, PSI members have navigated the fluorescent-lit warren of the Youth Study Center, Philly’s juvenile holding pen, to speak to a few dozen young people awaiting trial.
They ask, “Who has court dates?” and kids’ hands shoot up. The PSI members pass around paper forms for the teens to fill out with their name and court details. And then, when the court date comes around, they do what none of the kids expects: They show up.
“They’ve heard lies so many times,” Goodman says. “Once they see us in court” — and often, the PSI representatives are the only ones there to speak in support of the kids; even the parents sometimes don’t show — “they finally start to believe us.”
On each visit, PSI gains a handful of new mentees; keeping up with that demand is becoming the next challenge.
The group has about a dozen mentors currently. “What’s been holding us back is the resources to build an infrastructure in a really effective way, where people can see the outcomes,” Werts says. “But we’ve been building a lot of credibility with the courts, the probation system, the kids and the parents.”
One goal is to begin holding meetings around the city in the next few months, and after that large-scale training sessions for mentors, so that any kid who needs help can be paired with an adult who’s turned his or her own life around.
To that end, Werts and Goodman have been doing their share of reminding those they meet that “you have the responsibility not to walk past these guys but engage them in conversation, be mediators, mentors,” Werts says. He says many ex-offenders are ready to help, but are awaiting some direction. “They see the value of their own personal experience.”