Life After Prison: Looking for Work

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Dorothy Smith, a job coach at the Center for Employment Opportunities, helps Lorenzo Brooks prepare for a job interview. (Photo by Alice Popovici)

Lorenzo Brooks worked as an accountant for the New York City Housing Authority before he was convicted of second-degree murder in 1986 and spent 30 years in prison.

He was released from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York on September 22, and has been meeting regularly ever since with a parole officer who tracks his progress as he settles back into society.

“If they tell me to come into the office, I’ve got to come into the office right away,” said Lorenzo, 60, describing the conditions of his release.

“I can’t go places that serve primarily alcohol, I’m not supposed to have any police contact. And, of course, I’m supposed to be abstaining from drugs.”

But Lorenzo’s curfew, requiring him to be indoors between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. was waived, first to accommodate the part-time custodial job he got in October, and then the full-time position he started December 28.

He works the night shift at a homeless shelter run by the nonprofit Project Renewal.

Lorenzo is among an estimated 636,000 people who are released from U.S. correctional institutions each year and begin the uphill task of rebuilding their lives—often with the help of social services organizations that assist with education, job coaching and other services.

But navigating reentry is challenging, studies suggest. Nearly two-thirds of former inmates are re-arrested within three years of their release.

We met Lorenzo at a conference organized by John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He agreed to let The Crime Report follow him at various steps along his journey, as he begins his first real job after prison, reconnects with family, and finds a permanent place to live.

Lorenzo’s Story

For now, Lorenzo has found a temporary home at the Fortune Society‘s Castle Gardens Center in New York’s West Harlem neighborhood, which makes available transitional housing and counseling for former inmates.

Lorenzo was never married and has no children of his own, but he has recently reconnected with the family of a woman who was his common law wife since the late 1970s. Although she recently died, he said her children and grandchildren have become part of his support system, and he spent the holidays catching up with them, as well as with an aunt and cousins who live in New York City.

Born in Norfolk, Va., Lorenzo keeps in touch by phone and Facebook with his brother and four sisters, who still live there.

He moved to New York from Norfolk, in the mid-1970s, drawn by the city’s “bright lights,” he said—staying briefly with his aunt in Queens and then moving to his own apartment.

He attended the now-closed Drake Business School and earned a certificate in accounting and bookkeeping while working in the evenings for the Ideal Toy Company. Eventually he found work as an accountant, first with a shipping company, then with a realty company, and finally with the New York City Housing Administration.

After his arrest and conviction, Lorenzo entered the prison system in 1987, serving at 19 different New York correctional institutions until his release in September. Among other places, he was at Great Meadow, Elmira, Attica and Orleans correctional facilities.

He spent about 15 years working as a clerk in prison libraries, and said his favorite part of the job was helping inmates resolve problems with their legal cases.

“If a guy came in here and said, ‘I don’t think my plea was legal,'” Lorenzo recalled, he would show him how to look up information on plea bargaining and different pleas.

“From that one step, you’d be surprised how many legal subjects that one issue can cover.”

Finding a Job

For the past three weeks, Lorenzo has been working the overnight shift at a New York City homeless shelter for men run by Project Renewal, where he and five other staff members are in charge of about 250 homeless men.

“What we do is just make sure that everyone is following the program,” he said.

As he explained, that means ensuring that they are not fighting, smoking cigarettes inside or being verbally abusive to each other.

Soon, Lorenzo hopes to begin a training program for peer drug counseling, so he can work as a case manager.

“I’m hoping to move up the ladder here,” he said.

Dorothy Smith looks through a box of donated footwear at the Center for Employment Opportunities to help Lorenzo Brooks find a pair of shoes for his job interview. (Photo by Alice Popovici)

The first step in getting the job began as soon as he was released from prison. Lorenzo began visiting New York City’s Center for Employment Opportunities every week to work on his resume and meet with his assigned job coach, Dorothy Smith.

The organization, which helps formerly incarcerated men and women reenter the workforce by matching them with potential employers—and serves about 2,000 people each year—recommended Lorenzo for the job he ultimately landed at Project Renewal.

In November, Lorenzo and Smith sat down for a mock interview—going over his qualifications, his prison work experience, and his career goals. After their session, she said he was ready to meet potential employers.

Listen to his mock interview:

We’ll be carrying periodic reports about Lorenzo’s journey over the next several months. Next up: we’ll check in with him to learn more about how his new job is working out. Alice Popovici is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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