One recent Thursday, Lorenzo Brooks woke up just before dawn and began his day with 100 pull-ups and 500 push-ups. He made himself a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich for breakfast. He picked out a gray button-down shirt and slacks, and prepared for his two appointments of the day—a 12 p.m. with an academic counselor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in Midtown Manhattan, and a 3 p.m. with a job developer at the Resource Training Center in Brooklyn.
Later, he attended a study session with former classmates from a training program he just completed (he hopes it will lead to a position as a substance abuse counselor) and made it back home to the Fortune Society in Harlem (a social services organization where he has lived for almost a year) just in time for an early dinner and the weekly Thursday night meeting at 6 p.m.—which is mandatory for every resident. He slept a few hours, then took the 1 train uptown to 168th Street and clocked in for his midnight to 8 a.m. shift at the homeless shelter where he works full-time.
“It felt just like another day,” said Lorenzo, 60. “But another day of freedom.”
But that particular day–September 22–was special.
It was the one-year anniversary of Lorenzo’s release from the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where he had served the final years of a 20-to-life sentence for second-degree murder–a total of 30 years behind bars. When Lorenzo emerged from prison that day, he was already in a hurry.
In a hurry to find a place to live, to sign up for health insurance, to apply for emergency cash assistance.
A year later, he still feels the same sense of urgency to move his life in the right direction. But his priorities have shifted to his career. As he walked into John Jay College for his appointment at the Prison Reentry Institute, where he was to fill out a college application, Lorenzo was trying to decide: Should he apply for a bachelor’s degree program in psychology at State University of New York’s Empire State College (a program recommended by a mentor) or the City University of New York’s City College?
This is the final story in The Crime Report’s six-part Life After Prison series, in which we followed Lorenzo Brooks as he began to rebuild his life after 30 years in prison. In the year since we met Lorenzo, he found a job, reconnected with his family, and began training for a new career. Now he wants to finish college.
Every year, about 650,000 inmates released from state and federal facilities are reabsorbed into communities across the U.S., where they try to navigate the unfamiliar terrain with help from various reentry programs. But statistics show that approximately two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years of their release, and more than half will be rearrested within a year of their release—either for committing a new crime or for violating the conditions of their release.
Research suggests that the most successful community-based reentry programs reach ex-offenders in the first year after their release and provide a combination of substance abuse prevention and mental health counseling, vocational training and housing.
But experts say more “scientifically rigorous research” is needed (the bulk of studies are based on just two reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, released in 1994 and 2005) to determine what programs work and how government funding should be allocated.
“I Want to Redeem Myself”
Lorenzo tries to keep busy. When he isn’t working or training for a new job, he participates in drug relapse prevention and life-skills classes at the Fortune Society, spends time with family and friends, and attends various discussions on criminal justice throughout the city.
“I want to succeed because I don’t want to be a bum on the street. I don’t want to be back in jail again,” he said. “I want to succeed so that my friends and family can be proud of me.”
Most importantly, he added, “I want to redeem myself.”
Before leaving prison, Lorenzo said he had heard “rumors” about the challenges of life after prison from inmates who had been released, rearrested and incarcerated again.
But “you can actually have a good time” if you make a plan and follow through with it, he said. “Staying out here is not as hard as a lot of guys in jail are made to believe.”
For instance, former inmates tend to say it’s hard to abide by the nightly curfew—a condition of release for many parolees—but Lorenzo said the 9 p.m. curfew he used to have at the Fortune Society didn’t bother him.
“I felt like I was given enough room to do what I was supposed to do,” he said.
The curfew was waived last December, when Lorenzo started a job that required him to work at night.
Drug and alcohol testing—another condition of parole that many inmates complain about—wasn’t a problem for Lorenzo either. He said he hasn’t used alcohol or hard drugs for 30 years, and stopped smoking marijuana 10 years ago. At the Fortune Society he is required to complete an infrared technology drug test every day (by looking into a machine that analyzes the dilation in his pupils) and a urine drug test once a week.
“They say how hard it is to find a job because you have a felony,” Lorenzo said, but he points out that former inmates just have to know where to look for work.
Instead of going to an ordinary employment agency, for example, they should seek out organizations that specialize in finding jobs for people returning from prison, such as Center for Employment Opportunities, the organization that helped him find work.
“Most of the guys that I know that came home so far….are working,” Lorenzo said. He knows former inmates who work as counselors, as chefs and as fitness instructors, among other occupations.
Of course, there are plenty of challenges.
Lorenzo said his job, as a program aide in charge of security during the overnight shift at the Fort Washington Men’s Shelter for mentally-ill men, is stressful and exhausting. He earns about $17,000 per year.
Some of the clients at the shelter are violent, Lorenzo said. “I get threatened almost every night.”
“We’re thankful for our incredibly dedicated staff who work in an environment that can be challenging, but also very rewarding,” Zac Roy, a spokesman for Project Renewal, the organization that runs the shelter, said in an email.
“Everyday their efforts are helping to improve the lives of people who are homeless.”
The work often leaves Lorenzo too tired for everything else he does during the day, such as mandatory workshops at the Fortune Society, or training classes to advance his career. He finds himself nodding off at times when he should be awake.
Even so, in the past year he has tried to find the time to take advantage of what New York City has to offer.
He strolled through parks to smell flowers in bloom. He rode the Staten Island Ferry for the first time since his release, just to see the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, the city skyline and the Statue of Liberty. He went to the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn—one of the city’s biggest events—where he tasted Caribbean food and let himself get swept along with the colorful floats, music and a “stream of people.”
He took the Roosevelt Island Tramway to Roosevelt Island for the very first time, to look at the city from another vantage point. “It’s like you’re up in a helicopter or something,” he said.
Reflecting on the past year, Lorenzo said he knows how fortunate he is—both to be out of prison and living in a place like New York.
“I’m still on that ride, still enjoying my freedom,” he said. “Not taking it for granted.”
Now he has to prove that he’s turned his life around.
Proof of Rehabilitation
A few weeks ago, Lorenzo received a letter from OASAS, the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, asking him to provide evidence that he is rehabilitated. After he completes the request—and if the agency approves it—Lorenzo will be one step closer to reaching his career goal of becoming a substance abuse counselor, a process that could take another three years.
The letter came in response to Lorenzo’s request for the certification he needs in order to take a standardized exam to work as a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) in New York.
The four-month course Lorenzo just completed at the Resource Training Center was the first step in this process, which includes about 6,000 hours of on-the-job training. But before Lorenzo can be considered for an internship that will give him the hands-on training, he has to pass the exam to prove he knows the material. Before he can take the exam, he has to prove he is on the right track.
“People have been telling me that it’s nothing to worry about, but I do worry about it,” Lorenzo said.
He’s already asked Stanley Richards, senior vice president at the Fortune Society, Ebony Maher, his academic counselor at the Prison Reentry Institute’s College Initiative, and Maureen Fisher, the psychiatrist at the Fortune Society, to write letters of reference on his behalf.
He is writing as well, telling OASAS about the violence prevention workshops and college classes he took in prison, about the fact that he has not tested positive for any drugs or alcohol since 2006, about the drug treatment classes he has been attending at the Fortune Society.
For decades, Lorenzo has been learning and relearning strategies to cope with stress and deal with cravings, to avoid the people or situations that would trigger a relapse—and when he is tempted, to have patience and wait until the craving passes. He wants to help others do the same thing.
“How do you prove to someone you’re rehabilitated?” he asked. “Really, the only thing you can do is show them how you’re living your life.”
Between the paperwork for OASAS, the full-time job, study sessions and a steady stream of errands, Lorenzo has had to find time to work on his college application, which is due [tomorrow] November 1.
After weighing his two options, he decided to apply for a degree at Empire State College’s Manhattan campus because he learned the school would give him credit for some of the life skills classes and volunteer work he completed in prison, and since his release.
Now all he has do to is submit transcripts for the additional 74 college credits he earned in prison, apply for financial aid and submit an essay about his goals.
He shared part of it with The Crime Report:
“While my crime was committed over 30 years ago, I still regret what I did to this very day, and I try to make up for it every day. Counseling the addict and substance abuser is my way of making up for what I did. It’s my way of giving back to society what I took away all those many years ago.”
Alice Popovici is deputy editor of The Crime Report. To see her full series on Lorenzo Brooks, please click here. She welcomes readers’ comments.