An Ex-Incarceree’s Story:  ‘I Was Runnin’ From Myself’

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charles rivers

Charles Rivers spent 19 years of his life behind bars. Now he helps others leaving prison to start over. Photo by Zachary Krahmer,/The Stand

As Charles Rivers tore through a dark backyard in Syracuse, N.Y., one day in 2007, trying to shake a police pursuit, part of him wanted police to catch up.

He was relieved when they did.

“I wasn’t necessarily runnin’ from the police, I was runnin’ from myself,” he recalls.  “Jail was an escape for me.”

Rivers, sentenced to a seven-year term, was released in 2012. It was the last time Rivers, who had already experienced two previous periods of incarceration, went to prison.

In the years since, he achieved a steady job, bought a home, and continued his education.

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PEACE Inc.’s Southside Family Resource Center in Syracuse, N.Y., houses a food pantry on the second floor, complete with three refrigerators, stacked cereal boxes and fresh and frozen produce. File Photo/The Stand

He works at the PEACE Inc. Emma L. Johnston Southside Family Resource Center, a Syracuse non profit established to help former incarcerees like himself make a successful adjustment to life after prison.

Rivers understands how hard it is to avoid a life of crime⸺and then break out of that life once you become trapped in it. That’s why it has become equally important for him to help younger people in his community fight the odds that make incarceration a likely future⸺in effect, to end the ‘runnin’ from myself’ that nearly destroyed his own life.

In prison, he had begun studying psychology to better understand himself and his anger. And he joined an anger management group, where he soon realized what could help him the most.

“The counselor asked me ‘what is it going to take for you not to come back to jail?’” Rivers recalled.

“I said ‘education.’ ”

Today, Rivers has a near-obsession with education. He worked three part-time jobs and took classes at two different schools before he took on the full-time job of program coordinator at PEACE.

He has a master’s degree in human service management and in criminal justice.

He’s also a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor through SUNY Empire State College’s Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) program.

At PEACE, Rivers is hoping to build a renewed support network for people re-entering society and seeking stability.

“The mission and goal is to help individuals become empowered with the goal of them being self-sufficient,” he said.

“Some people need more help than others. It’s like letting a baby bird go — either you gonna fly and survive, or not fly and die.”

It’s Not Just the System

Rivers spent 30 years in the criminal justice system, 19 of them behind bars on various charges — robbery, grand and petit larceny, criminal mischief and trespass. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about two-thirds of released prisoners get rearrested within three years of release and over 75 percent within five years of release.

Rivers went back to prison three times and had served three state sentences before the police — and his lifestyle — caught up with him in 2007.

Inequalities built into the justice system were apparent to Rivers even in his early school days, when he observed first-hand the school-to-prison pipeline.

“(At school) we needed ID to get in, we had security guards, metal detectors in school, which prepared us psychologically for prison,” he said. “The only contact I had with white folks was in … medical check-ups, some in school.”

But systemic inequalities and racial injustice are only one part of the problem for him and others, Rivers believes.

Parenting and family development had to take the bulk of the blame for him. He believes that if he had a positive male presence in his life, things might have turned out differently.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 31.6 percent of black families don’t have a male presence such as a husband or father, for all income levels.

Rivers stopped going to school in the ninth grade because school took up too much of the time he’d rather have spent doing the “negative things” he wanted to do. And in the schools in his [former Syracuse neighborhood], change has come slowly for the 50 percent of students who are black.

The disparity is hard to forget for Rivers, who notices it even today on his visits to Danforth Middle School in Syracuse. He described a dark and dingy building where the air quality is poor and the prospect of improved education — smart boards and new textbooks — seems distant.

Not Going to School Was a Culture’

Combined with the racial disparities in school discipline, he says, the streets today remain an almost welcome alternative to the classroom for too many kids.

“Not going to school was a culture,” Rivers said.

As a boy, Rivers enjoyed reading and the occasional gifts of Atari games over Christmas and his birthday. But not going to school carved out more time for things he’d rather do outside the classroom.

Rivers grew up without a male mentor in his own life. He was his mother’s only son and his father’s youngest, and was raised by his mother alone in Newark, N.J., before they moved to Syracuse when he was 13 or 14.

He stopped going to school, and prison soon replaced the classroom.

Growing up, Rivers relied on his mother for most everything — and even that was a challenge because she worked two jobs, out of the house for 12 hours of the day. Rivers was left on his own after school and only later realized that he missed what he called the “in-house socialization.”

“No child should be without both their mother and father in their lives,” he said.

He isn’t alone in that thinking.

charles rivers

Charles Rivers carries in boxes of donated food to be organized and then distributed during the Emma L. Johnston Southside Family Resource Center’s weekly food pantry hours. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

Ira De’Lee, youth coordinator at Onondaga Earth Corps and Rivers’ friend, said life for them used to be upside-down without positive male role models.

De’Lee and Rivers go way back: De’Lee offered Rivers his first job out of prison. De’Lee himself has been through the system after the streets took him the wrong way.

“It’s easier to go out, hustle and settle,” he said, a reflection of the fact that crime rates and arrests disproportionately affect the black community.

In 2016, black people made up 12 percent of the country’s adult population, but 33 percent of the sentenced prison population, according to the Pew Research Center.

Looking back, De’Lee said, the place where he and Rivers are now is phenomenal compared to where they used to be. De’Lee is raising his daughter alone, and a smile spread across his face as he revealed that she is a straight-A student.

Raising her alone isn’t easy, but a single-parent household is a reality for many.

Needed:  Dads Who Are Role Models

“They need more fathers involved. More men being an example for transition from streets to real life,” he said.

He adds that Rivers is the kind of rare example they need. The support Rivers wants to foster through the center extends to his friendships, too.

Every day, De’Lee and Rivers exchange long “good morning” messages wishing each other well and sharing encouragement to make the most of their day and life.

For Rivers, the job at the Family Resource Center is more than just a job: It’s his way of creating the male presence and support he missed, and that he largely blames for his own years of crime.

When his brother died after contracting HIV, Rivers became an HIV educator — and it was then that he learned what it was like to help others.

Courtesy The Stand

When he got out of jail, Rivers found his first job at Syracuse Haulers Waste Removal, thanks to De’Lee. De’Lee chuckled about Rivers tripping over hammers; construction wasn’t his calling.

A year later, Rivers returned the favor by offering De’Lee a job at Onondaga Earth Corps. Support begets support, and that seems to be the way forward for Rivers and the community he hopes to help.

“I really don’t want young folks to follow the path I do. I fear if I don’t do anything, they will,” he said. “I would like to live by an example.

“I knew what it was not to be a father, husband, man, to be on drugs, to not be a positive figure.”

It took nearly three decades for Rivers to stop running from himself, face the life he had lived, and start building a new one. It took a spiritual epiphany, a relentless and determined pursuit of education and a growing support network.

The grind doesn’t stop for Rivers. During this year’s celebration of Earth Day at the Emma L. Johnston Center, the skies were blue and cloudless. The children at the center dug their hands through the mud, planting scores of flowers in the front yard.

Rivers, as usual, seemed to be everywhere at once: sifting through mulch and making trips to the store to replace the supply of seeds, a pack of Newport Lights peeking out of his pocket. He cheered on the kids loudly and cursed just as loudly after he lifted a heavy bed of seeds and mud.

He held his back for a moment before his eyes landed on the next bed — it was time to get moving again.

He hailed one of the kids to help.

“Come on,” he said. “Me and you.”

 This is a condensed and edited version of the final article in the “Prison-to-Family series,” published in The Stand, a community newspaper produced in Syracuse, N.Y., in partnership with S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. The full version is available here. Ashley Kang, director of The Stand, is a 2018 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. Click here for the previous story in the series. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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