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Mentorship Program Helps Ex-Offender Escape the Revolving Door

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Kenneth Baldwin (L) and Clarence Smith (R) won "Mentor of the Year and Mentee of the Year" for their committed partnership after Smith returned from prison.
WAMU/Rebecca Sheir
Kenneth Baldwin (L) and Clarence Smith (R) won "Mentor of the Year and Mentee of the Year" for their committed partnership after Smith returned from prison.

D.C. government statistics show that roughly 10% of residents — approximately 60,000 people — have a criminal history. And each year, of the 8,000 people returning to the city after serving prison sentences, half of them go back to jail again within three years.

You may have heard lately about proposed legislation here in Washington to “ban the box” — i.e., to prevent employers from asking job applicants about their criminal records, at least in the preliminary stage of the application process.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) introduced the bill to help “returning citizens” have a better chance of finding gainful employment… and maybe, just maybe, preventing them from winding up back behind bars.

Or, as 50-year-old Clarence Smith calls it, avoiding the “revolving door.”

Two years ago he returned home after a four-year prison sentence. Before that, he says, “I’d done a 10-year sentence, six-year, a four-year, a five-year. So basically my whole adult life I’ve been back and forth through the revolving doors.”

But now, Clarence says his entire life has changed, in major part because of the “The Faith-Based Initiative”: a mentorship program started up in 2002 by D.C.’s Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA). Two years ago, the Initiative linked Clarence with a faith-based volunteer mentor, to offer support, encouragement and all-around friendship as Clarence re-entered society.

Now, Clarence has a full-time job with the Clean and Safe Team in Shaw. And just last week, the initiative named him and his mentor "Mentee and Mentor of the Year."

“I was shocked,” he says with a grin. “I hadn’t won an award since junior high school. And for me to get that award, I carry it around the house, I’m showing it to everybody! I show everybody! ‘Hey, see what I got?’”

Smith’s mentor, Kenneth Baldwin, was actually at one point a “returning citizen” himself.

“I’ve had my own challenges with the judicial system,” he says. “Just making some back choices: substance abuse, criminal activity. [I] paid the consequences for them and through that process, discovered me. Discovered a better me, and I translate that to others. When they come out I help them discover themselves.”

Clarence Smith says when he first met his mentor, he wasn’t sure he was ready for the road ahead.

“I’m not used to someone else giving me suggestions and telling me not to do this, which way to go,” Smith explains. “But then I was willing to accept it because I really needed to change my life. Because I hurt myself, I hurt my family as well as my kids. And I was trying to come and do everything under my power to bring my family back to trusting me, loving me, and just being a better person.”

Now, he says, he “ain’t nothing but smiles” — even when he sees the guys he used to hang out with on the streets.

“When I see the guys in the street I keep going,” he says. “One time I’d stand on the corner, profiling, talking slick, but that’s not what’s happening no more. I’m 50 years old. I don’t have time for that.”

Smith is pleased to report that on his birthday this coming May, he’s getting married, which makes him “happy as can be."

“I just try to base myself upon work, home, family and my [future] wife. That’s basically what I do,” he says.

Kenneth Baldwin says he’s all smiles these days, too. When the pair first met, Smith was on maximum supervision, and now he’s on minimum. He volunteered nearly 60 days in order to acquire his job. And both those things, Baldwin says, are huge.

“Most men have a problem with taking direction from other men,” he says.

“So because he was willing to go through that process and accept some of the information I was giving, that was a great thing.” Smith acknowledges that early on, he didn’t want to listen to Baldwin, or take his advice.

“But that was street mentality, and jail mentality,” he says. “I had to check myself. I didn’t come home to be arrogant, disrespectful. So I have to listen as well as he listens to me. Because behind the revolving doors, it don’t count no more. It counts when you come home and try to get your life on track.”

[Music: "I'm Free Now" by Morphine from Cure for Pain]


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