VOL. 6 | NO. 39 | Saturday, September 21, 2013
By Bill Dries
DeAndre Brown runs what might be the best known landscape business in areas of Memphis where the yards have brush and trees taller than the vacant houses they completely obscure.
“We operate a little differently than other contractors. Most have subcontractors that work separately,” he said. “We are one large crew of 60 men or women. We get the heavy equipment in first. Then a team of weed eaters will go in behind that, then a team of people go in behind them and clean up.”
The Blight Patrol, composed of men and women wearing lime green T-shirts, has become synonymous with the larger effort to bring Frayser back after decades of indifference, neglect and lots of assumptions about the blue-collar suburb that lost its factories starting in the early 1980s.
LaSalle Pratt is part of the Lifeline to Success “Blight Patrol” program, which puts ex-offenders to work by cleaning up blighted properties in Frayser.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Blight Patrol members, including Brown, are all ex-offenders, people who in Brown’s words “have had some contact with the criminal justice system.” And the patrol is part a larger program called Lifeline to Success, which is focused on more than re-entry after completion of a prison term.
In the July heat, the Blight Patrol can look like a chain gang without the chains if you know the men and women at work used to be in prison. The yard work, however, was the only avenue Brown could find for a goal that is about more than the rehabilitation of ex-felons. It turned out to be a near perfect union.
When he and six other ex-felons showed at a Memphis City Council session three years ago they were interested in not only changing the attitude of those released from prison – they were vocal, even angry, about changing the way those who hadn’t been in prison viewed those emerging from prison. They spoke at the end of the council session at City Hall, the spot on the agenda reserved for citizens who aren’t speaking about anything on the council’s agenda. And they left as frustrated as, if not more than, they were when they got there.
Sometime after that, Brown found his way to the Frayser Exchange Club’s weekly luncheons near the intersection of U.S. 51 and North Watkins Road.
“The issue at the Exchange Club meeting that day was some houses that were vacant that no one would cover,” Brown said. “We said, ‘You know what? Let us do that.’”
Lifeline began its work in the Schoolfield area of Frayser two days a week.
“They embraced our men and women without worrying about their history,” Brown said of the club. “That was something that was important to me. And Frayser had the most overgrown lots. So it worked out.”
Brown also started bringing those working in the crews to the luncheon as well, as part of their adjustment to life on the outside. The encounters are almost always tentative with those in the green shirts always more tentative than others at the luncheon.
“We wanted to have a way to get them into the public,” he said. “Our mission is to change perceptions. The only way we can do that is to be in public doing things that the community sees value in.”
Most in the crowded backroom of Sarah Lee’s restaurant know the men and women in green are ex-felons. But that rarely comes up. Instead they are recognized for clearing lots and yards that many of those in the Exchange Club drive by every day.
What can seem like anger on the part of those in Lifeline isn’t just anger, Brown said. And starting to change that is what happens for two weeks in a classroom setting, then the classroom and volunteer efforts and then noon to dusk clearing lots.
“One of the most frustrating things is to deal with someone who’s been in that situation because they don’t feel there is any hope,” Brown said. “Prison hardens you. I don’t think folks really understand what that means. It isn’t somebody who doesn’t care. It’s someone who has had to learn how to deal with situation that they have no control over. They suppress emotions and suppress different feelings that normal people actually go through in a daily cycle. So they come out like they don’t feel, like they are strong.”
The adjustment is difficult and first tries frequently fail.
Since Brown started the program, he’s counseled 1,100 men and women coming out of the criminal justice system. Referrals are by word of mouth. He is the first to admit that most do not complete the program. Many leave of their own accord.
“Many of them don’t complete the program because our program is very vigorous. It takes a special person that really wants to change. We’ve made it tough on purpose,” Brown said. “Generally with programs like this, people come in and they feel entitled. They are looking for a handout. … We make them work and earn it. Generally when you put the work in front of people that only want a handout. They don’t stand up to it.”
Brown’s philosophy is that the door is always open for them to return and complete the program.
“It’s very difficult to get put out of our program. People use that as an excuse and a crutch – I don’t have to try anymore,” he said. “We won’t put you out. If you come back we will give you some restrictions but you can still stay in the program.”
Law enforcement leaders and others in the local criminal justice system are starting to question whether the difficult transition back from incarceration to a life on the right side of the law is a journey so many here and elsewhere undergo.
“The explosion in the American criminal justice system over the last 40 years in unprecedented anywhere in the world,” said Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush. “We incarcerate 25 percent of the people who are incarcerated throughout the world even though we only have five percent of the world’s population. No one’s even close to what we have done.”
James Coleman, director of Shelby County Corrections Division, agrees.
“When you think about the purpose of a prison. We are looking to get a person in, hopefully to offer him or her services that will help them be better when they leave,” he said. “If bringing a person in and once they leave they are really in worse shape, there’s a problem there.”
Coleman’s programs at the corrections center including training in how to operate a forklift and this year he estimates 120 inmates will earn their equivalent of a high school diploma. But getting a job right out of prison for many of those inmates will be a hard process because they will likely be disqualified as soon an employer sees they have checked the box on the application indication that they have been convicted of a felony – any felony.
He is an advocate of “ban the box,” the initiative that takes such a box off job applications and puts the issue later in the job interviewing process.
“You get to meet me as a person and then we talk about the incarceration,” Coleman said. “We are trying to do some things to not get on an even keel – to at least get them on the playing field.”
Brown has a working philosophy that is closer to the day-to-day life of men and women after they leave prison. It is about something as simple as yard work.
“When we began to actually get in the neighborhood and cut grass, all of a sudden doors began to open,” Brown said. “We could find a need and we didn’t have to talk about it. We could actually address it. And when people saw that we could address something that was of concern, things began to change for us.”
And interaction with those who haven’t been to prison is essential to the success of what Lifeline is trying to do for those on both sides of the encounter.
“We’ve become an asset. People actually seek us out,” he said. “So, where a man was once a pariah and no one wanted him in the neighborhood, now they see him on the team and they are excited – especially when the grass starts to grow.”
Frayser is more to the group than where the most overgrown lots are. Brown is an integral part of the area’s comeback.
“We’re ready to take back our neighborhoods and make Frayser the next Germantown,” he told the Memphis City Council when he returned to City Hall in July 2012, this time to accept a proclamation from the council.
Lifeline is also involved in the schools in the area, working with the Achievement School District.
When Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman visited Whitney Achievement Elementary School this month, Brown was along for the tour.
In the grade school’s lunchroom, his attention was immediately drawn to the one child in the lunchroom sitting in a lone seat by the door – a decidedly dour expression on his face, his arms crossed tightly across his chest.
As the lunchroom emptied in orderly lines, Brown approached the child obviously serving the last part of his lunch period in time out and talked with him quietly. The boy’s expression remained resolutely hard, or as hard as the stare of an elementary school student in a uniform can be. Brown recognized the look and kept talking, letting the words sink in even if it didn’t look like they were getting very far.
“We’re setting out to change the culture of Frayser. It won’t happen overnight. But if we can get that first or second grader and teach them how to respect authority, then he won’t be walking in the street or have his pants sagging,” Brown said the next day. “If an adult speaks to him, he’ll look him in the eye and give them respect they deserve. That’s how we begin to build it. It’s always the troubled ones that need the most attention.”