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Jones found out about the place through an acquaintance who works for the organization. "He said, 'No one who's served as much time as you should have to stay in a shelter.' And he brought me to the castle."
Actually, it only looks like a castle. The former Catholic girls school had long gone derelict when Page spotted it in the late 1990s and decided it was a perfect site for a residence and counseling center for recently released homeless ex-cons. With state and federal funding, it opened in 2002 and has seen several hundred men and women go through its doors. The average stay is about six months, but some stay as long as a year, in rooms that contain private baths and kitchenettes where residents are urged to cook so they can learn to live on their own.
The biggest advantage, however, is the mutual support, which helps ex-cons cope in the first fragile months after their release. "I was scared for a while to get on the train," said Jones. "Scared about how people look at you, about having any contact with people who are not in the criminal element. I mean, I spent my whole life in prison."
And then there are things that the former prisoners say the straight world simply can't understand. "I am a prisoner of my own conscience," said Ramos. "People talk about remorse, but they have no idea what it means. I feel good these days, I feel blessed. But I have that one cloud," he said, speaking about the life he took years ago. "It won't ever go away."
These days, Ramos could pass for a well-dressed lawyer. He works as a counselor at the Fortune Society's offices on West 23rd Street. White recently started working there as well, as an intern. "I'm part of the working world," he announced in triumph on his first day on the job. A company in midtown hired Jones as a shipping clerk, but fired him a couple of days later. "They said my productivity was poor, but it seemed about the same as everyone else. I think it was what I wrote on the application where it asked about convictions. That's the big hurdle." He's currently serving food at a Fortune Society program that offers juvenile convicts an alternative to incarceration.
"This is my first Thanksgiving and my first Christmas outside in 25 years," said Jones. "I'm in the holiday spirit. People say it's cold outside. I don't even feel it."