Holiday Off Ice

After decades in prison, three friends try to sort things out

When the first snow of the season fell, Bruce Jones, who is 53 years old, immediately went to check it out. "I just had to go out and walk in it," he said. To look at him, you'd never guess he was the type to get all squishy over a few snowflakes. You'd be wrong. Jones is a big man with a shaved head and black horn-rimmed glasses who spent the last 25 years locked in a cell. "I mean, it was snowing and I was walking outside," said Jones. "I said to myself, 'Man, I am not in prison. It is snowing and I am walking in it.' "

Jones has a couple of pals—Larry White, who is 73, and Angel Ramos, 48—who were recently released from their own decades-long prison terms and who are getting the same kind of charge out of digging the little things these days. For a Saturday-morning adventure, the three friends have recently been taking the train a couple of stops from where they're staying in West Harlem down to 125th Street to walk the aisles of the big Fairway supermarket there. "We get one shopping cart," said Jones. "We call it 'three brains, one cart.' We buy a couple things, but mostly we just look. It's amazing what they've got in the stores now. I don't remember that they had these kinds of places before."

Another trip took them to Williamsburg, where they wandered into a bagel shop. "I didn't know they had all these kinds of bagels now," said Jones. "And flavored cream cheeses? I had a cinnamon raisin bagel with scallion cream cheese." He looked earnestly at a visitor. "It was the greatest thing I ever tasted."

On the outside now: Larry White, Bruce Jones, and Angel Ramos at the Fortune Society's offices.
photo: Filip Kwiatkowski
On the outside now: Larry White, Bruce Jones, and Angel Ramos at the Fortune Society's offices.

Sometimes the trio, weather permitting, is content to just perch on the benches behind the hulking five-story stone building known as Fortune Academy on West 140th Street and Riverside Drive where they're currently living. "We sit there. We look around us. Every now and again, we say, 'Hey, we're not in jail anymore,' " said Jones.

Society doesn't spend much time worrying about what happens to people after they're sentenced, especially for heinous crimes. It spends even less thinking about what happens with them when—time served—they're due to get out. Under the prior governor, George Pataki, the unwritten policy was simply to keep violent offenders locked up, regardless of the rules. Parole commissioners aren't supposed to substitute their own judgment for that of the sentencing judge, but that's effectively what happened. During Pataki's era, paroles for those sentenced on what are known as A-1 felonies fell from 27 percent of those applying to just 3 percent.

For Jones, convicted of murder in 1982, this meant serving an extra five years on his sentence of 20-to-life. Ramos was just 18 when he killed someone in a heated argument. Sentenced to 15 years to life, he was rejected seven times for parole and ended up doing 30 years. "They taught me despair inside," he said.

White served 31 years after being sentenced to 25-to-life for robbery and murder. He is now a graying senior citizen with a beard, a gentle demeanor, and a knit cap atop his head. "I was turned down four times at the board," said White. "Nobody ever told me why. I started figuring I would die in prison. Then one of the correction officers said, 'Hey, you got nothing to lose.' So I put in another application. I didn't believe I had a chance."

Two out of three ex-cons eventually wind up back in prison, studies show. But the recidivism rate slips to around 3 percent for those convicted of murder, and even lower for prisoners over 50 years old. Two events—a lawsuit challenging the parole commission, and a new governor in Albany—are slowly pushing the number of parole approvals back up, including for long-term prisoners well past their minimum sentences.

When they got out this spring, both White and Jones had family they wanted to live with, but the rules wouldn't allow it. Jones wanted to stay with his sister, but that was nixed because her son is also on parole. That could be a bad influence. On the other hand, the state was perfectly happy to release him to a city shelter teeming with ex-cons and parolees.

It was the same for White. "I didn't have much to come home to," he said. "My wife had died. So had my mother." His niece, a police officer, offered to take him in. But that was also a no-go. "They said I couldn't be where there are guns in the house," explained White.

Parole officials told him that the shelter was his only option. "I knew I couldn't do that," said White. "In prison, you hear about the shelters, how you have to tie your shoes with the laces wrapped around your hands while you sleep. I pictured the place as a free-for-all. At my age I can't take that."

White called everyone he could think of, including JoAnne Page, the executive director of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit prisoner-advocacy group. The organization was founded 40 years ago by theater producer David Rothenberg after he mounted a production of the play Fortune and Men's Eyes, a grim prison portrait. "I met JoAnne when I was in Sing Sing and she came through there," said White. "She said, 'Well, you can come to the castle.' "

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."

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