While serving what was supposed to be a life sentence in prison, Tyrone Werts was influential in bringing the The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program to Graterford Prison. The program brings together college students and people serving time to learn from each other about crime, justice and other social concerns. Werts was released after 36 years, and has continued his work with Inside-Out while speaking around the country about criminal justice reform. We spoke recently about his experiences with — and thoughts on how to improve — the country’s cycle of mass incarceration.
Tyrone, you were incarcerated at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania for 36 years. What has the criminal justice system taught you?
Oh wow, that’s a very, very long story. You know, early on it taught me about how we treat one another. A lot of times people just think about the criminal justice system as this abstract thing, but actually, the way we do incarceration in this country is very dehumanizing and degrading, so it kind of taught me exactly what incarceration was and what it meant and how it affected people. ….On a basic level, the criminal justice system taught me that [the people administering it] really don’t care about human beings.
As you mentioned, growing up in North Philadelphia, you entered prison as a 24-year-old high school dropout. You left with a college degree and you now serve as the national think tank coordinator for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Tell us a bit more about the program and what motivated you to get a degree in prison and share your experiences with others?
Okay, so, that’s part of my whole personal story, personal growth and development. You know, I saw some early childhood experiences, elementary school where I told a teacher that I really wanted to be an astronomer, and she kind of told me I wasn’t smart enough to be an astronomer, that I needed to find something I can actually do, and so what I did was I internalized that message and told myself that I was dumb, I couldn’t learn. So, I lost the value of education on some levels.
So by the time I got to Graterford, they tested me and there was a counselor who administered the test and actually, my test scores came back very, very low, but he told me “although your test scores are low,” he said “your IQ is above average. You could do academic work.” And so he put me in his education class so I can get my GED. And when I went there, I did very, very well in school. Although I didn’t want to go because I was sentenced to life in prison, and my focus was on getting out of prison. That was my focus. And, like I said, I had lost the value of education. I didn’t really think I could do anything educationally. But, when he put me in this class I started to learn and grow, he gave me books to read. I had never read a book before. Then I went to take the GED test and I passed it on the first go-around, and not only that, what really shocked and surprised me was that I got the highest score than everybody that took the test and I was the valedictorian at graduation.
So that kind of spurred me on to this higher education. I went to school, I went to Villanova, I took courses, and I graduated with a bachelor’s degree. So that’s just part of my personal story in terms of what led me to get a degree and what led me to understand the value of education. So inside of that context, Lori Pompa, who is the founder of Inside-Out, came to me to say she was doing this program down in the county prison that actually brought college students inside the prison for the whole semester, to do coursework side-by-side with prisoners. Now, that kind of excited me because the thing that I knew was, that there are many men in prison who are smart, who were just like me, who are smart but didn’t know it, who could do academic work, but never had the opportunity. And so I was highly motivated to get that program inside Graterford, of course. I thought it would be beneficial for the guys inside, but I thought it would be also good to have students come in who were the next generation, to come in and really, you know, bond and connect with guys inside so they can see who these men were. So that’s the program and that’s why I really love this program, that’s why I work for it today.
It really is an amazing program, I had a chance to do a little bit of research on it, and it is just outstanding. And it’s a national program, correct?
Actually, now we are international. We train college professors from all over the world.
That’s wonderful. As you know, Next City and several other media organizations based in Philadelphia are exploring the challenges of prisoner reentry. Why is it so critically important for our readers to know more about this issue, of prisoner reentry, and what hope do you have for transforming criminal justice policy?
The collaborative is very, very important to telling the stories of reentry. Most people in the public get their information about the criminal justice system from the news media, from politicians, from movie programs and TV, and they really don’t know who’s behind the walls, what they did, who they are as human beings.
I remember during my incarceration I use to meet with the people from the outside and they used to be shocked when we held meetings and things of that nature. We would be walking out and they would say, “I can’t believe you guys are human beings.” So telling the story of reentry, of the guys and women coming home, brings a human element to who these people are.
My hope for the U.S. criminal justice system is that we will become more humane towards people who are incarcerated. When I talk to people from around their world, their perspective on incarceration is vastly different. They see people who are incarcerated as part of their overall society, and it’s important for them to help them, you know to transition to a new way of life and to reintegrate them back into the community. So that’s my hope for the criminal justice system, there have been some positive change over the last couple of years, hopefully will continue. But just telling these stories, will help ease that process.
You were born and raised in North Philadelphia. The crime and your conviction took place in the 1970s. Governor Ed Rendell commuted your sentence in late 2010. How different was your neighborhood and the world when you were released? And how difficult was it to adapt?
You mean how easy it was to adapt? (Laughs). When I left in 1974, the barriers of racism and oppression were really very high. Since I’ve been home, I’ve seen it mitigated to some degree. I see people have become more integrated into the larger society, although there are still a lot of issues that need to be addressed. But, you know, I spent 37 years in prison but I was fully engaged in a lot of different activities. I was president of the Graterford “lifers” organization. We had 800 members, and in that capacity I was able to bring people in, and I knew a lot about the changes that had happened outside. And so, I don’t like to be the poster boy for reentry because my reentry was so successful, most men and women don’t have the resources at their disposal that I had.
There are three things that made my reentry, my reintegration smooth. Number one, as I just said, I was fully engaged on a lot of positive activity. And like I said, I met a lot of extraordinary people. Number two, I had broad community support. I knew everybody, everybody knew me. And they were there to support me and I came home. And third, I had broad family support. My family came to visit me close to every 90 days for the whole 36 years, even after my parents passed. So, then when I came home, I had two jobs already waiting for me. I didn’t have the struggles that most men and women have coming home. I started working after like a week that I came home and the only thing that was shocking to me was technology and how people related to it. I did experience some anxiety about being in these wide-open spaces, being around people initially, but I easily overcame that. But you contrast that against what other men and women experience who don’t, more than likely, have family, who spend 20, 30, 40 years in prison. They can’t get a job because of their criminal conviction, and they don’t have a lot of support once they come home. And a lot of them suffer from post-traumatic stress. And people have identified those kinds of things in people who have been incarcerated for extended period of time. So, like I said, for me, the transition was easy because of the things that I just mentioned, but other men and women don’t have that.
And then, what advice do you give to young people to guide them away from potential incarceration? And, in your opinion, what programs are most effective to avoid this fate?
That’s a whole new generation and they have a lot more information and resources available to them. I don’t talk to young kids too much because of my generational gap and they just see me as some older guy who lives a different life and trying to give us some advice. But my advice for them would be to avoid the criminal justice system and is to just seek out education. I mean, education is the key, I mean that was the key for me. And so, that’s what I would advise. I would advise to seek out education, take advantage of all the educational opportunities and you know, to really look at, you know, a lot of times when you’re young you can feel in your gut when you’re doing the wrong thing, but you know sometimes young people get caught up in the peer pressure and keeping up with the times. Then they get caught up in the distractions of just living in communities that don’t offer a lot of opportunities and options for kids growing up so, and I just try to give them advice in terms of seeking out education and looking for positive people and mentors to guide them as they navigate life.
Well this has really been phenomenal. Are there any questions you think I should ask you? Or any points you’d like to raise?
There’s this misconception about recidivism that people go back and forth to prison because they are bad people and they want to commit crimes. That’s not actually the case. The case is that there are so many barriers for successful reentry, and those barriers are put up by society as a whole. Some from the criminal justice system, some from the business community, where they won’t give people opportunities. I always ask people, “what do a man and women need when they come home?” And of course, they say all the common things, like a job, support, housing, mental health treatment. But what they actually need is some compassion, they need somebody to care about them. Because this is what I know, over 36 years I’ve literally seen thousands of guys go home and I’ve talked to literally thousands of men and women going home, and a lot of them, the vast majority of them, want to go home, get a job and do the right thing. And they go to school, they take advantage of the programs while they’re incarcerated they get their certification, they get their apprenticeships and they’re happy. They’re proud of themselves. And they want to go home and do the right thing, but once they get home, that’s when they run smack into all the barriers. Like, during the height of the war on drugs — the war on crime that was actually a war on people — they instituted all these policies, all these laws that really prevented people from being successful. Like, I give you an example, when people come home they have to pay their court cost and fines, which can run into the thousand dollars, they got to pay for their own parole supervision, they got to pay back child support, and then they can’t live in certain places.
Imagine a guy coming home who’s convicted of selling drugs. His wife and his children live in public housing, and then he comes home to a policy that he can’t live in public housing because of his record. And that’s a policy in some public housing. Then some of the other barriers are that when a guy comes home and he may be living with his wife or his girlfriend or his parents or a friend, and searching for jobs but as soon as [employers] find out he’s an ex offender, they turn him down. You can imagine what happens after three, four months. Right? Next thing you know, they gotta do what they gotta do, and then they go back to prison. So, I mean we just need a whole revamp of the people outside of the criminal justice system, too. I mean, we live in a capitalist society, and if you can’t pay your way, that causes one to step outside of the system and do things that they wouldn’t do under normal circumstances. So, that’s what I would say.
And that gets, I guess, to some legislation and policy such as Ban-The-Box and others.
Yeah, I mean, Ban-The-Box is a central movement, but it hasn’t really translated into anything. Even the mayor put a $10,000 tax break for companies that hire ex-offenders, but that hasn’t even been successful. A couple of years ago, the mayor had this jobs fair for ex-offenders and they were expecting like 1,000 people, but 6,000 people showed up. So that shows you that people want to work, they just can’t get jobs.
Well thank you, this has really been phenomenal. I was saying to our editor-in-chief yesterday that this is a whole area that I know very little about and entering into this collaborative and speaking with people such as yourself, and others, has been both illuminating and, in some ways, inspiring to me. I think again it provides opportunities to show how, in particular, we can create a better city, a better society.
Absolutely. That’s another thing for the collaborative that I think is noteworthy. Like I said, people have images that are false in their minds about who people behind the walls are.
This interview is one in an occasional series, part of a region-wide collaborative news project about the challenges — and solutions — of prison reentry in Philadelphia. Click here to read more work by our partners.
Tom was president, CEO and publisher of Next City from May 2015 until April 2018. Before joining Next City, he directed the Center for Resilient Design at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Prior to that, he ran the Regional Plan Association’s New Jersey office, and served as a senior adviser on land use for two New Jersey governors. Tom is a licensed professional planner, and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, as well as an adjunct professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he teaches land use planning and infrastructure planning.