Article from The Urbanite Magazine

Brother Ellsworth Johnson-Bey

By: Lionel Foster
Does a 60-year-old ex-con hold the key to turning lifetime criminals into law-abiding community members?

One day in late February, Ellsworth Johnson-Bey, slouched behind a desk in his Park Heights office, got a call on his cell phone in the final minutes of what had already been a very busy morning. Bey is skeptical of overtures from the media, but he’d agreed, with some reluctance, to meet me for an interview on the fly. As the phone rang, he didn’t have long before a workshop he needed to attend would begin. Caught mid-sentence, he excused himself, peered down at the phone, then took the call with a sharp “Hello?”

Thus the interrogation began. There was talk of a letter. “Letter? What letter?” asked Bey. “You say you gave a letter to someone else to give to me? You know how much mail we get? I might or might not have it.”

It seemed the call would end there, but Bey suddenly changed tack. “Hello? Hello, sir? I’ma put you on speakerphone. You don’t know this, but right now I have a journalist in my office. That’s an example of the circle of influence [we] can use on your behalf. Go ’head. Tell your story.”

The 36-year-old man on the phone had recently been convicted of his first crime—what, he didn’t say—and was awaiting sentencing. “You say this is your first conviction,” Bey asked, “but how many times you done something you should have been locked up for?”

“Countless times,” came the response.

And with that, Bey softened. He promised to submit a letter explaining that the man was enrolled in a program that would help with his rehabilitation. But he gave the caller an assignment, too: He was to ask his family to call in to Bey’s radio program, “Breaking the Cycle,” which airs on WOLB 1010 AM on Sundays at 2 p.m. “They need to tell your story, so that other people can benefit and so they can advocate on your behalf,” he said.

“Be strong,” Bey told the man before laying down the phone.

Brother Bey, as most call him, is the 60-year-old director of the Fraternal Order of X-Offenders, or FOXO, an organization he founded in 2000 to keep former inmates from falling back into lives of crime. Much of that work happens over the cell phone that rings steadily during our conversations: The contact number listed on FOXO’s website and business cards is the number to this phone, and Bey says he never turns it off.

Groups like FOXO have more people in need of their services today than at any time in American history: According to a much-discussed report published by the Pew Center on the States in March, 1 in 100 American adults is in jail or prison—that’s more than 2.3 million people. The rate is higher for men (1 in 54) and higher still for young African American men (1 in 9 of those ages 20 to 34). Many are repeat offenders: A 2004 study by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research center, found that within six months of their release from prison, 32.1 percent of a large sample of Maryland inmates had been rearrested, and 15.5 percent were back behind bars.

To stop this revolving door, the key word is “reentry”—that is, smoothing out the turbulent transition from prison back to the world outside so as to prevent a return trip. In Baltimore, Bey has planted himself at the epicenter of this migration: In 2001, 9,448 people were released from Maryland prisons. Fifty-nine percent of them came to Baltimore City, and 30 percent of those settled in communities in and around a section of West Baltimore that includes Park Heights.

FOXO’s approach borrows the methodology of addiction therapy and applies it to criminality, using a technique rarely employed: It seeks to break the cycle of lawlessness by tapping into the talents and experience of what Bey calls “the population”—those who have themselves run afoul of the law. People, that is, like Brother Bey. “People learn what they live and live what they learn,” he says. “How I came up with that concept, all I did was study my own life … I got fifty-two years’ experience with the criminal justice system in every capacity. I have a history of violence. I have a history of robbin’, drawing blood.”

Bey says his first stint under state supervision came at age 8, with a six-to-eight-month sentence to Boys’ Village of Maryland in Prince George’s County. As he tells it, he was just too much for his single mother to handle, and she finally hauled him to juvenile hall. “The judge said, ‘Ma’am, there’s nothing that I can do, ’cause he doesn’t have a petition’”—the juvenile court equivalent of a statement of charges. His mother gave the judge an ultimatum: “She said, ‘You either lock him up or lock me up.’”

Bey came out of Boys’ Village so angry that, instead of returning home, he opted into foster care. At 13, he was sent to the Maryland Training School for Boys (later renamed the Hickey School) for being, as he says, “incorrigible, mischievous, and ungovernable.” At 16, he served three years in the Maryland Penitentiary. At 19, he did more time for drug possession, and by 21 he knew the ins and outs of the criminal justice system so intimately that, representing himself, he dodged a potential 140-year sentence by convincing a jury not to convict on seven counts of armed robbery when eyewitnesses could not identify him.

Rather than change his ways, Bey simply changed his M.O., turning to robbing drug dealers. “Dope dealers didn’t call 911 and say you stuck ’em up,” he says. He also picked up a habit of his own. “I used heroin, codeine, morphine, PCP, LSD, chronic, crank, mescaline, micro dot, purple dot, green dot, serpent, dummies, inhalants, cocaine, all the mists, never knowing about all the neurological, psychological, biological consequences, burning out the brain cells.”

Over the next twenty-nine years, Bey was in and out of jail, school, and jobs. He recounts a life as a West Baltimore street hustler in the 1960s and 1970s, during the celebrated reign of drug lord “Little Melvin” Williams. “Pennsylvania Avenue then was like New York City, Las Vegas,” he says. “I’m a young guy, doing everything under the sun. People paying for protection because I had a little posse.” He always carried an attaché case. “Two things were in that attaché case,” he says. “I always had a gun and books.”  Along the way, he earned degrees in correctional administration and criminal justice and worked as a substance abuse counselor. At 50, he went into drug counseling himself, something he wishes he’d done sooner. “My mother demised probably about a year or so before I went into recovery,” he remembers. “I’ve never really gotten over that.”

Today, Bey uses this wealth of personal experience to engage offenders in whatever stage of anger, acceptance, or denial they happen to be. Since January, FOXO has been working alongside Prisoners Aid Association of Maryland, acting as the outreach-oriented component of Project P.E.A.C.E.—an acronym for Proper Education Always Corrects Errors. The program, which will be supported in part by a $300,000 city grant for ex-offender transition, is a component in the Park Heights Master Plan, the wide-ranging effort to create what officials term a “human development zone” in the neighborhood. Project P.E.A.C.E. will involve a two-level approach: The 139-year-old Prisoners Aid will be the gateway to a number of bread-and-butter services for ex-offenders, including substance abuse counseling and housing; FOXO then steps in with one-on-one counseling and group sessions that challenge the thoughts and habits that put them in prison, one ex-offender to another.

The question is, can an ex-con succeed where prisons, governments, scientists, and traditional nonprofits have not? The answer could affect criminal justice policy, and determine whether FOXO, as Bey hopes, can be recognized as a national model.


Mid-afternoon on the first Tuesday
in March, FOXO’s weekly support group for recovering addicts and ex-offenders gathered in the basement of a women’s group home on East 25th Street. Some of the attendees lived upstairs; others, male and female, came from all over the city. Bey introduced me at the start of the meeting and invited anyone who felt comfortable to share his or her story: “We want to market your success.” After a brief silence, a newcomer raised her hand. “I’ve never been to one of your meetings, but I’ve heard that they were some good meetings—that Brother Bey is off the hook.” The group clapped and cheered.

Another woman began, but her comments were too vague and nonspecific for Bey—he wanted details. “Tell us ’bout runnin’ ’round in the streets,” he pressed.

The woman began again. “New Year’s Eve, my daughter came to me sick, but I was too busy getting high,” she said. “On January 3, they found her dead. If I had only stayed to find out the problem, maybe I could have helped her.”

Next, another woman recounted her struggle with using and dealing drugs. “I just celebrated one year clean,” she said. “I’d hustled most of my life. I started out selling drugs when I was 16 years old.” After years on her own, the street itself became an addiction. “I’ve been raped. And I still got right back on the block.”

Bey understands this. Many of the ex-offenders he works with have battled drug habits, but he sees their persistent criminality itself as a disease. Taking his cue from mental health professionals, he employs a process used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) called cognitive restructuring. The idea is that negative or “maladaptive” actions stem from maladaptive thinking, both of which can be adjusted with time and training. The National Institutes of Health have recognized CBT’s effectiveness for cocaine addicts, and many psychologists find it helpful in treating patients with depression, but the application to criminality that Bey uses is rare. So is his emphasis on peer mediation. Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous have made the idea of one addict helping another a mainstream article of substance abuse treatment. Letting recovering criminals counsel each other, however, is not as widely accepted.

Public policy researchers have found that CBT holds promise for reducing recidivism among criminal offenders. And it’s not hard to see how therapeutic the principle can be. In the support group meeting, a woman owned up to “using coke and dope. I started selling drugs, burning [that is, robbing] people, taking shit that wasn’t mine.” Now, she had a job, a bank account, and a healthy sense of self-esteem. After she spoke, she thought about why she’d shared this with the group.

“I ain’t the kind to be puttin’ my shit out there,” she said.

“What made you wanna put your shit out there?” asked Bey.

“’Cause if I give it to you, I know I ain’t got to keep it.”

Talking to offenders in group sessions, on street corners, and on the radio, Bey picks apart inconsistencies with the mind of a research-minded clinician, a purpose-driven nonprofit leader, and a recovering addict. “My mom thought I was going to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a preacher,” he says. “I wound up being a little of all three.”

He calls himself and his staff of four, all of whom are fellow ex-offenders, “CPAs”—not certified public accountants but “Crime Prevention Agents.” He’s packaged his methods in a DVD training course for ex-offenders called The Psychology and Sociology of Criminality. “We unorthodox,” he says of himself and his team. “We offer treatment on demand.”

The effectiveness of that treatment goes beyond the practical benefits of job training or drug counseling. More crucial are the intangible benefits of simply providing peers who understand what former inmates are going through. “A lot of these people don’t have a positive relationship with anybody—they’re totally disenfranchised. They’ve used up their friends and family,” says Philip Leaf, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention of Youth Violence (and this issue’s guest editor), who has been a longtime supporter of FOXO. Bey, he says, may have one answer for cities struggling with prisoner reentry: “How do you reconstitute positive community with people who’ve been literally pulled out of society?”

Brother Bey puts it more concisely: “When people don’t help you,” he says, “the streets come calling.”

Bey and FOXO have picked up a number of influential supporters. Mayor Sheila Dixon attended Project P.E.A.C.E.’s grand opening event in January. Thomasina Hiers, assistant secretary and chief of staff for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, hired him as a consultant for a peer-to-peer program aimed at offenders who were still imprisoned. Diane Bell-McKoy, president and CEO of Associated Black Charities, recently invited him to sit on a panel during a conference on African Americans and the middle class. But connections have not always come so easily: Bey’s style can be abrasive. “People don’t want people around who are challenging,” he says. “They just want people to go along, get along. Scratch it if it don’t itch. Laugh if it ain’t funny. I’m not that kind of guy.”

Indeed, the street skills that make Bey so credible among the offender population can be less effective with what he calls “the status quo.” “You lose the message for the messenger,” says Bey, who has little patience with the niceties of the nonprofit world. “In the world I came out of, you don’t say, ‘Hey man, I need help.’ Asking for help is an exemplification of being weak, that you have surrendered. In the street, you don’t surrender.”

Michael Brown, executive director of Prisoners Aid, was Bey’s case manager when Bey was in substance abuse recovery in 1998. Brown recalls his initial impression: “He was a jerk, an educated jerk—a jailhouse lawyer,” he says. But Brown’s opinion changed as Bey signed on as a consultant for Prisoners Aid, moderating workshops like the one on 25th Street and eventually becoming a case manager in his own right. “I guess I could say he’s my alter ego,” says Brown. “I’m not going to say things, I’m not going to push this person’s button, because I need to get re-funded. He’s not afraid to speak to anyone.”

Tara Andrews, former director of the criminal justice advocacy organization Justice Maryland, had a similar reaction when she first met Bey. “I quickly concluded that this was an individual I did not want to have a relationship with,” she recalls. “He was very aggressive and confrontational. But at some point I came to see that his argument with the whole movement, while maybe not brought forth in the most inviting way, was valid … Here we were, the good people who may have good education and good contacts, trying to lead and drive a movement on behalf of ex-offenders … It should have been the other way around.”

Colleagues such as Brown say that Bey has mellowed a bit in recent years: He’s more focused, and perhaps more diplomatic. Bey resists the suggestion that he’s changed, but admits his approach is different. Instead of going from meeting to meeting insisting that ex-offenders be heard, he has concentrated on building his own group. And he has taken advice from people like Bell-McKoy on how to dot his i’s and cross his t’s while running a human services organization. But today, he says that those with roles in public policy or traditional criminal justice organizations who speak highly of him are simply the ones who realize the truth of what he’s always said: At least part of the solution to crime and violence must lie with the offender population, not in the people who lock them up.

“We the headlights, not the taillights,” Bey says. “This population has a lot to bring to the quote-unquote academia experts. When we share, we feel what we share. It’s not like reading a book. It’s personal.”

—Lionel Foster is Urbanite’s staff writer.

What do you think of Mr. Johnson-Bey’s efforts? Share your thoughts at www.urbanitebaltimore.com/forum.