Creating a culture of smart second chances

Realism, triage

and why good intentions

are not enough.

SOME MONTHS back we had lunch with a successful local businessman. “I hired a couple of former prisoners awhile ago,” he said. We nodded hopefully. “But I’d never do it again.” Turns out that in an poorly considered fit of philanthropy, he had picked up two random people at the local homeless shelter. Neither bet paid off.

MORE RECENTLY we sat down with a sex offender who had run a website that landed him in federal prison. He had done it for the money, he said, not because he was himself a pedophile. He somehow thought this was more defensible. He never earned enough in his day job, he said. Self-absorbed and shallow, he was mad at his teenage daughter for not forgiving him. His conversation was peppered with “me” and “I.” He wanted to move on, he said. After talking to him, so did we.

TRIAGE IS WIDELY misunderstood as simply dealing with the urgent cases first. But battlefield or mass disaster triage also means recognizing that some cases may be beyond repair. And the skepticism of the average citizen must be acknowledged: many released prisoners will never really return to mainstream society.

SOME HAVE COMMITTED heinous crimes, and often there is good reason to see them as risks to society. Some may or may not be threats but are, like the sex offender noted earlier, still troubling. We make no claims here. Reasonable minds may differ about how to think about such cases on the margins.

EVEN AMONG THOSE who stay out of prison, not all are truly employable — or suited for a given job. Many will never be likable, let alone charming. Even nonviolent ex-offenders often lack polish, social grace, and communication skills. Many are harmless but not people you’d want to hang out with. Not every fair-minded employer is obliged to like every job candidate.

BUT WE ALSO know that many former prisoners do change. We can’t always predict which ones, and many more would change if they had support. Consider the case of Tyrone Werts in the videos below. Werts received a life sentence for driving a getaway car after a 1970s robbery that went bad, resulting in murder. He spent 36 years behind bars before the governor commuted his sentence. Look at the depth in his face and voice. We believe Werts completely turned his life around, even though on paper he had no shot at redemption. What do you think?

No shot at redemption?

Tyrone Werts' story suggests otherwise

At the age of 24, Tyrone Werts drove the get away car in what he thought was a robbery, but turned out to be much more serious. He served 36 years for second degree murder, becoming a model prisoner and graduating from college before his life sentence was commuted by the governor in 2010.

In this short clip, Werts describes how shocked he was to pass the GED (0:45)

Longer conversation at Penn State about his pathway to redemption. (26:47)

Other voices