CINCINNATI – Desean Plair was a self-described “knucklehead.”
He went to prison for aggravated robbery when he was 18 and got out nearly seven years later, weeks before he turned 25.
Plair wanted to get a job and straighten out his life, but he wasn’t having any luck. Then he spotted a flyer on the ground on his way to play basketball at a local recreation center.
“It said ‘jobs,’” Plair recalled in a recent interview. “It would help you find a job.”
The flyer was for the Phoenix Program at Cincinnati Works. Launched in 2011, the program helps men and women with violent and criminal pasts find steady jobs and a better future.
“They helped me with my interview skills, job search, how to talk during an interview, to keep eye contact,” said Plair, who works stuffing pillows with feathers at Down Décor in Oakley. “They helped me a lot as far as, like, my whole character. Turned me around.”
Trying To Make City Safer One Homicide Scene At A Time
Those turnarounds aren’t easy. Plair lost two jobs the Phoenix Program helped him get before he said he decided to “reevaluate and listen.”
But the work is critically important, said Mitch Morris, who recruits participants to the program and then mentors them.
He leaves flyers at rec centers and halfway houses around the city. He goes to crime scenes in the middle of the night after a shooting, talking to people caught up in the violence, trying to convince them there’s a better way.
“This is strictly, strictly a program to try to make our city a safer place – to try to deal with people who are at high risk for violence,” Morris said.
That should matter just as much to people in the suburbs as it does to those in the inner city, said Chris Godby, who was mentored by Morris and now has a job at a major local corporation that he did not want to name for fear it may create issues for his employer.
“Before I made my transition, I was one of those individuals. I would destroy your community. I would destroy my community,” said Godby, 35, who served 10 years in prison for the distribution of guns.
“I would not just do criminal activity in the ghetto or the urban areas. I was coming to your colleges. I sold drugs in your colleges,” Godby said. “If a problem ever arose, and I needed to use a gun, I didn’t care if it was in a grocery store. I didn’t care if it was on Fountain Square.”
The choice, he said, is to find a way to help people like him straighten out their lives after prison or let them go back to the streets and the criminal activity that’s waiting for them.
Many Lose First Jobs
The Phoenix Program chooses to help. The program has a budget of $205,000 per year funded by grants and private donations. It has four employees. Morris is the only one who works exclusively with Phoenix Program participants, whom Cincinnati Works calls "members."
The program started in May 2011. It helped members get 31 jobs that year, said Dion Crockett, an employment coach with Cincinnati Works who helps with the Phoenix Program.
The next year, program members got 86 jobs with an average wage of $9.72 per hour, Crockett said.
So far this year, 38 people have finished the program’s employment workshops, Crockett said. The program has helped them get 53 jobs with an average wage of $10.55 an hour, he said.
The number of jobs doesn’t match the number of members because one out of every three or four people lose the first job the Phoenix Program helps them get. Those people, Crockett said, are “just not ready.”
Plair lost his first job for talking on his cell phone when he wasn’t supposed to, he said. He lost his second job for trying to cut corners instead of following company policy.
“I try to think out of the box and use each moment as a teaching moment,” said Crockett, who helps members get jobs at one of the nearly 70 “core employers” that hire graduates of Cincinnati Works. “A lot of the guys are like Desean. Once I have their trust, we can grow and teach.”
Stable Job Gets Mom Reunited With Kids
Princess Malik was ready immediately.
She served five years in prison for drug trafficking and desperately wanted to start over.
Princess Malik, 30, of Over-the-Rhine, completed the Phoenix Program at Cincinnati Works. She now works as a cashier at Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati after serving 60 months in prison for drug trafficking. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO
Malik has two kids, ages 11 and six, and her younger child was only 10 months old when she went to prison. He didn’t even really know his mom after she was released. Malik wanted to take her kids back from her older sister and brother-in-law, who took care of them while she was locked up.
“They helped me with that,” she said of the Phoenix Program. “With the paperwork – a lot of paperwork.”
The program also helped her get her job. Malik works as a cashier at the Horseshoe Cincinnati Casino buffet and loves it.
“I’ve been there since they opened in March,” said Malik, who is 30. “I love it. It’s a party every day. It’s fun. You get to be yourself and help people.”
Malik is doing so well that in January she got her first apartment in Over-the-Rhine where her kids now live with her.
“It feels good,” she said. “Coming back into society, I thought it was going to be way harder. But they made it easy for me.”
Those success stories mean the world to Morris.
“People might say, ‘That person used to do this, that person might have carried guns.’ I would say to them, ‘Do you know that person now?’” he said. “If we’re trying to stop the shooting and the killing, you can’t go out there and work with the guys playing hopscotch.”
Instead, Morris goes to the shootings. He talks to angry men who want revenge and tries to convince them there’s a better way. And he talks to mothers who have just lost their sons to help them through their grief.
‘Help Us Help Ourselves’
Mothers like Karen Clark.
Her only son was 23 years old when he was fatally shot after leaving a Westwood club with a friend.
Clark knows her son wasn’t perfect. He had done some time behind bars, she said, and he was running with a bad crowd. But he didn’t deserve to die that night in April.
Morris has helped Clark and her two daughters through their grief, she said.
“He was just very supportive,” she said. “He called me on a daily basis. Did I need any groceries? Did I need anything?”
Clark knows a couple guys who went through the Phoenix Program and got on the right track. She knows Morris tries to reach men and women before they end up casualties of street violence, like her son.
“It hasn’t stopped much violence. But if you can get only a few people to put down the guns and listen, maybe you can reach farther,” she said.
That’s what Chris Godby wants to see. He knows intervention can work when it comes from someone like Morris, who genuinely cares, and an initiative like the Phoenix Program.
“I’ve come a long way,” he said. “It feels like I had to crawl through five football fields of sewage just to get where I’m at. But I’m here.”
Now Godby works his corporate job and does motivational speaking and modeling on the side.
“We do want to change,” he said. “Help us help ourselves.”