Making a Dent

'I Wasn’t Afraid of Jail. I Just Didn’t Want to Go Anymore.'

Joseph T. Jones was in and out of jail for 17 years until he turned his life around. Jamelle Bouie on Jones's new mission.

Scott Henrichsen/The Daily Beast

At the moment, there are more African Americans in prison than there were slaves. Black children are more likely than their white counterparts to face punishment in school—regardless of offense—and job opportunities for young black adults are few and far between. Indeed, as a whole, the African American community is still reeling from the Great Recession, with double-digit unemployment and a full reversal of the wealth gains of the previous generation.

How does one address this? And more broadly, how does one tackle the problems of urban poverty and disadvantage? Speaking at the Hero Summit, with Josh DuBois of The Daily Beast moderating, Joseph T. Jones—President & CEO of the Center for Urban Families—told his story of disadvantage and deprivation, and gave his take on what’s necessary to rescue low-income black families from the despair of poverty.

Jones, in many ways, is emblematic of what can happen to individuals when their communities are robbed of investment and opportunity. Child to a single mother, he grew up in inner-city Baltimore. As a teenager, he joined a rough group of kids, and despite “never having had alcohol, smoked marijuana or had sex,” he used heroin, beginning a long period of addiction and incarceration.

For seventeen years, he spent time in and out of jail, until in 1986 when—after being charged with several drug-related offenses—he decided to turn his life around. He got access to a rehabilitation program, and persuaded the judge to let him complete rehab instead of going to jail. “I wasn’t afraid of jail,” he explained, “I just didn’t want to go anymore.”

Jones earned his associates degree at Baltimore City Community College, found a series of nonprofit jobs, and eventually started working to help others that were in his situation, and fathers in particular. He now advocates for a wide variety of policies, from drug treatment for addicts as part of their incarceration, to efforts to get young men—and women—“off of the streets” and into programs that can connect them to the labor force and encourage certain kinds of behavior (He emphasizes the dress code, in particular). He believes that in the United States, there are “pathways for children to grow up fatherless,” but by providing opportunities in guidance to those fathers—and potential fathers—he can make a dent in the problem.