Sunday, February 23, 2003

Making it on the outside

As parolee builds new life, temptations of old abound

The Enquirer followed parolee Joe Lowry for a year as he worked to turn his life around. This is his story.

First of three parts

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Joe Lowry peers through the barred windows of the prison van as it slows to a stop in front of the Greyhound station in downtown Columbus.

The door slides open, and a blast of cold air rushes in.

Joe pulls his sweat jacket snug against his neck and steps outside. He carries a torn paper bag stuffed with everything he owns: a T-shirt, a plastic crucifix, a bundle of family photos.

Four other men follow him out of the van, all in the same prison-issued clothes. Blue shirts, beige pants. Each man has enough money for lunch and a bus ticket home.

"Man," Joe says to no one in particular, "it's freezing."

It's New Year's Day 2002, Joe's first day of parole after three years in prison for dealing drugs.

He's relieved to be out but isn't sure what to do next. Success on parole means getting a job, providing for a family and staying clean. But Joe has never done those things well.

He still craves the money and the status that came so easily when he was a drug dealer in Cincinnati's West End. At 29, Joe has already been to prison twice for drug trafficking and possession. Selling crack is the closest thing to a career he's ever had.

If he fails to meet the conditions of parole, Joe goes back to prison for at least a year and a half.

Failing would put Joe among the 5,000 parolees sent back to Ohio prisons every year, leaving behind families, new victims and an annual bill to the state of $23,000 each. The rules of parole have gotten tougher in the past few years, and more parolees than ever are going back to prison. When a parolee can't make it on the outside, everyone pays.

And in Joe's case, there's more at stake. There's a woman who has stood by him for three years, the woman in the photos he clutches in his paper bag on this freezing street corner.

In the photos of them together, Joe's face displays an uncomfortable, short-lived smile. Their prison visits lasted only two hours.

Joe must prove to this woman that he can build a full-time life with her. If he can't make it on parole in the coming year, Joe will lose his last, best chance for a normal life. He could end up shot on the street or back in a cell surrounded by young thugs who don't give a damn about anything.

Joe flips up his hood and takes a good look around. The old life is everywhere. Drug dealers. Scam artists. Hookers.

"How you doin', baby?"

"You need me to set you up?"

Joe walks toward the bus station door, pretending not to hear.


Slouched in the back seat of a friend's car, Joe lets the familiar streets of Over-the-Rhine wash across his eyes.

It's after midnight. Young men in baggy pants and long jackets stand on street corners. They're waiting to make a sale. Folks from the neighborhood approach on foot; the ones from the suburbs pull up in cars or SUVs.

Joe is drunk from celebrating his release. Despite his haziness, he can tell the neighborhood hasn't changed much in three years.

Crack fiends, dirty and disheveled, pace the sidewalks and crouch in doorways. Joe recognizes them right away. A few used to be his customers.

Joe turns back to his girlfriend, Rhonda Carter, and drapes an arm over her shoulders.

"You're skinny," he says. "You've lost some weight."

"And you've put some on," Rhonda says, nudging him.

They're on their way to Rhonda's apartment on Race Street.

For three years, all Joe had of their relationship were the photos they took every time Rhonda visited him at the Orient Correctional Facility, just south of Columbus. Photos of a couple standing side by side in front of brightly painted backdrops of waterfalls and forests and snow-covered mountains. Someone's dreamy idea of life on the outside.

Joe used to think that one day the dream would end and the visits would stop, that Rhonda would finally give up on him. She never did.

Rhonda was the one person he could count on, even when he was dealing. Cops, rival drug dealers and crack heads worried him sick. Sometimes, when the worry was too much, he smoked pot and drank all day just to function.

Rhonda was never a worry. And she was tough. For Rhonda, it was enough that Joe listened to her and treated her right. His drug dealing made her nervous, but not enough to move out. Not enough to stop helping him spend the money.

So they lived those years by an unspoken promise: He didn't talk about his secret life, and she didn't ask.

Then it was three years of monthly visits and Polaroid photos. On her last visit to Orient, Rhonda made it clear that things were going to change. She told Joe she wanted to settle down, start a family. She wanted stability, not a drug dealer.

"If that's the way you want to live," she warned him, "don't bother calling me when you get out."

Joe did call her.

And now the car passes Findlay Market and stops in front of a three-story tenement on Race Street. Rhonda gets out and leads Joe inside.

The hall carpet is filthy, and the stairwell reeks of urine. At the top of the stairs, Joe finds that the door to Rhonda's apartment bears the scars of a police battering ram. The last tenant was hauled off to jail.

Rhonda unlocks the door and pushes it open.

"Welcome home," she says.

The next day, Joe takes a cab to the Adult Parole Authority in Roselawn. He's exhausted from the long night of partying but figures it's not a good idea to miss his first meeting with his parole officer.

Joe checks in at the receptionist's window and takes a seat in the waiting area. His parole officer appears a few minutes later.

"Joe?" he asks, extending a hand. "I'm Brian Sweeney."

Sweeney leads Joe through a metal detector and then to a small office with a desk and two chairs. Joe squeezes his 250-pound frame into one of the chairs.

"So," Sweeney says, taking a seat behind the desk, "how are you doing?"

Joe says he's tired and hung over.

Sweeney shakes his head. The celebrating will have to end, he says.

While Joe's on parole, he'll be randomly tested for drugs and alcohol. A dirty test means a violation, and that could mean going back to prison.

Sweeney opens Joe's file and rattles off the rest of the rules: A drug program, individual counseling, supervision fees of $20 a month, no drugs or alcohol in the home, unannounced home visits by the parole officer, proof of employment.

Sweeney says parole will last a year if Joe does well, three if he struggles. Joe had heard the rules had gotten tougher, heard about more ex-cons sent back to prison. But this is more than he'd bargained for.

"Do you understand?" Sweeney asks.

Joe nods. "It's a new year," he says. "I'm starting a new life."

Sweeney smiles as if he's heard that line a hundred times today. A parole officer for 15 years, Sweeney's files are full of guys like Joe. Street-smart, late twenties, ready to turn things around. Or maybe ready to screw up and become a "lifer."

Sweeney flips through Joe's file. A juvenile rap for robbery, a citation for marijuana possession and two felony drug charges. No crimes of violence. But he's been locked up nearly half his adult life.

As they talk, Sweeney completes a risk assessment for Joe's file. He rates Joe a "moderate" risk, which means he thinks there's a 50/50 chance Joe will violate his parole within a few months and be sent back to jail.

"Good luck," he tells Joe on his way out. "See you soon."
Joe picks up his cell phone and settles into an old chair in the apartment. He punches in the number for his mother in Los Angeles.

He's been out of prison a few weeks, but he's talked to her only once since New Year's Day. He misses her. But their conversations too often turn into lectures about how he should be living his life.

"Yo, Ma," Joe says. "How you doing?"

"How are you doing?" she asks.

Joe looks around his apartment. Paint is peeling from the cracked walls, and heavy blankets hang over windows where drapes should be. A defective smoke detector chirps every few minutes. Beep, beep.

"I'm good," Joe says.

His mom, Josie Carter, raised four boys in Los Angeles while working one and sometimes two jobs. She knows her son has been nothing but trouble for years.

"You staying off the streets?" she asks.

"Yeah, Ma. I'm doing good."

Joe is her youngest. He started getting into trouble when he was 12 or so. Skipping school. Ignoring her curfews. By the time he was 14, he was drinking and running the streets with a gang.

She finally agreed to let him move to Cincinnati to live with his father, who had left the family years earlier. Joe figured he'd have more freedom with his dad. He was right.

Joe quit school and ran the streets.

"Don't slip back into that life," his mom warns.

Joe promises he won't. He doesn't tell her he still sees many old friends on the streets, dealing or looking for other kinds of trouble. Sometimes they call out to him when he walks by: "Yo, Jay," they shout, using his nickname. "You back in business?"

As Joe listens to his mom, he feels hurt and frustrated. He can tell she doesn't think he's changed.

"You don't ever believe me," he says.

"I know you," she says. "I know you like the easy money."

Rhonda is perched on the edge of the couch braiding Joe's hair. Joe is watching All My Children on a fuzzy TV.

"This is gonna be a boring day," Joe mumbles.

"It's what you make it," Rhonda says.

It's April 25, and he's due for his first drug counseling session in a few hours.

Joe has been complaining for the past month that he doesn't need drug counseling. Sure, he sold crack to the "fiends" and the "geeks," but like any good dealer he didn't use the hard stuff himself. He drank and smoked pot. But he knows a lot of people who do that, including Rhonda from time to time.

He shakes his head. "I don't need counseling," he says.

Rhonda tugs his hair and tells him to sit still. He likes it when she braids his hair. The first time they met, at a friend's house six years ago, she walked over and offered to show him how. The gentle tugging and twisting relaxed him, made him feel at ease.

But not today.

"I ain't no alcoholic," Joe says. "I ain't no drug addict."

"Ha," Rhonda says, tugging a little harder. "You know what an alcoholic is? It's somebody who rolls out of bed and sucks down a beer first thing in the morning."

"That ain't me," Joe says.

"It used to be," she says. "It used to be."

The receptionist at the Crossroads center in Corryville takes Joe's name and tells him to wait in the lobby. Joe taps his pack of Newports and takes a seat near a sign that reads MENTAL HEALTH WORKS!

Twenty minutes later, he's called upstairs to meet his drug counselor, Kathleen Grant. Her office looks remarkably like his parole officer's: stark, bare, accusing.

"So why are you here?" she asks.

Joe has no answer.

"You have a problem, right?"

"No, no, no," Joe says, fidgeting in his chair. "I used to, but it don't attract me anymore since I quit selling drugs."

"So everything is a bed of roses now?" she asks

Joe sighs and rubs his face with both hands. He was afraid she wouldn't believe him. Like everyone else, she thinks he's a schemer. A con for life.

Grant stares at him from across her desk. She jots down a treatment plan for Joe and hands it to him, along with pamphlets on drug abuse. She tells him he must see her once a week and must attend at least 12 group counseling sessions.

"This is your problem," Grant tells him. "You need to attend."

Joe rubs his face again and slumps in his chair.

The living room is dark except for a few rays of early sunlight sneaking through the blankets over the windows. It's a bright May morning outside, but the apartment feels like a cave.

Rhonda walks in with a glass of orange juice and a few slices of pineapple. Joe sits on the couch, sucking on a cigarette as he puts on his work boots.

He has a long day ahead of him, and he's already tired. He hasn't been sleeping well. Too many worries on his mind.

Rhonda found out last week she's pregnant.

"Baby," Rhonda says, munching pineapple, "it ain't all about us any more."

Joe picks up one of the pamphlets they got from the health clinic and reads the title. You're having your first baby ... Now what?

Joe wonders. He's bringing in about $300 a week working for a small construction contractor. Rhonda doesn't even make half that at Wendy's. They can barely support themselves, let alone a child.

Rhonda rubs her belly as she reads a pamphlet about child development. "My body is going through changes," she says.

"I'm going through changes, too," Joe says, laughing. "Mental changes."

A horn honks. Joe's boss is here to pick him up for work.

Joe climbs out of the rusted blue van and grabs a bucket filled with cleaning supplies. His boss, Ron Ward, takes a quick look around the work site, a burned-out apartment in Mount Airy.

"OK," he says to Joe, "here's what I want you to do."

First on the list is a charred bathtub caked with soot and rust. Joe squeezes between the tub and toilet, gets on his knees and starts scrubbing the black crud with cleanser and a Brillo pad.

If he's lucky, he'll make $50 today, enough to help cover the rent and groceries. But this ruined tub and the pocket change he'll get for cleaning it is a far cry from the $1,500 he used to make in a week as a dealer.

Joe does miss the money. He misses the stereo equipment and the new Acura Legend. He misses walking into a jewelry store and blowing a thick roll of cash on watches and necklaces. Really, though, he misses being a big shot.

When he was dealing, people in his neighborhood knew him. They showed him respect.

Joe wipes the sweat from his face and stands up. The Brillo pad is rubbing his hands raw but doing nothing to the stains.

"Man," he says, breathing heavily, "I ain't never worked like this in my life."

He walks out onto the apartment's balcony and lights a cigarette. Below him is a playground with a swing set, a patch of grass and some trees.

At home, he's surrounded by concrete. He can't even open some of the windows. When he does, all he hears are cars and shouts and occasional gunfire.

He and Rhonda can't afford a place like this, but they have to move to a safer neighborhood before the baby is born. Joe isn't sure where they can go.

Things are crazy, changed. The housing project in the West End where he lived when he was dealing drugs, Lincoln Court, has been torn down and replaced by $130,000 condos.

Joe stares at the playground and shakes his head, trying to think of what to do next.

"Hey Jay," Ron calls from inside the apartment, "this tub is a mess."

Joe takes a long drag from his cigarette and flicks it over the balcony. Then he turns and heads back inside.


Part 2: Sometimes the old life still pulls at parolee
Part 3: After years of drug dealing and prison, a new life beckons

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