The Fortune Society; A bridge from prison to the 'square' world

''Through these doors walked. . . .''

The sign in the lobby draws attention to 30 or so 8-by-10 photographs arranged in a giant rectangle. Sharon, Lynn, Vinnie, Pearl, Pat, Carlos, Carmen. . . . Faces of all races, colors, ages, and genders. All smiling.

If you've found this room at 229 Park Avenue South, on New York's Lower East Side, you've found the place that 350 or so people make their way to each week from prison. Many have nowhere else to go. It was for these sometime convicts and ex-offenders that the Fortune Society was formed.

Many find just getting to this doorway is a significant step. Leaving the prison regimen for the ''square'' world that sent them there can be frightening. After months, years, decades of incarceration - having learned the penal life subculture - the ways of the outside world can look mighty forbidding. The skills necessary for an ex-con to make his way may be rusty at best, or perhaps nonexistent.

For many, the time spent in prison has precluded learning such basic skills as reading, writing, even telling time. Yet these skills are necessary for survival, for finding work, a place to live. That responsibility - replacing prison-provided food, shelter, and routine - comes hand in hand with liberation, and many are not ready to face the task.

More important are the mental hurdles to be cleared. Of these, learning to trust others is uppermost. A sense of isolation and bad memories need to be talked out, dealt with. Old behavior patterns must be broken.

Fortune Society was set up to deal with just such challenges. And it does so with what its founders consider to be the most understanding and well-qualified personnel available anywhere: former convicts themselves.

In one-to-one counseling with someone who's been there, those leaving prison get straight talk from equals. Having a shared experience, Fortune personnel nurture a feeling of acceptance on behalf of the ex-offender. They want to build confidence by creating that atmosphere which permits him or her to face and make choices: ''What do you want to do with your life?'' ''What don't you want to continue doing with your life?'' ''What is the best way to make that life productive?'' ''What is the best way to stay off the streets, stay off drugs, break down old habits?''

Answering those questions in a nonthreatening environment can build a bridge from prison experience to the streets, a bridge less fraught with trauma, one that is more productive and helpful to the ex-con.

In addition, Fortune offers individual tutoring. Lack of education has narrowed options for many, and Fortune aims to expand those options. Aided by a host of computers, the all-volunteer tutoring staff helps more than 300 ex-offenders each year work toward reading, writing, and spelling levels that will help them get the jobs they need. Often this means finishing the high school diploma they never received.

And Fortune aids the ex-offender in developing the manner necessary to land the right job: how to dress properly, fill out questionnaires, answer questions, put the best foot forward.

Rodney Taylor, now a Fortune counselor, spent but two years outside prison from 1956 to 1972. He heard about the Fortune Society from his cell neighbor in Attica State Prison. ''When I came out in 1972 I was scared to death. Just even the thought of changing my life style frightened me. The mere thought of having to do something I was not used to doing - things that so-called 'square people' (did), people who worked every day, people who paid their bills, people who tried to take care of their kids, people who did the so-called normal, positive things. Just the thought of that terrified me.''

Set straight by the routine Fortune treatment - counseling, education, and help with job placement - Mr. Taylor returned to become a counselor himself two years later. He has now been out of prison over a decade. Fortune uses him as one of many role models for men who are incarcerated - evidence that people can turn the energy from a negative past into a positive future.

And just what did Fortune do?

Counselor Theodore Akbar Karim - a prisoner for 10 years - explains the process:

''We're interested in what they want to do about their life. If they want to tell me about their past life or not, OK. I'll share mine with them anyway. Just to get them to open up and let them know that I'm no different than they are. I let them know the only difference between me and them is that I'm doing something about my life in a positive manner and they're not. And I let them know that they can if they want. That's the only difference.''

He says he makes a major effort not to put himself ''above'' the ex-offender. ''I let them know that I'm no figure of authority, that I'm not talking at them or down to them - I'm talking to them and with them. That's what a lot of ex-offenders like, because they've been talked down to all their life.''

Karim himself came to Fortune - drunk, addicted to drugs - at the advice of a bartender. He extols the benefits of one-to-one counseling: ''I'd had counselors in my school, but I didn't talk to them much because they struck me as a father image - an unclear image always talking at you but not really listening to what you said. So I just withdrew in myself. I didn't come out of myself until I came here to Fortune Society and started going to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) to deal with my drinking problem, drug problem.''

When he arrived here in 1974 at age 31, Karim was unable to read, write, or tell time. He is extremely grateful for the tutoring that enabled him to overcome these disabilities:

''In the past, I could never deal with the classroom scene. Plus I couldn't relate to kids my age. I related to older people. By being here (at Fortune) in one-to-one tutoring, it was very good for me. Because all I had to deal with was the teacher. We became friends as well as teacher and student. That was the difference. I could be human with her. I could talk about my feelings and my weaknesses and my fears and stuff like that. In a classroom setting you can't do this.''

Counseling others while being tutored himself, Karim is just months away from his high school diploma - a goal, he says, that will be the major turning point of his life.

''But it took me a long time to get to this, to face myself,'' said Karim. ''Many nights I laid home and cried and hit the walls and cursed society. . . . I found out that I was the one causing the most trouble. So today I don't blame anybody for what happened to me. I blame myself on myself. The things that I was responsible for, I take it. The things that I wasn't responsible for, I give it to the people that were responsible for it. This way I don't have to be guilty and carry all that stuff around in me. That stuff like to drove me crazy.''

David Rothenberg is founder and executive director of Fortune Society. He explains its genesis from a play about incarceration called ''Fortune and Men's Eyes,'' which he produced in 1967.

''The play was written by an ex-convict named John Herbert. Before we went into rehearsal I arranged for the actors to go onto Riker's Island (the New York City jail), so that we could authenticate the prison experience for the stage.''

When the play opened, he continued, a forum was held at the theater once a week, and the audience was invited to stay and listen. ''We discussed the content of the play. Immediately, someone from the audience introduced himself as an ex-offender and validated what the play was saying and joined us on the stage. And we invited him to come back for subsequent Tuesdays, which he did with another friend who was an ex-con.''

The forums became a very popular part of the play once a week. Other ex-cons started introducing themselves from the audience, and Rothenberg began getting phone calls asking if the ex-cons could come and speak to different groups.

''For the next five or six months, I found myself going around with a group of ex-cons talking about prison and realized that there was an enormous credibility gap between the public's perception of crime and prison, and the people who'd been through it. And that the people who've been through it have a lot to offer in talking about motivation and perpetuation of crime and the whole criminal justice system.''

He says at the point when four or five ex-cons were involved, he offered his theater office as headquarters. ''We called ourselves the Fortune Society because that was from the title (of the play) we were playing, which is from a Shakespearean sonnet: 'When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I, all alone, beweep my outcast state. . . .'

The Fortune Society then became an opportunity for men who had been in prison to speak about their prison experience. In 1967 there was little opportunity for that, Rothenberg points out. ''As a matter of fact, guys coming to us were in danger of violating their parole because they were in concert with other ex-offenders.''Four of the men appeared on the New York-based David Susskind Show. ''Afterward, we were inundated - not with the public wanting information, '' said Rothenberg, ''but with other ex-convicts wanting help, thinking that this group that appeared on television had the answers to all their problems.''

Fortune was 15 years old last month. Rothenberg's one-room theater office at Broadway and 46th Street has overflowed to two new locations, ending up in this labyrinth of rooms and carrels high above Manhattan's streets. The staff has grown to include 18 ex-cons, nine ''squares,'' and hundreds of volunteers. The Fortune News, originally a one-page mimeographed letter sent to 37 people, is now a 12-page printed newsletter sent to over 40,000 people in 50 states and 23 countries. Thirty-five ex-convicts form Fortune's speakers bureau for engagements around the country. Seventy percent of Fortune's funding is from private individuals, the rest comes from foundation grants, government agencies, and private corporations. Membership in the society numbers 30,000.

Those leaving prison come here for the same reasons as in 1967: not wanting to remain on the street, not wanting to go back to jail, not wanting to go back to crime, but not having the wherewithal to break the cycle.

''What we developed, over the 15 years,'' said Mr. Rothenberg, was ''a resource for people who were looking for a way out. We don't do it for them, we're just a resource for them. People have to make the choices.

''But there are a lot of marginal people on the streets who are looking for something else than what their life has been. They don't know where to begin and how to do it.''

Rodney Taylor described the trauma for him:''Coming out when I was 28 years old, I was like an infant, like a baby just trying to feel around, just holding onto things, make sure he doesn't fall.''

He says Fortune became a second home to him, a place where he could speak to understanding ears about the traumas of 15 years of incarceration. With the trust that built, and the advice and learning he received, he was able to break the revolving-door pattern of institutionalization that was his life since he was 12.

''When I walked out of the gates of prison, the only thing I had was a few letters. They'd given me the raggediest suit they could find, although it wasn't tattered or torn or anything - it was just too big. The shoes I had on were a little too big. I was a sight.''He had one other thing: the address of Fortune Society.

''If it wasn't for Fortune holding me up at that time, steering me, guiding me, there's no telling where I might be today,'' he said. ''There's a great chance I'd be back in prison.''

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