Charles Brown

Dec 11, 2018   |  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Without fail, Charles Brown arrives at Philadelphia’s Market Street station at 6:40 every morning. The train he’ll take to work for his 8 am shift won’t arrive until 7:20, but his timing is deliberate; he reserves these 40 minutes for one of his favorite pastimes.

“I sit and observe the hustle and bustle of people trying to get to where they’re going,” he said. “I like seeing how the world moves. It’s a reminder that whether you’re out here or inside, the world keeps turning.”

This time two years ago, it was unclear whether Charles would ever get to witness rush hour in downtown Philadelphia again. He was incarcerated in a Pennsylvania state prison, one of several he’d been rotating through over the course of nearly four decades. At 17, Charles was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for his part in a murder and robbery committed by an acquaintance.

When he arrived in prison, Charles immersed himself in every program and opportunity he could find. Although he was missing out on his senior year of high school, Charles earned his GED while at Pennsylvania’s Camp Hill facility. He took college courses, worked numerous prison jobs, volunteered as a tutor and mentor, and taught himself legal theory using resources in the prison library. The longer he remained incarcerated and the more ways he found to pass the time, the more he became convinced that, despite the seeming finality of his sentence, he’d get out one day.

“Every time I called home, I’d ask about the outside world — for descriptions of my family members and the places I used to see when I was a kid,” Charles said. “I was living vicariously through them, but I was also preparing myself for what it would all look like when I came home.”

Then, 36 years, three months, and 22 days from the day he first walked in the prison gates, Charles walked out. Because of two U.S. Supreme Court rulings — Miller v. Alabama (2012), which struck down state laws that mandated sentences of life without parole for juveniles; and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), which ensures the Miller decision applies retroactively — he’d been resentenced and deemed eligible for parole.

“I came out with my head on straight, but I came out running,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let anything hinder me.”

While getting released was “one of the best feelings I’d experienced,” Charles now had to learn how to navigate an entirely new world, this time as a 53-year-old man with a felony record who would be on parole for the rest of his life. That’s when he heard about CEO. He got a referral from his probation officer, completed the weeklong life skills education class, and was quickly placed on a transitional work crew earning a daily paycheck.

“That access card they gave me was my first debit card,” he said. “A single day’s pay may not sound like much, but when you’re just starting out, it’s something you’ve earned—it’s yours. CEO really allowed me to start my independence out here.”

Charles worked with his job coach and other CEO Philadelphia staff to build his resume and begin the search for a full-time job. Initially, he was met with resistance and rejection from potential employers because of his record, but he didn’t give up. With strong networking skills and his “workforce family” at CEO behind him, he eventually landed a full-time job at a manufacturing company. He’s approaching his first anniversary with the company and has already received a promotion and two pay raises.

In his spare time, Charles stays connected to other people who have been released to Philadelphia after their resentencing, helping them navigate the ins and outs of life back in the community. Whether he’s taking in rush hour on Market Street, or memorizing the bus and train routes through the city, he says his observation skills have come in handy when helping others get adjusted.

“I’m always observing my surroundings. It’s something I learned in prison, but now I’m taking in all the things that I missed out on that I get to be a part of again,” Charles said. “This is the second part of my life. I’m going to live it to the fullest.”