Escape Artist | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Escape Artist

Francois Lighty should be back in jail by now. At least, that's what the numbers say.

When he was arrested in 2003, on charges stemming from a gunpoint robbery, he was young, black and male, and had been dealing drugs.

He'd come to Pittsburgh on a Greyhound bus from his home in gang-riddled North Philadelphia, chasing hip-hop dreams and street-life promises of easy glamour. Selling crack and smoking weed went with the territory -- one paid for beats and the other eased his head.

"It's part of our culture," he says. "It's gangsta, survival of the hustler. You just wind up on the streets."

He cooled his heels in the Allegheny County lockup for nine months after his arrest, and he's still serving his seven years' probation.

The numbers say he's living on borrowed time. A 2002 federal Department of Justice study found that, in the three years following release, two-thirds of prisoners are arrested again. For black men, the rate is 72.9 percent.

But Francois is not back in jail. He's supporting himself, living on the North Side and working as a community coordinator for an anti-violence initiative. He's still hungry to make it big in the music industry, but until then, he keeps his goals modest: "I'm trying to be a law-abiding citizen and live the American dream and help my family," he says.

The plan is simple, but not easy. Criminologists and prison officials are taking a new look at the re-integration of convicts into society, and more closely examining the experiences of people like Francois, who somehow manage to stay out of trouble after they first get in.

Francois, 30, grew up in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia. Today, crime and mid-century urban decay have rendered it one of the most dangerous sections of Philly, but the area was once a thriving neighborhood. Among its cherished sons are John Coltrane and NBA player Ronald "Flip" Murray.

"I can see similarities between Strawberry Mansion and the Hill District," says Francois, who works and goes to church in the Hill. "It had its own arts and stars and supported itself, and [then] it gets crushed."

When crack appeared on the scene in the mid-1980s, he said, "I watched families get destroyed." One way or the other, "You get touched by it -- if you don't go out and sell, there's people in your house using drugs."

If anyone could have resisted the trend, it might have been the Lighty family. At least at first, the Lightys showed few of the symptoms often associated with urban despair.

Lighty grew up with two sisters and both parents, each of whom had solid middle-class jobs. His father was a baker for Nabisco, his mother a secretary at Temple University who also worked as a medical assistant. The Lightys scraped together the money to send all three of their children to Catholic schools.

The family was a regular presence at their Baptist church, and Francois' mother, Gwen Lighty-Williams, says Francois "was brought up in a very strict home.

"If I was a mother that didn't care, if I was on drugs and drinking and partying, Francois wouldn't be the way he is," she says on the phone from her home in North Philly.

But when Francois turned 13, tragedy struck: He was diagnosed with a brain tumor on his left cortex. He is now in remission but chemotherapy and radical radiation took a heavy toll.

"I was really struggling," Francois says. "I had migraines. The hair still won't grow on the left side of my head."

"He didn't have the opportunity to enjoy his teen-age years," his mother says. "It was enough to kill him."

And at about the same time, their neighborhood's ongoing decay found a way into the Lighty household itself. Lighty-Williams will only say that her first husband began making poor choices, and that she still prays for him.

"My dad got hooked on crack cocaine," Francois says. Early on, no one knew anything was amiss: Francois' father would visit other neighborhoods for short stints and, as Francois says, "He had good jobs. He would work and then he'd disappear for like a month. In the beginning, we'd put out missing-persons [reports] and stuff. The first time it happened it was so scary. It was like death was in the house."

It took awhile for the family to catch on, in part because his father kept working. To this day, Francois isn't sure exactly when his father's use began. "We didn't really find out." His father's whereabouts are unknown.

By the time they knew what was going on, Francois had already started dealing drugs himself.

During his junior year in high school, Francois decided to try his hand at one of the most popular quick-money schemes in Strawberry Mansion: selling crack.

"I wasn't going to do it forever," he says. "I wanted to get a whole bunch of money and do something." He says he never got in too deep -- just making enough so he wouldn't have to hit up his mom for money for clothes. His father's behavior was becoming increasingly erratic, and his mother was struggling with the same disease that had laid him low, and killed both her parents: cancer.

After finishing high school, he enrolled at nearby Cheney University, the nation's oldest historically black school of higher learning. There, he earned a degree in political science. And he kept selling.

"I thought at the time it was my means. While I was doing what I was doing, my father was missing in action. I thought I was going to help. I had more success selling. I thought, ‘I'm gonna take this drug money and get a record deal and make my millions. I'll buy this college and tell them to kiss my ass.'"

Dreams of making it as a rapper had started percolating in Francois' head. That, too, was going to require cash. "I was on some Kanye West stuff," he says. "I was living on student loans, chasing a dream and trying to make finals and stuff. But I made it, I graduated."

After graduation, Francois bounced around from one McJob to another, but still he kept selling. His college debt loomed large, and the prospect of a musical career loomed even larger. "The street life is addictive too: There's fame, glory, glitter. At times, I forgot I even had cancer. The streets don't care about cancer."

Yet the faith that had been instilled in him wouldn't let him be. "That's what makes it so crazy -- God stayed with me. I was selling drugs, I wasn't being faithful.

"It was like I was a secret agent; I was doing one thing and I believed in something else," he says.

Then, a possible break: A friend from college who grew up in Pittsburgh said he knew Dr. Dre protégé Mel Man. So, in 2003, Francois came to Pittsburgh with the guy, a job at Wal-Mart and faith in a possible big-name connection -- which never really materialized. Pittsburgh, however, became his home.

"There was this producer out in this project in Duquesne. We'd go see him and get beats," Francois says.

On one of those nights, Aug. 23, a young woman was robbed at gunpoint in the area. Francois insists he wasn't involved in the crime: "I was at the wrong place at the wrong time," he says. "Witnesses said it was me because I was there." But his claims of innocence are muted by the knowledge of the crimes he didn't get arrested for.

"I felt like it was a blessing, like it was supposed to happen to me. All I could do was take one on the chin."

And he did. With his bail was set at $100,000, Francois languished in an Allegheny County jail cell. ("I just sat there and prayed and attended Bible study," he says.) His public defender told him that a guilty conviction could have resulted in a 10-year sentence; Francois pled to a lesser charge of simple assault, and walked out of jail with seven years' probation.

Which was when his troubles really began.

"When you get out of jail, it's hard," Francois says. "The minute you get out there, you're a target. Even your own depression might get you," he says. "You're going to need more than a college degree."

Indeed, his college degree wasn't enough to score Francois a lot of jobs he applied for. A local supermarket "didn't even give me a job because I have a record. A lot of jobs, because of my record they don't get back to me or they're not interested. I keep getting dead ends. I have to believe it's a test.

"You get out of jail, you rehabilitate and there's nowhere to go. Who can trust you? The way they talk to you …" He trails off, disgusted.

This is usually the part of the story where Francois -- feeling angry, disrespected and beaten down -- meets back up with his dealer and starts slinging rock again. This is the usually the part of the story where you shake your head about another young man lost in the system.

Except you'd be wrong. As it turns out, this is where Francois shows you -- and experts in crime and punishment -- that a half-century of hard-line thinking about incarceration may be completely wrong. And that those who do time can become productive members of society -- if they have the right support.

Theories about what to do with criminals have changed over the years, says Alfred Blumstein, professor at the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon University and an internationally recognized expert on criminal justice and policy. But the debate has generally been between people who see incarceration as a chance to rehabilitate convicts, and those who see it purely as a means of punishing them.

A key 1974 study called "What Works?" sought to resolve the debate by studying how each approach impacted prisoners once they were released back into society. Its findings were surprising: Rates of "recidivism" -- the term used to describe ex-cons ending up back in prison for other crimes -- were the same whether a prisoner got education and training inside prison or didn't. The results seemed to suggest that the majority of prisoners would be returning no matter what their experience inside prison.

"What Works?" has come under a great deal of skepticism as time has gone on, as researchers have taken issue with its methodology. But at the time, Blumstein says, such findings prompted criminologists to ask, "Well, hell, why are we bothering with all this effort? We're not doing any good, let's save the money." And that conclusion, he says, helped justify a mentality of "lock the bastards up and throw away the key."

When combined with a 1980s trend -- the "War on Drugs" -- this mindset resulted in an exploding prison population. The United States now jails a higher percentage of its population than any other industrial nation, and it has the bills to prove it. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the budget for federal prisons has increased from $220 million in 1986 -- when mandatory sentences for drug crimes were enacted -- to more than $4.3 billion in 2001. State governments have been rushing to build new facilities, too: According to the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, more than 40 percent of the state prisons open today have been built in the past 25 years.

Tough-on-crime proponents note that during the 1990s, crime rates began falling to historic lows. But locking up drug offenders, Blumstein says, doesn't work. Despite laws that have gotten harsher every year, "The market [for illegal drugs] will be resilient and will recruit replacements as long as there is demand."

In fact, tough drug laws may be making things worse. When drug offenders eventually get out prison, they often can't find a legitimate job thanks to the stigma of having served time. So they are likely to return to their criminal ways and get rearrested.

Governments build more jails, which fill up as ex-cons return -- 67.5 percent of prisoners are back inside within three years, federal statistics say -- and as tougher laws breed more and younger criminals.

"It's not that it does any good," Blumstein says of the approach. "But it satiates the public's cry of ‘Oh, you're responding to our concerns.'"

As costs have mounted over the past decade, however, researchers and criminal-justice professionals have started rethinking their approach, with a new focus on what happens to ex-cons after they walk out the prison door.

On Jan. 14, Hidenori Yamatani , associate dean for research in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, will release a national study on re-entry strategies -- the first of its kind. Yamatani tracked 300 inmates at Allegheny County Jail for three years after their release, trying to establish the variables that determine whether an ex-con will end up back in jail again.

Yamatani was wary of saying much about his study prior to its release. But in an e-mail, he said it's clear that the "public safety" model of simply locking offenders away is "extremely costly and does not work." Pennsylvania's prison population ranks fifth in the nation, and the cost for housing it has jumped nearly threefold between 1995 and 2004, from $454.2 million to $1.34 billion. And while crime rates have dipped by 15 percent in that time, it's clearly not because prisons are scaring convicts straight: "[T]he rate of recidivism has not been reduced," says Yamatani. Nearly half of Pennsylvania's prisoners are back inside within a year.

"My study findings illustrate that the best way to attain public safety is through reduced recidivism," says Yamatani, "a significantly different paradigm compared to the past misconception: Just lock up people, especially minority members."

Escape Artist
Allegheny County Jail warden Ramon Rustin

That comes as little news to Ramon Rustin, the warden of Allegheny County Jail. The jail already offers a number of programs for inmates: some faith-based, some to address addiction, others to get prisoners GEDs. Moreover, the jail also helps provide support networks for prisoners after release.

But Rustin says he'd like to go further. Ideally, he says, each prisoner could be assessed immediately upon incarceration. Then the prisoner could be nudged into a particular program that would do the most good, and hooked up with a community-based group or mentor upon release. There is, he says, no one-size-fits-all model that works best with a given inmate.

"You never know who is going to hit the note with that inmate," says Jack Pischke, the county jail's inmate-program administrator.

Rustin admits that the initial expense would be high and would require a lot of case management. Down the road it would keep people from coming back, he contends. But politics often prevents more expansive social-service programs from ever being implemented in the first place.

"It used to be fairly common to have a variety of college-level programs in prison," says Blumstein. "The public response was, ‘Hey, I've got to pay for my kid, why would you give the bad guys free tuition?'"

Blumstein says that voters may be more willing to go along with such programs if they see a cost-benefit analysis. But the resentment often continues even after the prisoners are released.

"As a society, we give these inmates a sentence, and then we want to keep punishing them," says Rustin. "They've completed the sentence, it's over. They should get the same opportunities as anyone else."

"You paid your debt, that's what society wanted," adds Pischke. People who want to denounce drug offenders, he says, should ask themselves, "Could this be you? Could this be a family member? Drug addiction knows no boundaries. There but for the grace of God go I."

But for the grace of God, Francois Lighty could have ended up like Debra Germany's son, Raymond. A drug dealer who had been in and out of jail, Raymond Germany was shot to death in July 2001, at 23.

Escape Artist
Debra Germany provides support to recently released inmates like Francois.

"I feel as though my son wasted the life God gave him," Germany says. And yet "When my son got murdered, it pushed me closer to the Lord than I've ever been. Most mothers would be ashamed to admit their sons were drug dealers. I'm not."

If her son's life had been wasted, she decided, his death would not be in vain. Germany felt God calling on her to channel her rage and misery into something positive.

So Germany has become a one-woman support network for incarcerated young men, hoping to interrupt the cycle that claimed her son, to help other young men, other mother's sons.

One of those sons was Francois, who met Germany in church: After his release, the only job he could find was as a janitor for Central Baptist Church in the Hill District. He also sang in the choir and did gospel rapping. Something about Francois drew her to him.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm getting beat upside the head and she rallies me," Francois says. "She uses her own pain and if she can make it, you can make it."

"We've prayed together on the phone," Francois' mother says of Germany. "She's taken a lot of time with my son. I thank God for people like her being there for him. She's like a mother for him away from his mother."

It is, in many ways, what Germany tries to be -- especially in the first 24 to 48 hours after a prisoner is released. "The first place they go is Centre Avenue," she says: Her own son did so to touch base with his drug dealer, and get right back into the grind. "What's there to do up there? Nothing."

To help others avoid the habit, Germany says she tries to make contact with inmates while they're still in jail. She tells them her story, and asks them to call or write when they're getting out.

"We'll help you find a place, transitional housing, get some clothes so you'll feel good enough to go try to get a job," she says. "If your basic needs are met, you can try to do right." For now, she does this informally, through face-to-face interactions during prison visits. But ideally, she says, she'd like to formalize her mission, called Divine Intervention Ministries, with a staff and nonprofit status.

She also reaches out to those who haven't been in jail even once.

Addressing a group of antsy teens at Weil Accelerated Learning Academy in the Hill District, on Nov. 16, she begins, "I'll be speaking to you today from the perspective of a mother whose child was murdered." She wears an airbrushed T-shirt with Ray's grinning face emblazoned on the front, his casket on the back. The adolescent fidgeting stops immediately.

"I felt like a dustpan, always sweeping up," she says, pacing in front of the auditorium where 60 middle-schoolers sit. "It was early Sunday morning, about 10 minutes to five, when the phone rang: ‘Is my son OK?' ‘No ma'am, he's ceased to breathe.'"

Later, she passes around some of the things that used to belong to him: a blue baseball cap, a single Timberland boot, the last Mothers' Day card he ever sent. "This is his towel," she says. "It used to smell like him. Now it smells like dust."

Francois too works with kids, in a more hands-on, small-group capacity. As a counselor with the anti-violence group One Vision One Life, he mentors young kids in at-risk neighborhoods, helping them see solutions besides gun violence.

Lighty has advantages that some of those kids -- and many ex-cons -- don't. He has a college degree. He has his faith, support at home, and a surrogate mother here in Pittsburgh. He has people pulling for his success -- and almost as importantly, he doesn't have anyone trying to pull him back to his old way of life.

In Philadelphia, "he has people he was around, people who sold drugs," says Sophia Carter, whom Francois has been dating long-distance since March. (He speaks to Carter and his mother by phone almost daily.) "Pittsburgh is a new start. He doesn't really know a whole lot of people."

Carter has known Francois for years; the two attended the same church long before his troubles began. "I know that now he's really trying, he wants to live a normal life," she says. "It's not like he's a slouch. He has a degree, he wants to work."

And for all his struggles, Francois represents a best-case scenario: He is close to the people he needs, and has some distance from those he doesn't. Few people in his situation can say that.

"Typically people are brought to a bus stop and given $20 and told, ‘OK, Charlie, don't come back,'" says CMU's Blumstein. "It takes a lot more tailoring to their individual needs rather than a cookie-cutter approach."

"You can do all the training inside you can afford," agrees Rustin, the county warden, "but you need community involvement. The pressure's too great to keep using or selling drugs." Convicts will "go to an employer and not get hired. They run into all these brick walls. Eventually that drug dealer's going to be there for them."

And Francois admits that it isn't easy to stay on the path he's chosen.

"It's a challenge for me every day. You gotta get out of jail and maybe you can't even be around these people," Francois says. "They've shown you love."

Countless thousands of ex-cons would be better off, perhaps, if society could say the same.