PHOENIX — He stands in the middle of the conference room, looking out at his disciples in a building not far from the hum of Sky Harbor airport. They stare back, entranced by his presence.
To them, in his baggy blue t-shirt and white sneakers, he represents freedom. Hope. Salvation. Some call him a redeemer. But Frantz Beasley says he is no one’s savior.
“People come to me as their last hope and I say to them, ‘If I’m your last hope, you’re in trouble. I am no one’s messiah,’” Beasley says.
Someone coughs. They are unsure if they should laugh.
Inmate No. 107110 did his time in the Arizona Department of Corrections for more than 14 years for two armed robberies and a kidnapping. While still behind bars, Beasley created AZ Common Ground, a nonprofit that helps those with felony convictions move forward after prison.
“Since 2010, a great deal of what I do is working on people’s self-worth and who they are intrinsically. At AZ Common Ground, my philosophy has always been a very simple one. One: we need to deal with the battle that goes on here (as he points to his head).”
“Sure,” Beasley says, “Poverty is going to cause a lot of people to do bad things. But when an individual is released from the prison system, I immediately have to ask him who exactly is sitting on the other side of the table from me.”
AZ Common Ground is not a rehabilitation program. As Beasley puts it, “It’s a program for rebuilding their life and sometimes attempting to establish themselves for the first time.”
“I like to use curriculum that doesn’t make you feel like there’s something wrong with you,” he says.
Over the past two and a half years, he has helped build 18 small businesses for former inmates and members of the program, ranging from mobile mechanics, landscaping and housekeeping, to telemarketing, videography and photography.
Beasley is 41 years old. He was released in 2009, but like many other ex-offenders, he says he didn’t feel free.
He was born in South Phoenix, ZIP code 85040, the only place where most African Americans could buy homes in the 1970s. It has one of the highest recidivism rates in Phoenix.
For every 1,000 people who enter the community after prison, 700 end up going back, according to the Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee Reentry Initiative conducted in 2011.
Growing up on 19th Street and Broadway, Beasley watched the crack generation hit. California gang members infiltrated the area and “it was like lights out South Phoenix,” he says. He watched street fistfights escalate to teenagers carrying Uzis.
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon when Beasley drives his white Nissan Cube down the dusty streets of South Phoenix, revisiting those old haunts. He passes his old high school, Martin Luther King, casually noting his escape routes from cops when he was a kid.
“You always have to remember this part right here when you were driving away from the cops. You never want to get caught in this,” he points to a lane partially blocked in by concrete. “One car would throw it off for you,” Beasley says.
Carver Street. Broadway Road. Roeser Road. This is his territory, his old running ground.
“In every one of these neighborhoods I can tell you where I hid,” Beasley says.
A quick left on Roeser Road and Beasley points out the Grandfamilies Place apartment complex. Because of the number of people incarcerated during the gang violence of the late 90s and early 2000s, grandparents found themselves having to take care of grandkids.
“When I came home from prison I was like, ‘Hey man there’s nobody my age out here.’ Grandparents are literally raising grandchildren down here,” Beasley says. “There’s a whole generation missing.”
He comes up on 20th street and “Dope Lane,” actually named Nancy Lane.
“This is my dad’s house here, the yellow one. You like the colors we have down here?” Beasley asks.
Down the street is his grandmother’s house, his mom’s house and his Aunt Ruth’s house. On the way back, Beasley passes dilapidated houses and muses if some of his old buddies are still alive.
“That’s the way you started your conversations off [when you got out of prison]: ‘Oh, is he still living?’ Culture shouldn’t be poverty,” Beasley says.
The National Institute of Justice reports incarceration is a geographically concentrated phenomenon. A large number of prisoners come from — and return to — a small number of already disadvantaged neighborhoods.
“I can’t help but wonder how many of the solutions are wrapped in community. I had two parents and a home whereas most of my friends did not. They had their moms,” Beasley says. “I knew where everyone was at [while growing up]. They were either in prison, doped out or addicted, or they were dead. Or trying to not get picked up by child support.”
According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, 37,962 male inmates are in the state’s prison system at any given time. In 2014, the DOC admitted 17,557 males and released almost as many back into the community by the end of the fiscal year – 5,045 of those were African Americans.
Becky Pettit, author of Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress believes the conversation is racially biased.
“If one in ten young white boys was incarcerated, I think we would be having a very different public conversation than if one in ten young African American men is incarcerated,” Pettit says.
African Americans account for less than 14 percent of the U.S. population, but represent 28 percent of all arrests. They are even more highly represented in the incarcerated population, comprising almost 40 percent of those behind bars, according to the National Institute of Justice.
“I committed a bad act. I went through due process. I’m now out of jail or the prison system and have finished my probation or parole. I finished all restitution, and now the second sentence begins,” Beasley says. “That’s the phase that people don’t look at – that’s public perception.”
When released from prison, many ex-offenders face discrimination in employment, housing, education, welfare benefits and the right to vote. The likelihood of black males going back to prison within three years of release is 70 percent, according to the National Institute of Justice.
“What do you think my number one skill set was prior to my release in 2009?” Beasley asks back in orientation. “Bank robbery. You want to try putting that on a resume?”
AZ Common Ground sees 120 new faces each month. The non-profit teaches people how to navigate the “second phase” of their conviction post-release.
Kevin Smith, a 50-year-old convicted felon, is a familiar face at orientation.
Beasley is helping Smith with a community development project in Eloy. The program would help kids aging out of the foster care system stay off the streets.
“I’m just building relationships and when it’s time to unveil it, I can have the right core group of people to present it to and have them all on board.” Smith says.
Smith says he worked hard to get here.
A bottle of Dolce and Gabbana cologne and a pair of gym shoes. These were the first things Smith bought when he was released after three and a half years behind bars.
He was arrested at the Sunset Ranch Apartments off of 48th street and Broadway in Phoenix at the age of 42. He’d been selling drugs on and off for 26 years, but this was the first time he got caught, charged with possession and sale of crack cocaine, marijuana, powdered cocaine and crystal meth.
Smith grew up in a middle class environment in Detroit, a city where “everyone worked for Chrysler or Ford factories.”
His mother raised four boys on a $26,000 salary.
“I used to listen to my mother cry at night because she couldn’t provide her sons with not only the things that we needed, but the things that we wanted,” Smith says.
After his parents divorced, Smith’s mother moved him and his siblings into another part of the neighborhood. When he was 16, Smith agreed to do a street drug deal for some guys he knew. The money, he thought, would help his family.
Smith marks this as a turning point in his life. He admits he used his mother’s burden as an excuse.
“But the bottom line is I was wrong all along. A lot of times people don’t accept that. They continue to use that as an excuse to do it,” he said. “For me, I just had to accept the fact I liked what I was doing.”
Smith moved to Arizona at the age of 33 and worked different jobs until he started “hustling” drugs.
“My boss pissed me off and I thought to myself, ‘I make more in a week than you do all year long. Why should I put up with the bullshit coming out your mouth?’ So I quit my job. I went into it full-time. Full-time hustling,” Smith says.
He was arrested eight months later.
“If I would have completely walked away from it, I would have never went to prison. But everything to me happens for a reason. Because if I would have never went to prison, I would have never met Frantz. If I had never met Frantz, some of the opportunities that I have been given would have never happened,” Smith says.
He took a plea bargain and did time at the Picacho unit of the Arizona state prison complex in Florence, Arizona. Smith took prison college courses to become a firefighter and says he is certified in 48 states.
“I’m legitimate but the thing is, no fire department hires felons,” Smith says. “So to me, that was always a waste of the state’s money.”
Six months before he was released, he finished an 18 month commitment with the prison and Picacho fire departments. He also worked at a feed mill. As a firefighter, Smith made 50 cents an hour. Working at the feed mill, he earned $3.30 an hour. He was able to save $3,500.
“I had made up in my mind the day that I walked [into prison] that I wasn’t coming back”, Smith said. “I didn’t think about what I was going to do for employment when I got out, because for one, I had a little bit of money saved. And two, I still had the mentality of the hustle.” Smith says.
For a while, he started selling drugs again, but “it wasn’t the same,” he said.
He worked in telemarketing for a while, but the company went under and Smith wanted a career with tangible benefits. Smith’s church members suggested he get in touch with Beasley.
“Frantz initially gave me a list of job leads which sucked,” Smith says laughing. “I did manual labor, I have a mind. Most of the jobs they offer the people coming out of the prison system, you’re just a body. I felt I was better than that.”
He’s now a property manager for an apartment complex.
“Common Ground is the only organization that I know of that will take you by the hand and walk you through it as long as you are willing to do what it takes to get you there,” he said. “If it wasn’t for AZ Common Ground, I don’t know what I’d be doing. It’s given me the opportunity to have a purpose. That’s how I ended up where I am now.”
Beasley said he assesses the risk factors and responsiveness of each person who comes to him and creates a case management plan. Those he’s helped still call him for support.
“Do you know, I have people that have been with me for three years and literally they still call me today and say, ‘Frantz, I can’t go to sleep … I’m laying here next to my wife and the streets are still calling me.’ ”
“And I say, ‘just roll over and go to bed. We’ll deal with this in the morning.’ But they need somebody to reach out to every once in awhile.”