Ex-hustler turns his life around

It’s a hot August evening, and Assahata is about to emerge from her mother’s womb.

Her father, Louis Price, is standing by his wife, Ivy Woodruff, at Christiana Hospital, frantically sending text messages to friends.

“We are at the hospital,” one of the messages said. “My wife could deliver any time now.”

This is a moment for the 34-year-old Price to savor, a moment he nearly missed.

After spending most of his life on the streets of Wilmington selling drugs and later serving a two-year stint in prison, Price has turned around his life. Woodruff has had a big influence on Price since he walked out of Young Correctional Institution 18 months ago. She wanted him to be a better father to his son Idris, now 12, and she wanted him out of the cycle of crime that comes with slinging dope.

“She gave me an ultimatum that I had to leave the streets or lose her,” Price said. “I chose her.”

Woodruff looks at Price and smiles brightly.

“I wanted him to be concentrating on the things we wanted to do,” says the 31-year-old mother of two. “There was no reason for him to be involved in that life anymore. I feel like the community can change. My husband could have a lot of impact on what goes on in the streets.”

Price was one of 15 researchers working on an 11-month project studying two of Wilmington’s worst neighborhoods. That work landed him a full-time job at the University of Delaware. The 15 were hired to get 500 residents to each fill out an 18-page survey containing more than 100 questions.

Yasser Arafat Payne, the University of Delaware professor who led the study in partnership with the Wilmington Hope Commission, recruited people who were familiar with Southbridge and the East Side to collect the data from residents. Payne said using researchers with street credibility will yield more accurate data about poverty, violence and joblessness. Many of his researchers are ex-felons.

To Payne and Charles Madden, executive director of the Hope Commission, investing in ex-felons is the key to building neighborhoods and dropping the city’s 60 percent recidivism rate, the number of people who get out of prison and return after a fresh crime.

The Hope Commission, along with the Christina Cultural Arts Center, Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, Delaware State University, Wilmington University and the United Way partnered with UD on the project.

“What we need to do to change the trajectory of our community is address the hundreds of men who are returning to the city with little support,” Madden said. “Because they have no support, we see a revolving door on our incarceration facilities.”

Few resources for ex-cons

Delaware’s jails are filled with black men. The incarceration rate for blacks in Delaware is 1,785 for every 100,000 residents, according to the state Department of Correction. That is more than five times the incarceration rate for whites — 325 for every 100,000 residents.

And when they are released, there are few resources in Delaware to keep ex-cons from returning to their old ways.

Offenders released from state prisons must seek programs run by nongovernmental agencies, such as the Delaware Center for Justice, a nonprofit in Wilmington that helps former inmates find transitional housing and employment. The state Department of Labor also offers help, but because of high unemployment, ex-cons compete for spots in job-training programs with people who have long work histories.

Gov. Jack Markell pushed for a reassimilation program last year to help prisoners return to society. His plan calls for state agencies to work together to help inmates before they are released, tackling problems such as finding jobs, securing places to live and fighting addictions. The plan also requires agencies to coordinate their outreach to inmates, deliver services effectively and begin developing a re-entry plan at the start of incarceration instead of at release.

Since June, about 70 former offenders have participated in the program outside of prison. There are 163 prisoners in the program preparing to leave prison.

A 2009 study by the state Statistical Analysis Center found that 76 percent of serious and violent offenders returned to prison within one year. For black men, the figure was 82 percent.

 

“The number of African-American males who are incarcerated or on probation or parole is alarming,” Madden said. “Any time you have 60 percent of your men who can’t participate in main society, the effect on the community is too large to even think about.”

While many leave prison with good intentions of going straight, reality hits them quickly. Few employers are willing to hire them. Unable to make money, they have a hard time paying rent or supporting a family. Many return to their criminal past.

Price, 34, met Woodruff in his early 20s. She stood by him through his years on the streets and in prison. They have an older child, Idris, 12. Price has an 11-year-old daughter, Nataya, from another relationship.

When he was released from prison in 2009, he went to the Hope Commission seeking work. He was among 150 people who applied for the 15 researcher jobs with Payne.

“I remember when we selected him,” Payne said. “I knew he was from the East Side, and he knew the East Side very well. I knew most of our data would be collected there. He was willing to get on the ground and be on the forefront. I knew his credibility. He was willing to beat the pavement.

“He [Price] went above and beyond,” Payne said. “A lot of times, it would be just Lou and me, and we would go out on the weekend.”

Word of his work with Payne’s project reached another UD professor, Mary Dozier, who is studying child development. He now works five days a week on a project for her, locating and interviewing families.

Payne hopes city leaders pay attention to his data and analysis — which he plans to have ready next year — when they determine future strategies to help these neighborhoods.

He may not find an ally in Wilmington Mayor James Baker.

“I already know what they are going to find. I know all the stats,” Baker said.

He said the problems are multifaceted, and there is not enough money to deal with everything.

Lure of money too much

The unmistakable smell of marijuana wafts through Compton Park on the East Side on a sultry summer evening. Most people are sitting on benches — some drinking, most talking. A toddler wearing only a diaper runs to and from his mother. The park is where researchers meet before handing out surveys

Price is at home here. Dressed in blue jean shorts, a black T-shirt and black Prada sneakers, he leads the way when part of the team breaks off to scour the neighborhood.

“Let’s go up here and turn,” he says.

Payne nods and falls in behind. They follow Price up Lombard Street to Eighth Street, where they make a right. They walk one more block before people start coming up to Price and stop to say “Hi,” and share hugs. He convinces them to take the survey, including people he has never met.

“Take one of these surveys, and fill it out for me,” Price asked one man.

“What’s this for?” the man asked.

“It’s for the community,” Price said. “It’s something that will benefit the neighborhood. Things pertaining to crime, schools and relationships.”

He gave the man a pen and a survey packet and told him he would be back in 20 minutes to check on him. He told the man that the survey had to be filled out completely. Price and other researchers timed respondents. If they filled out the survey too quickly, they would not get the $5. He next catches a group of people in the 800 block of Pine Street. At the corner of Bennett and Taylor streets, he gets a large group of people to engage. No one turns him away.

As he surveys the street, Price repeats a frequent subconscious act, stroking his thin, gray-flecked goatee. He says he is 6-foot-2, 282 pounds.

“I’m just a little wider now,” he smiled, in between shooting video and interviewing people. “I’m still fast though.”

Price was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved to the East Side with his older brother, mother and stepfather when he was 13. He honed his basketball skills on neighborhood courts, skills that would introduce him to street life and would get him onto a college team.

“Playing ball, if you’re good and you score a lot of points, people [drug dealers] want you to play for them, and they would say, ‘I’ll buy you a pair of sneakers. You don’t have to worry about money,’ ” Price said. But that money was not enough for him when high school started.

“It got to the point to when we were 15 or 16 we wanted our own money,” Price said, mentioning clothes and sneakers as things he would buy. “When you get to high school, you want all of that stuff.”

At Delcastle Technical High School, Price mastered his jump shot — and the dope game.

“We started out selling bundles [of crack],” Price said.

Price packaged $100 bundles initially and stuck to that limit because he was afraid his mother would find out what he was doing. But before he knew it, the bundles increased, and he was buying the first in a series of 18 cars. One summer alone, he bought four cars after Wilmington police kept confiscating them because they were not registered properly.

Price said his mother eventually found out and urged him to quit. But the money was too good.

“I knew what I was doing was wrong,” Price said.

When he first got to college, he stopped selling drugs.

He played his freshman year as the starting point guard for Potomac State University, where he averaged 15 points per game. The next year, he transferred to Lincoln University but did not play basketball. He transferred again the next year to Salem Community College in New Jersey, where he averaged 22 points per game.

But instead of doing summer internships, he sold drugs.

His college career ended in 1997 when he and a friend went to a party on Market Street in Wilmington. They ran into some people from Riverside whom he had a dispute with during a basketball tournament. One man pulled a gun and shot Price once in the chest. The bullet fragmented, leaving three identical marks across the center of Price’s torso and a long scar near his right underarm where it exited his body.

“I wasn’t supposed to be here,” Price said. “It hit me right near my heart.”

It took him months to recover and get back into shape. He played semi-professional basketball for the Wilmington Blue Bombers for one year but soon returned to his old habits.

“It was good for a year, but then I got back into the streets,” he said. It took 10 more years before Price could separate himself from his street life. In 2007, he married Woodruff. Then he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to two and a half years in prison for being an accomplice in a robbery.

Price grew tired of his life. Tired of missing his family.

Then Woodruff issued her ultimatum.

Job, education now options

Dozier , the UD professor, raves about Price’s work ethic.

“Louis, along with a colleague, are involved in finding participants from our project that have been difficult to locate,” Dozier wrote in an e-mail. She is principal investigator for the Infant Caregiver Project, which is based in Philadelphia and studies child development. “We often ran into obstacles as we tried to locate people who had moved or who just were uncomfortable as young white women [or men] with clipboards approached their homes. Louis has been very effective in making contact with families that want to participate in our research.”

Now, after years of hustling, Price has discovered a new life.

He is starting to see the future Woodruff told him about. And because he is now a full-time employee at UD, he will be able to return to school and get his bachelor’s degree.

“It’s a fortunate situation, and it’s all through Dr. Payne,” he said.

Payne said seven or eight of the 15 researchers have already been placed in jobs or schools.

Darryl “Wolfie” Chambers, a onetime Wilmington drug kingpin, works part time at UD as a research assistant and is applying to a doctoral program there in the criminology and sociology department.

Johnathon Simmons opened a barbershop and is applying to Cheyney University’s Master’s of Education program.

“When people see you out there, they know what you are doing. They think you are one kind of way, but I know I’m a good person.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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