In St. Paul, Ujamaa Place offers a new start for young African-American menby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The nation's war on drugs has created a huge population of ex-offenders, who carry the stigma of prison forever. Finding a life outside prison walls can be hard.
At St. Paul's Ujamaa Place, though, there's a path for young African-American men, 17 and older, with a record. Sometimes, the road back starts with a noon meal and some conversation.
"One of my home boys — I was standing next to him, right next him. He got shot five times," said Roy Mccaleb, 33. "His body dropped right next to me and everything, you know. All that was part of my change because I got tired of it. It hurted so bad."
Born and raised in St. Paul, Mccaleb said as a teen he traded an unloving home for a gang and was arrested and jailed nearly two dozen times. The brush with death opened his eyes.
"The home boys, the friends, they told me they loved me so. You know, they were giving me drugs to sell, I was selling them, you know, I was doing them as well ... it got real bad for me ... (but) I thought that was the life to have."
Otis Zanders, executive director of Ujamaa Place and retired superintendent of the state juvenile detention facility at Red Wing, has heard many variations of Mccaleb's story. But he also knows people can change. Of the 200 men who've come through the program in its three years, only one has returned to prison, he said.
"Yes, they have history," Zanders said. "But they coming to you now a period of transformation, and we don't want you to be in fear of us, that we are here to be a positive influence on this block, this street, this community and this city."
Not everyone who applies is accepted into Ujamaa. There's an interview and screening process to see if applicants are likely to succeed there. The program is currently working with 43 young men.
"We provide breakfast as well as lunch, we provide transportation, we provide a safe environment where he can be himself he don't have to look over his shoulders," Zanders said.
A coach for each client is available around the clock to help the young men with housing, education, family reunification, any issue that pops up.
Funding comes from foundations and private donors. Even with all the services Ujamaa Place offers, Zanders said their cost per person — $3,000 to $4,000 — is a fraction of what it costs taxpayers to keep a person in prison for a year. "It may cost $60,000 to $70,000 to incarcerate depending on what level of treatment they are in."
Zanders, 58, has lived in Minnesota for 40 years but his speech still retains the flavor and cadence of the Mississippi Delta where he was born and raised.
The son of sharecroppers, his first job was picking cotton for $1 a day. He was the first family member to finish high school. His mother insisted he attend college, a pledge he fulfilled by winning an academic scholarship to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.
Zanders points to poverty as a root cause of crime.
"When you look at communities ... you look at their zip codes with the most crime, with the most drop outs, the most teenage pregnancy, where all those dysfunctions take place, and you will see poverty," he said.
Not much attention was paid to the consequences when this country began the war on drugs 50 years ago. One consequence clear to Zanders now is the large of number of young African-American men coming out of prison and jail who need help.
- All Things Considered, 07/18/2013, 5:49 p.m.