Reuben Jones: Changing the game by reforming the system

Cherri Gregg
February 15, 2019 - 6:00 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Reuben Jones is used to being on the front lines.  

As founder of Frontline Dads, Inc., he is a father, activist, mentor and change-maker. 

"I work to give voice to that experience, saying we are people too," he said.

That experience comes from his 15 years behind bars. While there, Jones started an effort in 2001 to help incarcerated dads reconnect with their children. When he was released, he began mentoring the children on the outside, and the project grew.

"You can't mentor children with incarcerated parents without thinking of the communities they are returning to," Jones explained. "You can't talk about re-entry without thinking about the politics that surrounds criminal justice and criminal justice reform."

In 2012, Jones joined the No 215 Jail Coalition, a group of organizations and people working to stop the city from building a new prison. At the time, the city said a new facility was needed to replace to decaying House of Correction. The effort blocked the funding.  

The city then focused on reducing its prison population after receiving a MacArthur grant. Jones stepped up, and, alongside formerly incarcerated men and women from JustLeadershipUSA, they went to work on reforming cash bail. 

"We are pushing hard to say, we don't need it," said Jones, who commended Mayor Jim Kenney, District Attorney Larry Krasner and others for being open to ending cash bail. "We don't always agree, but they hear our concerns and we push our agenda forward."

Earlier this year, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office dropped the use of cash bail for non-violent, low-level offenses, which bolstered the city's effort to decrease the prison population. 

"We went back to the city and said, remember when you said you wanted to close the House of Correction?" recalled Jones. "Now's the time."

Jones helped lead the Close the Creek campaign in Philadelphia. After hosting rallies and applying pressure to lawmakers, the city announced the prison's closure in May. The closure saved the city $15 million.

"Our agenda has not only been to close the jail, but to take those savings and reinvest it into the community impacted by mass incarceration," Jones said. 

Jones and his cohorts are pushing lawmakers to earmark the savings and bring much needed resources to high-crime areas. But he's not done — the Close the Creek campaign is now working to stop risk assessments, the algorithms that determine which defendants are higher risk and/or should be incarcerated. The pressure is on.

"Philadelphia, you have the opportunity for being this gold standard," said Jones. "We probably won't win every battle, but we are going to make it very difficult for you to not take us seriously."

Jones is serious about the work he does. He committed to changing the community after watching the Million Man March behind bars in 1995. Jones marched around the prison yard with other inmates, committing to becoming a better father and better man. 

His effort began with reconnecting with his own son, helping others, and then making change in the communities that he comes from.

"I couldn't even come close to imagining any of this," admitted Jones, with tears in his eyes. "But when you get on the right path, the right people come into your life."

Jones didn't do it alone. He stands next to other leaders like J. Jondhi Harrell and others who also experienced the inner transformation necessary to create change. 

"None of us do this for acknowledgment or award," he said, "but knowing that I was selected as a GameChanger makes me feel like the work we do is not in vane — it's validation."

It's validation that Jones — and many others — are changing the game by reforming the system.

"We will not be neglected or silenced," he said.

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GameChangers is led by KYW Newsradio's community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg and recognizes 10 individuals or organizations that are making a positive impact on communities of color. For a full list of 2019's GameChangers, visit kywnewsradio.com/gamechangers.