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September 1, 2014, 7:56 pm

Men from diverse faiths unite, support ex-offenders

A Rastafarian, a Sunni Muslim and a member of the Nation of Islam, came together last year to form a new local support and advocacy organization for ex-offenders. The name of the organization is Comprehensive Center for the Formerly Incarcerated, and all three of its founders are ex-offenders.

In the summer of 2011, Jondi Harrell teamed up with two friends, Al Flowers and Rashid Salahud-Din, to form CCFI. Flowers and Salahud-Din met as students attending Community College of Philadelphia. Harrell met Flowers while they both were incarcerated.

“Our vision is to create a network of peer support for persons who were in prison,” said J. Jondhi Harrell, CEO of Comprehensive Center for the Formerly Incarcerated. “Many times, the effects of being incarcerated are long lasting … we welcome (ex-offenders) into our circle.”

Harrell subscribes to Rastafari, “An African tradition of universal principals that are found in many religions, it has a type of an Afro-centric bent. Rastafari is more of a culture than a religion.” According to Harrell, emphasis is placed on healthy eating, vegetable, fruit and fresh water. Rastafari was popularized in Jamaica, in the 1930s. God is referred to as Jah.

CCFI, a nonprofit organization committed to supporting the positive advancement of formerly incarcerated persons as they transition back into the society. Harrell said, “We especially want to get people to register to vote and become a political voting bloc and a force in the city, in determining who represents us.”

Alfred Flowers is a co-founder of CCFI, and he subscribes to the Nation of Islam, a highly Westernized version of Islam made popular by its founder, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. “I’m originally from a very religious background; I grew up in the church, so I know about being religious-spiritual.” Flowers received some of his indoctrination to NOI, while incarcerated in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Actually, that’s where I started attending the Temple on Reclamation,” Flowers said. And then throughout my incarceration, I became more into the faith, since I’ve been out, now, for the last 10 years or so, I have been a follower of the Nation of Islam.” Professionally, Flowers admits that his Muslim faith has made him a more disciplined and productive man.

Not only do Harrell, Flowers and Salahud-Din work well together as agency professionals, they exemplify their unity outside CCFI as an agency coalition supporter of Decarcerate PA, a grassroots coalition of approximately 80 ex-offender service providers. Decarcerate PA works to maximize public health and safety by putting a halt to the state’s bulging prison system.

Last weekend, CCFI helped promote a citywide ex-offenders picnic event that Decarcerate PA sponsored. The picnic drew a throng of formerly incarcerated residents at McCreesh Recreation Center, on Regent Street, in Southwest Philadelphia. Ex-offenders were invited to attend this fun event to receive important resource information on services, existing agencies and political advocacy that deal specifically with the issues ex-offenders must face every day.

Decarcerate PA has a three-prong advocacy campaign:

1. Stop the Construction of New Prisons in Pennsylvania

2. Decarcerate the Existing Prisons

3. Reinvest in the Community

“Incarceration isn’t really a solution to violence, but really, in a lot of cases makes things worse in communities that are already in crisis,” said Sarah Morris, a founding member of Decarcerate PA and a Coordinator of the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project. Morris was one of the key organizers of the picnic event.

According to a 2009 Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency report, at least 7,270 youth/young adults (age 24 and younger) were incarcerated in Pennsylvania.

“Instead of addressing why young people are engaging in things that get them locked up, we just locked them up and think that that’s a solution … we need to rethink how we use incarceration in this country,” said Morris, who is vehemently against incarcerating youth in adult prisons. The Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project is located at 2231 North Broad St., 2nd Floor, Philadelphia, PA; phone: 267-571-9277; www.yasproject.com.

Atiba Kwesi (aka Jesse Johnson Jr.), is co-founder and executive director of …And Justice for All. Kwesi was also one of the key event organizers on hand at the picnic. AJFA is an organization that strives to educate, inform and empower, as well as advocate action in relation to social policy, criminal justice and prison-related issues.

“We advocate on behalf of the prisoners and their families; we work with youth — we have a rites of passage program for boys — we just started a rites of passage program for young women; we do voter education and voter advocacy … your vote is a tool and a weapon.” For more information about AJFA, phone: 215-880-4117; or www.ajforall.com.

For more information about the Comprehensive Center for the Formerly Incarcerated, phone: (office) 215-305-8793 or (cell) 215-791-0645. Or visit the website, www.ccfiphilly.org.