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For ex-cons, no gain without pain

San Diego's Second Chance program helps former inmates shed habits learned behind bars. But the tough-love bluntness of its founder, Scott Silverman, takes some aback.

October 14, 2009|Tony Perry

SAN DIEGO — His style is a mix of Socrates and Don Rickles. His goal is to coax, bully, tease, demand and manipulate ex-convicts into getting ready to find a job.

One of the first chores is to get them to drop the habits they picked up behind bars: lying, faking, refusing to make eye contact, getting verbally aggressive when disrespected, thinking of the whole world as just another overbearing prison guard.

Scott Silverman is relentless. "You're doing that thing again, something between a smirk and what you call a smile," he tells one student.

He stops short another who begins a rambling explication of his crimes. "The point is: the boss doesn't want to hear this, folks," he says. Another tries to explain why he was late to class, something about being followed by a cop. Silverman rolls his eyes with a mocking look.

At the beginning of the three-week Second Chance program for ex-cons, students are taken aback by Silverman's bluntness. Some quit. Silverman, the program's founder and executive director, does not care. He boots out other students, telling them they are not ready to drop their loser ways.

At first the students -- most of them ex-drug addicts who used burglary, robbery or petty theft to support their habits -- rise to Silverman's taunts. By the end, those who stick it out realize the method behind the apparent madness.

"He's like a dentist without Novocain," says Dickson Phiri, 40, who has a past dotted with drugs and theft. "He's going to pull out that rotten tooth."

On one classroom wall are the dictums that Silverman and his staff try to drill into the students: Life Ain't Fair! It Ain't Never Gonna Be Fair! Eat It! Swallow It! Accept It!

"I have a certain philosophy of life, and it's 'tough love,' " said Silverman, 55, whose rise as a business executive and fall as an alcoholic, drug addict, rehab dropout and would-be suicide is chronicled in his autobiography, "Tell Me No, I Dare You."

In the book, Silverman tells of bumming around Europe as a drug addict, the emotional devastation of losing his younger brother to AIDS, and an early gun-toting job working for landlords who wanted drug addicts ousted for not paying rent. One night while forcing out deadbeats in a rough area of the city, he met a police captain with a social conscience. The captain later became chief and is now the mayor, Jerry Sanders. The two remain friends, and Sanders is an enthusiastic supporter of Second Chance.

One of Silverman's addictions was food. He once weighed more than 300 pounds but shed more than a hundred, and now presents a trim, authoritative image as he prowls the Second Chance classrooms, interrupting occasionally to grill the students.

"Addicts have many character traits, but patience is not one of them. I was never patient. I may be clean and sober now, but clean and sober does not mean clean and patient," he said. "There are a lot of pluses to impatience. It gets things done. To sit and wait is not part of my cell structure."

Begun 16 years ago with small donations, Second Chance has grown to an annual budget of $2.8 million -- $3.2 million next year -- derived from foundations, private donations and a contract with the San Diego County Probation Department.

One of the program's biggest boosters is Dr. Robert Ross, president and chief executive of the California Endowment, which funds healthcare projects. The endowment has allocated $1.4 million to Second Chance.

"We're very high on Second Chance," Ross said. "With nonprofits, they all do God's work, but you don't often get clear-eyed, individually evaluated results to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work."

A study by the Social and Behavioral Research Institute at Cal State San Marcos found that at the end of two years, 70% of Second Chance graduates had avoided returning to jail or prison -- more than double the state average for parolees.

The average wage for those finding work was $10.41 an hour, below the regional average but above minimum wage.

Tough love, of course, is not a new concept -- Silverman got the idea from a segment in 1996 on "60 Minutes" about a program in Harlem. Still, with nonprofits, Ross said, leadership is often more important than innovation.

Silverman uses the tough-love approach "better than anyone else," Ross said, adding, "You have a hyperkinetic Jewish guy surrounded by mostly brown and black ex-felons, and it works."

With California under federal court order to reduce its prison population by 40,000 in the next two years, Silverman and his staff feel it is time for their program to expand to other locales.

"Our prisons don't work," Silverman said. "They just give out degrees in advanced criminalism. I call them FUs -- Failure Universities."

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