Asa Sparkes was arrested when he was 22 years old.
"Police came behind me, and I wasn't really sweating it because it's just like, it's the cops," said Sparkes. "But they jumped out, freeze, freeze, freeze. It wasn't just like a routine stop it was like a, we need to get this guy."
The arrest was in Queens on November 18, 2008. A few days before that, Sparkes had allegedly carjacked a Mercedes at gunpoint. He was wanted for a string of other felony robberies, and ended up serving a 10-year sentence, in jail at Rikers Island while he awaited his trial, and then at Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York.
"The time was a big nightmare. It was terrible, it was everything bad you could think of," said Sparkes. "They're very viscous, they're very filthy, they're very violent. They're not fun."
In prison, Sparkes took up the hobby of reading. "I took the time to just learn and read and read and read. I read a lot. I read more books than I ever read in my whole life and then I'm ever gonna read. I probably get a book out in maybe a month right now. At that time I was reading books by the day."
And he also made a decision: "I was sure I was never going back to prison."
He was released in June, 2017. He was 31 years old, and had spent most of his adult life behind bars. Right away, he sought out The Fortune Society.
"I got out and I seen it and I said, this makes all the sense in the world and this is gonna help me get where I need to be," said Sparkes. "And I jumped right on it."
In addition to other reentry services, The Fortune Society offers job training for formerly-incarcerated people, in both general job readiness training and in a hard skills in a handful of industries.
Our Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) program provides individuals with the support to overcome personal obstacles, find success, and avoid future involvement with the justice system. Read lessons from three success stories https://t.co/q6iSPqlbK5 pic.twitter.com/SAEOun1PZ4— The Fortune Society (@thefortunesoc) February 5, 2018
"Fortune Society is a 50-year-old organization that works with individuals who are formally incarcerated, provides alternatives to incarceration, does a whole range of reentry services, everything from mental health to housing. We are advocates around criminal justice issues. We're both a social justice agency and a service agency," said JoAnne Page, President and CEO.
"When people come out of prison looking for a job, they face a whole host of obstacles," said Page. "What you look for when you're hiring is stability on a job and progressive increases in responsibility, but if you have had an interruption because of incarceration, that really hurts you in an employment interview."
The first part of Fortune Society's training program shows its participants how to address that interruption in interviews, how to prepare for and dress in interviews, and generally how to get ready to reenter the workplace.
The second part focuses on hard skills training. Sparkes took two separate hard skills trainings, one in green construction and the other in environmental remediation.
"He was very consistent throughout his time with my green building maintenance course. Very smart individual. Kept up with class materials really well. Good attendance," said Judy de la Cruz, a Training Coordinator.
"So when that class ended, he told me he was very interested in also taking my environmental remediation course, which I don't always give an opportunity to people to do both," said de la Cruz. "When I have very strong participants, I usually allow them to do both the trainings. He was also a very strong participant in that program as well."
In January 2018, Sparkes was hired to work on a green construction site in Harlem. he had been working in food service and temporary jobs throughout his time at Fortune Society, but now he was on a path towards a career.
"People need a hand sometimes. When you're coming out of a situation where you don't have housing, you don't have a job, you maybe don't have a lot of family. The world has changed around you since last you were around. Somebody has to help you navigate that so you don't drown in it," said de la Cruz. "It's not just good for you, but it's good for society as a whole. It's good for our communities if people coming back home have the opportunity to succeed and be contributing members of society who have things to do and places to be. That's the normalcy of life that everybody's looking for."
The significance of the opportunity wasn't lost on Sparkes.
"I done underwent not too pleasant situations and if you can't really find why you're in the situation, you didn't learn. If it was a small lesson, it's a big lesson. Everything you undergo is a learning process," said Sparkes. "Learn it, live by it, and that's your blessing."
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