The Reentry Project

How an Overbrook High grad went from jail time to a career in engineering

Paul Johnson talks about his time in the PowerCorps program and the motivation to get his life back on track

Paul Johnson, who found a career path in engineering after incarceration, says that one day he plans to run for mayor of Philadelphia.

Paul Johnson, who found a career path in engineering after incarceration, says that one day he plans to run for mayor of Philadelphia.

Peak Johnson/Billy Penn
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Correction appended.

Paul Johnson knows that it’s hard for people from the outside looking in to understand his story and his struggles. His life, he said, was never straightforward.

Johnson, 26, attended and graduated from Overbrook high school and took a few college courses at the Community College of Philadelphia before dropping out. He soon took a path that led him to spending time in and out of jail before being sentenced to six months for missing court dates due to driving under the influence. Once released, he had trouble securing a job.

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No one really wanted to take the chance of hiring someone with a record, and he received a lot of rejections from employers after handing in his applications.

Then his probation officer connected him to the PowerCorps program through the Philadelphia Water Department, where Johnson learned about the history and use of Green Stormwater Infrastructure, and was able to do work that included basic maintenance on drains, landscape and infrastructure work. He was also able to meet people with similar backgrounds as his.

Johnson spent six months in the program, graduated and was hired by AKRF, an environmental engineering and consulting company, where he became a Green Infrastructure Maintenance Technician.

Billy Penn was able to catch up with Johnson and talk about his time spent in jail, his progression through the PowerCorps program and his continuing drive to better himself.

Paul Johnson stands outside the Penn Mutual Towers at One Washington Square, where the AKRF offices are located.

Paul Johnson stands outside the Penn Mutual Towers at One Washington Square, where the AKRF offices are located.

Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Was it a challenge reentering society after the six months?

Personally for me, I’m always a step up to the challenge kind of guy. I don’t like to just do something, I like to do something very well, be the best or one of the best that did it. So when I went to the program, after the six months [in PowerCorps], I was given a promotion to come back as the assistant crew leader. So once they did that and told me that I was going to help mentor the next group of guys, I took that personally.

I wanted to give them what the program was giving me. Get them ready, get their minds set differently, ‘cause it’s all about mindset when you’re going into jail and coming out of jail and trying to reenter society. It’s a mindset, you can’t have the same mindset that you had going in or you’re just going to go back in.

What was it like applying for jobs when you were released?

Basically, a whole lot of denial. “No, we can’t hire you, we’re not hiring at this time.” After a sign is hung up, we’re hiring, but when you go and fill out an application, we’re not hiring. No one ever comes up to tell you we’re not hiring because of your record, except for Uber. I signed up for Uber and they took a background check on me. They don’t know about my progression in the last three years, so they just went off with what they saw there.

How were you feeling at that time? Was it demoralizing?

I mean, before I went to jail, I didn’t live the most straight forward arrow life, but I tried to at points, and even then I had a record that always got me. It was demoralizing, because I’m trying to stop doing things that I’m not supposed to be doing and start doing the things I’m supposed to, but I kept getting shut down. So that was demoralizing, but up to that point, I never spent that much time in jail. So when I came out, I was just determined to not go back in there.

At AKRF, Johnson works as a Green Infrastructure Maintenance Technician.

At AKRF, Johnson works as a Green Infrastructure Maintenance Technician.

Peak Johnson/Billy Penn

Were there any other challenges that you encountered while in jail?

I was living with my girlfriend at the time and she didn’t have any income, that was a challenge. She had to move in with my mom and that was pretty much it. I really didn’t have much going on then and it wasn’t like I was getting fired from a job or anything, so that was my only challenge. Making sure my girlfriend was okay, making sure my mom knew I was okay, basically just being removed from life as you know it was a challenge, period. So I’m in a cell most of the day, not being able to move, getting out for two or three hours. And then the fact that I don’t want to adjust, I didn’t want to adjust to being there and so that’s a challenge too. It’s a big mental thing, too.

Like I was  saying before, I take challenges head on. Once I got into the GSI stuff, coming from where I come from and where most of us come from… I know it’s hard for people from the outside looking in to understand, but you really feel like there are not that many options as there really is. Like, there are a million things that you can do with your life, but we only see about five or six. Music, sports, entertainment, drugs and then they come out with the trade schools, nursing or dental assistant.

That’s like everybody from where I am from, they’re trying to do two of those things. I live in North Philly now, the Strawberry Mansion section, these are the goals. They don’t know doctor — I mean they know these things, but they don’t think they can do it, they don’t think they can go to school for eight, nine or 10 years and become a doctor.

What do you think it is that leads to that overall outlook?

We live in a money first society, basically. Television, entertainment basically. You ever watched the film Idiocracy? That’s where we are heading to now. But basically, when you look on the TV and you see a man of color or woman of color, what are they? Playing a sport, they’re doing some type of entertainment, some type of music, or going to jail. Or coming out of jail or going to court. You might see a couple in a positive light, but when you look at the news and you see presidents and governors and people who do different things, they’re not colored; 90 percent of the time, they’re not colored. They’re of a color that has been somewhat I’m going to say ‘faded out,’ and that’s all you see.

What did you do during your time at PowerCorps?

Basically, when I got into the program it was more of a mutual relationship, they helped me, but at the same time by them helping me and me doing what they asked me to do, I’m helping them. At the beginning, we were getting the word out and speaking at a lot of events. I definitely learned a lot there and it was more about taking what was already inside of me and bringing it out, more so than like starting from scratch and trying to build a masterpiece.

So going in, they have the learning sessions where they are teaching us the history of GSI and stuff like that and I’m just taking it all in. During the first week, everybody was falling asleep. It was two weeks of [Pre-Service Orientation], but once the mentors we had were like, the more you listen the more you take in, that still sits with me to this day. That’s what helped me to get where I am now, I paid attention.

Paul Johnson works from his office at AKRF, an environmental engineering and consulting company.

Paul Johnson works from his office at AKRF, an environmental engineering and consulting company.

Peak Johnson/Billy Penn.

Once you were allowed into the field, what was some of the work that you had to do?

We had the two weeks of PSO and then that’s when we met Alex [Warwood, Apprenticeship and Workforce Development Director Philadelphia Water Department]. And then we started going out into the field just to examine some of these sites and go further into the verbal training. Then, once we went to a couple of sites, I think two or three days in a row, that’s when we got to work. Basically doing landscape work, infrastructure work that the water department put into place to mitigate storm water flow. So, we went out there, we clean them, we make sure that there is no trash, no debris, no cut down plants clogging the drain, stuff like that.

But once we started getting to work, my crew leader gave us all specific jobs to do with the crew. It was a crew full of knuckle heads, people coming into the same situation I was coming out of. And about three or four out of the 10 of us actually came in every single day and worked every single day and did what we had to do, and I kind of lead that. Not a lot of people were motivated and I just tried to motivate people and keep things going. We all worked as a team, if the goal gets done then we all look good.

Do you feel like it was any pressure to slip back in? I mean at that point you had already said you were motivated, but before you reached that point, what did you feel was holding you back?

Not wanting to move forward. At that point, I was content and comfortable where I was at. I spent the longest time I ever had behind bars, it hit me, like I don’t want to be here. I love my freedom, I need to get out and do what I’m supposed to do.

How’s the college experience going for you?

I went to college as soon as I graduated high school. It wasn’t the time. I had 12 classes, I think I passed three of them and the others I didn’t do well in. I graduated high school when I was 17, I was young and I didn’t like school anyway. I went to school because my mom told me I had to go to school and then society tells you you have to go to school.

Like, it’s not much you can do with an associates anymore. And plus, I didn’t know about GSI, I didn’t know about the field, so once I got into the field and learned that I could design these infrastructures and stuff like that, I’m like, “I like this.”

I had to go to school for a lot of BS and now I have the opportunity to go to school for [engineering], something that I like and something I’m actually interested in. So it was no brainer for what I was actually going to school for.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify Johnson’s work with GSI technology within the Water Department — different from the GIS mapping technology he uses at his current job.

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