The Reentry Project

After 10 years in and out of jail, how a West Philly father made it back to college

What kept Anthony Hirschbuhl from succeeding and how he finally ‘made it through.’

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Peak Johnson
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Anthony Hirschbuhl was first arrested when he was 16 for possession of marijuana. He then spent more than a decade in and out of correctional facilities for various parole violations. Now 28, Hirschbuhl is involved with the Goldring Reentry Initiative, a program within the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. He connected with GRI during one of his stints in jail.

Hirschbuhl volunteers with the program, usually assisting with their reentry services in North Philadelphia. He’s also involved with the Reentry Think Tank, which connects returning citizens to artists and activists to create more support for the formerly incarcerated.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Hirschbuhl — from dropping out of school to missing the birth of a child to thoughts of suicide. While he still faces some challenges, he feels as if he has more of a reason to live.

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“Once I went back to jail a couple of times, it’s almost like people painted you out [of the picture],” Hirschbuhl said. “This is just going to be you, so you’re not worth investing in. My family was still distant, because I kept fucking up and my mom agreed with the system.”

Hirschbuhl started talking to some of his peers — reading and writing with them — hoping to show them a better way of coping with their situations, hoping his story doesn’t end up becoming theirs.

‘There was no one looking out for the students’

As a teenager, Hirschbuhl spent 10 months at the George Junior Republic institution in Western Pennsylvania for at-risk youth, where he felt like a complete outsider. Prior to being sent there, he was six months into West Catholic High School on an academic scholarship. Then he was caught one day after school by police for possession of a nickel’s worth of weed.

After his time at George Junior Republic, Hirschbuhl spent 14 months at Glen Mills School — a residential education facility for juveniles in Delaware County. Both his mother and parole officer thought it would be a good idea for him to attend the facility after a fight at his neighborhood school, Robert Lamberton.

At 16 years old, Hirschbuhl struggled with following the rigid rules at Glen Mills. There was a certain way, he explained, students had to look at the staff — you had to look them directly in the eyes when they were speaking to you. Hirschbuhl said if he were to dart his eyes or grab his pockets, anything out of the ordinary, the staff could physically restrain him.

Students were allowed to restrain and report on their peers, as well. It was a good way to receive a home pass to visit family.

“There was never an upper staff that would ask us how we were doing, were we being treated ok,” Hirschbuhl said. “There was no one looking out for the students, there was only staff. Say seven new people walk into the door — I have to enforce the rules, not the staff. If you have your shirt untucked, I tell you to tuck it and if you [ignore] me, I’ll bring you to staff.”

Students were not allowed to shake hands with each other, he added. Or have any type of physical contact, for that matter. There was no one he felt he could confide in, because there was no one he could trust.

Hirschbuhl was involved in extracurricular activities at Glen Mills. He ran track and was able to land a spot on the football team. He was also able to obtain his GED and take his ACT, which propelled him forward.

In February 2007, then 18, Hirschbuhl returned from Glen Mills ready for a fresh start. However, within two months, he got arrested for possession of a firearm. Hirschbuhl spent two days in jail until he was able to get bailed out. He was given five years’ probation.

A family member, Hirschbuhl said, gave him the gun for $200. He was walking home one night after taking his girlfriend home when he saw a dark car he thought was following him. Hirschbuhl said he decided to run. It turned out to be the police, who chased him, searched him and arrested him for possession of a firearm.

“I took it when I felt like I needed it,” Hirschbuhl said of carrying a gun while on probation. “To let kids in the neighborhood know I had it so they wouldn’t mess with me.”

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Peak Johnson

A way out

Around the time of that arrest, Hirschbuhl was accepted to both Drexel University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He decided on IUP, because it would not be too far from his brother, who was serving a five- to 10-year sentence at Pine Grove correctional facility for conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

“When I went to college, I was balancing my money, going to see my brother and keeping up with classes,” Hirschbuhl said. “I didn’t have an adviser or anyone telling me what to do, so I was trying to figure it all out. But I was still passing and I ended up missing a court date for the gun in Philly.”

While at IUP, Hirschbuhl was walking on campus when he was stopped by police. They ran his name and because of a bench warrant he had for missing the court date in Philly, arrested him. He sat in Indiana County jail for two weeks before he was transferred back to Philly.

Hirschbuhl was released and returned to campus, but was arrested for possession of marijuana during finals week at IUP. Those charges were dropped once Hirschbuhl pleaded out to six months probation.

‘Jail is an identity now’

Hirschbuhl quit IUP in 2008 and became a father later that year to a baby boy. He was then arrested again, that time for failing a urine test. Already serving multiple years on probation for previous charges, Hirschbuhl’s probation was revoked.

His judge resentenced him to up to two years in county jail, followed by four years probation. While still serving his time in the county jail, Hirschbuhl became a father once more, this time to a baby girl.

“I’ve been to jail to the point that it’s an identity now,” Hirschbuhl said. “I’m this kind of person now, I’m the opposite of the law, I’m like a bad guy.

“Everyone agreed with it,” he continued. “Everyone went along with it. People were like, ‘You keeping smoking weed on your probation, you keep not seeing your PO.’ It was like, I deserved it because I kept messing up.”

There were times, Hirschbuhl said, that he didn’t want to live anymore. He began having suicidal thoughts but persevered by thinking about his kids and how he didn’t want them growing up without him.

Though people could not see it, Hirschbuhl said he was trying to stay out of trouble. In 2015 Hirschbuhl checked himself into a drug treatment program, He was in and out of jail, as more sentences or charges were added, either for failing urine tests or missing an appointment with his parole officer.

Most recently, Hirschbuhl was issued a 15-month sentence for missing an appointment with his parole officer. It was reduced and he was able to get early parole in June of last year. That’s when things started to change.

Hirschbuhl reconnected with GRI when he came home, doing a few follow-up appointments with the program that led to volunteering. GRI, Hirschbuhl said, helped him look at things a lot differently.

“Even when I was in jail and started to get through what I was getting through, I started to see things for what they were this time,” Hirschbuhl said. “It was a bunch of people my age that weren’t in there for violence, I’m looking around and most of these people were like me.

“When I came home,” he continued, “I felt like I didn’t have any ties to anybody or any responsibility to anyone. I didn’t have to act tough or act any kind of way.”

Hirschbuhl recently started taking classes at the Community College of Philadelphia, majoring in behavioral health, though he said he may switch to psychology. He plans on transferring to Temple University.

“I ended up going from this whole life of being in jail and cast away from society, to being in the Public Defender’s Association on the top floor in a meeting with all their heads and speaking at the Federal Detention Center,” Hirschbuhl said of his time with the Reentry Think Tank. “I never spoke in my life. I just had a whole different vibe when I came home. I was happy to be out here, I was happy about life. I was happy that I made it through.”