About halfway through our rollicking, genuinely enjoyable interview, I asked Warwick Williams to wind back a minute. I need him to repeat what he just said. He just told me he is grateful that he spent eight years in prison.
“Yes,” he laughs. I should add that he didn’t say prison—the word he uses today in his new career in social services is, “Justice Involvement.” After serving his time he knew he wanted to start a better life, but he didn’t know how. Being incarcerated gave him limited career options, so he went looking for assistance.
“It changed me as a person and changed me for the better,” he says now. “It exposed me to social services, a field I never thought I would be so drawn to.” Probably because he had previously been working in finance.
“I really didn’t want to go away for eight years. But it made me that much more different, that much more focused and it changed me for the better.”
Let’s start from the beginning: Williams grew up in the South Bronx and after college in the ’80s he started a nice career as a retail broker licensed to sell securities. He landed a tidy job out in California and sent 10 years happily on the phone as a respectable finance man. Then he hit what he calls “a rough patch.”
Cut to him leaving prison eight years later. His driver’s license expired years ago; his taxes are a mess and accruing fees by the minute. As a convicted felon he can no longer work in finance. He needs a job of any kind. And he has this crazy idea that he wants to go to graduate school.
In 2009 a friend told him about a program called Exodus. At the end of the program you get a voucher for a suit with a place called Career Gear. The sartorial appeal was undeniable.
“They got my resume ready and they trained me in interviews,” he recalls. “But the real carrot for that particular thing was you got a brand-new suit. That really started me off in a good way. I had a brand-new nice-looking suit, shirt, tie, everything.”
“At that time they gave out Brooks Brothers Suits. At the fitting they asked me if I wanted to participate in the Career Development Series. I probably stayed with them for two years and wound up getting a job a month after picking up the suit.”
“I started out doing case manager work and wound up going back to graduate school in 2011 and got my MSW,” says Williams, who now lives in Yonkers, New York, with the Hudson River right outside. “And now I lead another program for people with Justice Involvement.”
As for that Brooks Brothers suit? “I wound up donating that to someone who needed one for a job interview and he found employment right away.”
Even after years in finance, Williams enjoyed the programs that Career Gear offered. “It’s very good to be refreshed,” he explains. “We had financial management talks about savings, credit, investments. Interest, loans. How to open a checking account. How to repair your credit if you have problems. Health, diets, nutrition. [Things] that anyone can utilize.”
But that’s not the biggest upside. “The benefit is being around people who are looking to move themselves forward,” Williams notes. Then he quotes from Colin Powell’s My American Journey: “Be careful where you stop to inquire for directions along the road of life. Wise is the person who fortifies his life with the right friendships. If you run with wolves, you will learn how to howl. But, if you associate with eagles, you will learn how to soar to great heights.”
Six years later, Williams keeps coming back to Career Gear. Only now he sits on their Board of Directors. “It’s a funny thing about people who go through their own trials and tribulations,” he observes. “Once they have gone past those experiences and righted their own ships, they have a tendency to reach back and help others. I don’t know if that was necessarily the goal. But that’s one of the results.”
Still, though, is that worth going to prison for?
“Right now there is a national debate about cannabis.” Note that Williams, a man of carefully selected words, chooses to discuss the plant “cannabis” and not the drug “marijuana.” “When I got in trouble, if it happened today,I probably wouldn’t have the same problem. Things change over 15 years.” Meaning, with today’s drug laws, Williams probably would not have done eight years before finding his new career.
“I really didn’t want to go away for eight years,” he says. “[But] it made me that much more different, that much more focused and it changed me for the better.”
“Justice Involvement is [a term applied to] someone who has been in the criminal justice system,” Williams explains. “Felon, convict, incarceration. Youthful offenses.” He likens the change in suit attire to the change in attitudes when we use these words. He knows that when people see the word “felon” they can’t see past it. And that can be hard on people looking to rebuild their lives.
“The way other people look at them [affects] the opportunities presented to them,” he says. “So we present these men and women to colleges and business [in a way] that isn’t framed by convictions or felonies or misdemeanors. There’s no better feeling when you’re really able to help someone move forward. And none of that would have occurred if I hadn’t been incarcerated.”
Now Williams regularly gets stopped by people who are almost unrecognizable from the time he first mentored them. But Williams doesn’t think of them that way, because when he meets a person he never sees a felon or a failure or a thug. He sees the people they are capable of becoming with the right help.
“At the end of the day it’s not the negative experiences that define a person,” he concludes. “It’s how an individual deals with those experiences. You know how they say some people win the lotto and it ruins their life? Same things applies to negative experiences. It forged me into a stronger person.”
And with those words, I finally begin to understand what Williams means about eight years of justice involvement.
Join thousands of men and women who are dressing up for a good cause. Go formal with Made Man and Career Gear on Friday, October 9th to help empower men in need with resources, training and suits they can use to rejoin the workforce. Because for every photo posted to Instagram or Twitter and tagged #FormalFriday, we’ll donate a dollar to Career Gear. Learn more at mademan.com/formal-friday.