On a rainy Wednesday night, six young ex-convicts sit in the basement of an East Harlem storefront, eating slices of pepperoni and sausage pizza. Except for the sounds of chewing, the room is silent, the young men shifting in their chairs and avoiding eye contact until Mark Goldsmith walks in, takes a seat beneath a poster of Muhammed Ali and begins his seminar: “How to be Successful in School and Work.”
Goldsmith, known here as Mr. G., introduces a hypothetical situation: “There’s a hot party in Brooklyn tonight, best-looking women in town, you’re on the guest list. I’ll pick you up outside Yankee stadium at 10:30,” Goldsmith says. The guys who have heard this one before smile; the ones who haven’t look at the floor.
“Now, you know what I have in my car. I don’t go anywhere without a weapon. Never. I don’t go anywhere without some drugs that I can sell,” he says. The guys chuckle. “But this is the hottest party of the year and you’re on the guest list. So are you coming with me or what?”
“Hell yeah,” says the youngest man.
Goldsmith groans. “You don’t want to miss the party, but you ain’t going in my car,” he says. “What happens if we go one block and I got a blinking light and the cop pulls us over? Guess what, we’re going to Rikers.”
Goldsmith later says he’s sick of hearing people complain about being unlucky or tricked into bad situations. “The idea that they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time is getting tiresome,” he says. “It’s bullshit.”
A retired cosmetics executive, Goldsmith, who is 75, spends most of his time with ex-convicts. After 35 years in business, he switched to working with and for people with whom he ostensibly has little in common: poor young men with damaged families, criminal records and no plans for the future.
Six years ago he founded Getting Out and Staying Out, a non-profit program working to keep New York City’s young men out of prison for good. Recidivism rates — the proportion of people who return to prison within three years of their release – hovers above 60 percent nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. In New York City, reports the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, the rate is about half that. Recidivism for men enrolled in what’s informally called GOSO, Goldsmith says, stays in the range of 15 to 17 percent.
Sitting in his East Harlem office across the street from a dollar store, Goldsmith still looks dressed for Wall Street: pressed navy slacks and jacket, crisp collared shirt, red silk tie. He’s a community advocate trapped in a marketing executive’s wardrobe. When he’s in his element—speaking to ex-cons from Rikers Island about succeeding in school and work—he curses like a D-list celebrity. He’s not shy about saying he believes drugs should be legalized. “I deal with reality,” he often says.
His involvement began in 2002 when Goldsmith, already retired, agreed to participate in a Principal for a Day program organized by the non-profit group Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning, or PENCIL.
Always looking for a challenge, Goldsmith asked to be assigned to a struggling school. “I was a bit of a wise guy,” he admits. “I thought I was going to get East New York or South Bronx, but I ended up getting Rikers Island. So off to Rikers Island I went,” he goes on, “and I had a terrific day.”
Goldsmith requested a return to Rikers the next year, then founded GOSO in 2004, using a Starbucks at 39th and Madison as his office for almost two years before moving to this storefront on 116th Street in East Harlem.
His wife, Arlene, founded and directs New Alternatives for Children, which supports medically fragile children and their families, so Goldsmith knew what a non-profit needed. Development was slow and he wasn’t used to limited funding, but he was determined to make GOSO a success because he saw a little of himself in the Rikers inmates.
“When I was 18, 19 and 20, I didn’t have a clue,” he recalls. “All my friends were finishing four-year schools and going off to professional schools” while he dropped out of Penn State and joined the Navy for two years, then arrived in New York harbor and decided he’d found home. “I know what it’s like to be looked at as a truant or a troublemaker versus someone who is performing,” he says.
He finished his undergraduate work at New York University and earned an MBA from Baruch College before landing a job with Pfizer, the pharmaceutical firm.
He and Arlene, married for 50 years now, had twins—a boy and a girl—in 1967. She says Goldsmith was a great father, something that informs the way he runs GOSO now. “I think he’s translated that fatherhood experience into helping these young guys who’ve never had a father figure,” she says.
Goldsmith says many of the Rikers guys do look at him like a father, or grandfather. “When they leave this office at night, they’ll say, ‘Home safe, Mr. G,’ and they mean it,” he says. “They hope I don’t get shot, because where they’re going they could get shot.”
GOSO begins its work while inmates are still in Rikers or an upstate prison. Mentors visit or correspond with them frequently, encouraging them to focus on school and on developing a plan for when they’re released. Participants who excel at academics receive full scholarships to Ohio University’s College Program for the Incarcerated; for inmates who don’t receive a degree before they leave prison, the first goal is to obtain a GED, then find a job.
But while education and employment are important parts of the program, as in many others across the country, GOSO also helps participants with such basic life skills as building healthy relationships and managing stress. On the first day participants walk into the office, sometimes just hours after leaving Rikers, they sit down with a mentor and create a new resume, find housing and make appointments for psychological and health services.
GOSO works with men ages 16 to 24. They’re required to complete a full curriculum of seminars, including Goldsmith’s success seminar and others focusing on financial planning, interviewing skills, legal rights, self marketing and fatherhood. The successful businesspeople Goldsmith has recruited for the board of directors also serve as mentors and help participants find work.
Even after six years—during which the program moved to a real office, hired six employees, helped more than 3,000 inmates and raised an annual budget of about $1 million from grants, donations and prizes—Goldsmith still organizes nearly every aspect of GOSO. He even makes the “success bags” each participant receives on his first day: alarm clock, notebooks, pencils, condoms and a monthly Metro card.
Sara Hobel, executive director of the Horticultural Society of New York, hired four GOSO participants last year to join the society’s “Green Team” of 40, which builds and maintains gardens and plantings for non-profit organizations across the five boroughs.
“It was great,” she says of the experience. “In fact, two of the guys were some of our absolute best workers.” She’s looking forward to hiring more GOSO grads when the society’s projects pick up again in the spring.
The Horticultural Society has worked with Rikers inmates before on the island’s large garden, but Hobel says GOSO offers something unique. “The one thing about repeat offenders, and young offenders in particular, is that there is no one answer. There are so many layers when you look at why are you there, and how did you get to this place, and how are we going to get you out,” she says. Unlike “a lot of cookie-cutter, well-intentioned programs out there,” GOSO tries to customize its assistance to each incarcerated or released man.
The guys eating pizza in the basement are lucky and they know it. GOSO is an exclusive program that only enrolls several hundred inmates each year as compared to the usual thousands at other reentry programs. But GOSO is important, says JoAnne Page, president and CEO of the Fortune Society, one of the nation’s more prominent reentry programs, serving around 3,000 prisoners annually.
“While our programs have helped tens of thousands of men and women stay out of prison and find a new, crime-free path, there is still a pressing and growing need for more services,” Page says. “Getting Out and Staying Out is part of the non-profit community helping to fill this need.”
At Rikers, Goldsmith says, “a big question always comes up: Why am I doing this? They’re very suspect. Why aren’t I out driving a Rolls-Royce and playing golf?” he says. “They’re very concerned about why I am spending my time with them. Deep down they consider themselves worthless and stupid, which I know they are neither.”
But it’s still a tough road. In the GOSO basement, the guys are discussing their talents and where their strengths could take them professionally, listing interests in writing, math, athletics and computers. One participant who has been with GOSO for several years is training to become a paramedic; another is interested in songwriting.
When Goldsmith asks the group to think of three people in their lives who are supportive, most of them can hardly come up with one or two. Several look at Goldsmith shyly and say, “You.”
This isn’t a surprise. The family is often the main problem, Goldsmith says, and most of these young men have had multiple relatives serving prison terms.
“Going to jail is something they are aware of the day they become aware of society. Some of them fully expect from the get-go to end up there,” he says, frowning. “There’s a combination of ending up there and not living a long life, which means they aren’t future-oriented.”
One of the older and quieter guys at the seminar says this is only his second time at the office, but that he’s been a part of the program for his five years on Rikers. This was his first seminar, and he loved it.
“He’s cool as shit,” he says of Goldsmith. “I didn’t know he cursed that much. Makes him more down to earth.”
After the seminar, the men say goodbye and Goldsmith rushes to pack up and leave in time to get to a dinner party. As he flutters around the room, one man returns to tell Goldsmith he thinks he lost his Metro card.
“How much is it to get on the subway these days? I don’t even know,” Goldsmith says.
“Four-fifty for both ways,” the man replies.
“Four-fifty?” Goldsmith‘s eyes widen. He reaches into his wallet and pulls out a five.
“Thanks, Mr. G.,” the young man says, pocketing the bill as he walks out into the rain. “Home safe.”