Professor Ricky Jones knows best
Cyril Josh Barker | 10/1/2015, 1:29 p.m.
Amsterdam News Staff
Professor Ricky Jones is receiving the Citizens Against Recidivism Award later this month. However, some might be surprised to know that he served 13 years behind bars.
Jones is director of the Harlem Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization that helps people find affordable housing, assists ex-offenders transition back into society and operates a thrift shop.
The Harlem Restoration Project is home to the Harlem Think Tank, which holds weekly discussions for people who are transitioning from prison.
He’s also host of his own radio show, “Unlocked,” on WHCR 90.3 FM and discusses issues surrounding prison conditions, solitary confinement and raising the age for life sentences. To top it off, Jones is a college professor with two master’s degrees teaching psychology and philosophy at Mercy College.
But Jones’ life today is far cry from the life he lived when he was younger and growing up in South Jamaica, Queens, which led him to incarceration.
“Coming from a high-poverty neighborhood, I made some bad decisions,” he said. “I went to prison for manslaughter when I was 19 and got out at 33.”
While in prison, Jones earned his GED and associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He earned a second master’s degree after he was released.
Today he’s on a mission to not only provide a path for formerly incarcerated individuals but also change the community’s perception about people who have served time.
Jones is an advocate for prisoner rights. He is on the board of directors for the Correctional Association of New York State. The nonprofit serves as a monitor to make sure prison conditions are suitable. The team goes into facilities and reports what they observe to the Legislature.
“A lot of the men and women who went to prison are coming out, and they want to do something with their lives,” he said. “There should be more laws against discrimination for people who have been formerly incarcerated.”
Among other issues Jones is passionate about is raising the age for life sentences. New York and North Carolina are currently the only two states that allow 16-year-olds to be sentenced to life.
He also wants to see the release of the prison’s aging population. He said numerous inmates in their 70s and 80s are serving long sentences as a result of harsh drugs laws. In some cases, laws for offenses have changed.
“Once you turn 50, you age two times faster in prison than you would on the outside,” he said. “There are a lot of senior inmates who need medical care and aren’t getting it.”
Solitary confinement is also on his agenda. He calls the practice cruel and unusual punishment.
“There are people who are serving life sentences in solitary confinement,” said Jones. “Others spend years in solitary, and they are released back into society without proper transition. It can be very overwhelming.”
Recent attention on conditions at Rikers Island and other facilities has kept Jones busy as he moves to change things. However, the work, he said, is worth it, so people who are released from prison can follow in his footsteps.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s rewarding when I get to implement the vision,” he said.