News+Opinion » Will Moredock

John Knott and Noisette Co. earn points for compassion

Doing Well by Doing Good

by

comment

The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda to protect corporate power from democracy. —Alex Carey, social scientist

Whenever high-rolling capitalists don the wings and halos of philanthropists, my bullshit detector goes off like a fire alarm. And for good reason. Modern advertising is full of messages of "corporate responsibility" and "corporate stewardship."

For years, oil companies and American automakers have painted themselves green for our amusement. Right now you can see ads running on TV, sponsored by the coal industry, touting the benefits of "clean coal" as the solution to America's energy crisis. And the major oil companies have doubled and tripled their ad budgets in recent months to run messages on TV and in major newspapers warning of the dangers to small investors if Congress passes a windfall profits tax on oil companies.

Misleading the public has become a major corporate function in recent decades, so I was naturally skeptical when I learned about a joint venture between the Lowcountry Civic Justice Corps (LCJC) and the Noisette Company to rehabilitate ex-offenders and give them a new start.

You have probably heard of the Noisette Company, created by visionary urban planner John Knott to revitalize hundreds of acres on the old Charleston Naval Base and create a waterfront park and urban preserve, as well as thousands of new homes, shops, and offices in North Charleston. In its seven-year history, the Noisette Company has been involved in some questionable financial arrangements. Knott and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey have also had a serious personality conflict. Now I have learned that Knott and Noisette are in the business of turning ex-offenders into citizens.

Yes, I was skeptical and I am not yet completely convinced that Mr. Knott is on the side of the angels, but after talking with him and others involved in this venture, I am willing to give them a chance to show what they can do.

One thing is certain: What we have been doing with addicts, former inmates, and others is not working. We are essentially throwing them away, consigning them to a lifetime of crime, addiction, and living on the margins of society.

South Carolina has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation — and one of the highest recidivism rates. The traditional way of dealing with bad actors in this state is to keep locking them up until they are too old to be a threat to society. It makes politicians look tough on crime; it helps citizens feel secure. But the cost of building ever more prisons and maintaining a huge criminal justice system is enormous.

There is a better way. Since 1971, the Delancey Street Foundation of San Francisco has taken the outcasts of society — ex-cons, drug addicts, and alcoholics — and turned them into productive citizens through a rigorous program of work, personal responsibility, and self-respect. Delancey Street programs have been replicated in other cities around the country.

Two years ago, LCJC and the S.C. Department of Corrections were casting about for a solution to the crime and unemployment that plague the North Charleston area. They hit upon the Delancey Street Foundation model and created their clone, S.C. STRONG (Sustaining, Teaching, Rebuilding Our New Generation). They then went to the Noisette Foundation, the 501 (c) 3 nonprofit created by Knott as part of his vision for North Charleston.

"We affect our social, environmental, and economic community in everything we do," Knott told me last week. "That gives us a great responsibility to help bring these people back into society."

The Noisette Foundation has leased three buildings to S.C. STRONG for a dollar a year. At these facilities, selected clients of the program live, work, and receive job training, and academic and life skills education.

In a city that desperately needs construction workers, these men are being trained in the building trades. For many, it's the first time they have ever had a marketable skill.

Is it working? Last Friday, the Lowcountry Civic Justice Corps graduated its third class of 12 students at Sterrett Hall on the former Charleston Naval Base. Charleston County Councilman Henry Darby was keynote speaker for the occasion.

Among the first two classes to graduate, the recidivism rate is 15 percent or less. Statewide, the recidivism rate is 60 percent to 70 percent.

Will these 12 graduates use the opportunity to start a new and productive life? It will take time to know how they and the S.C. STRONG program are doing, so I will withhold judgment until we all know more. But this much is already clear: Their approach is a more humane and less expensive way of dealing with ex-offenders than what we've been doing.

Add a comment