Witness John Harriel began his testimony on Capitol Hill in the middle of his harrowing life story of gangs, prison, reform and ultimately service.
John Harriel, left, and International President Lonnie R. Stephenson with Monica Bragdon, now a fourth-year Local 11 apprentice whom Harriel has mentored through the Los Angeles organization 2nd Call.
“When I got out, I thanked God that the IBEW allowed someone like myself to join their union,” the Los Angeles Local 11 journeyman wireman said, facing a U.S. House subcommittee.
Known to his friends and the countless people he’s helped as “Big John,” Harriel spoke at a Feb. 27 hearing about the steep challenges facing former prisoners when they’re released.
He’d been invited by Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, who has long admired Harriel’s work with the organization 2nd Call in her district.
Ex-offenders at high risk of returning to prison, or dying on the street, develop life skills and self-esteem through 2nd Call that lead many of them to building trades apprenticeships and careers.
“I’ve been able to get thousands of young men and women to pick up tape measures instead of guns,” Harriel said as he talked about weekly classes he teaches, mentoring and other outreach and activism that has driven the second half of his life.
“This is why 2nd Call was formed; when a man puts down his gun and his flag, then what? I was over 25, from one of the hardest communities in the city. I had to get my GED. I had to go to a program. How do I deal with being in a community where suppression and violence was the norm?”
Through the “blessings of the IBEW,” he said, “I started a pathway into the trades.”
His apprenticeship led him to electrical contractor Morrow Meadows, and 22 years later he’s still there, having spent the past four as a superintendent.
“They grew me as a man,” Harriel said. “That family took me in and treated me as one of their own, made me feel like I was part of something greater. I took that back to my community.”
He credits the Abundant Life Christian Church, too, which long ago embraced him. His pastor, John E. Tunstall, provides space for Harriel’s 2nd Call classes for people newly released from prison and those who keep coming back for inspiration.
Committee members were riveted by Harriel’s words. He described growing up in poverty and despair, with a drug-addicted mother in a neighborhood where gangs and gunshots were everyday life. School was “enemy territory.”
“The teachers didn’t know that I’d just got shot at, that I hadn’t eaten in two days. What they were doing was just housing me,” he said. “I ended up dropping out in 9th grade.”
Street gang The Bloods were his family, dealing drugs his livelihood. It landed him in prison at age 18. Two years later, he was released with no life skills, no self-esteem, no hope. Soon he was behind bars again.
It turned out, he said, “to be the best thing that happened to me.” At age 26, an IBEW journeyman who mentored prisoners took him under his wing, while a prison lifer taught him algebra.
The head start led him to Local 11 and his IBEW career, to a life as a family man and homeowner, a productive citizen. He wanted lawmakers to grasp that more than anything else – that preparation before release is the key to never going back.
“It was the power of a man showing me what manhood is,” he said. “I knew that when I returned to society, I had the tools to produce and help build back the communities I once destroyed.”
Of the many things that make him proud to be an IBEW member, he said a big one is knowing how much International President Lonnie Stephenson cares about people like him.
“Lonnie and I have had conversations and he is committed to diversity — he’s not just said it, he’s proven it,” Harriel said. “He knows my work and he knows the difference that a second chance makes in someone’s life.”
Harriel still marvels at how a kid who grew up a gangster with a drug-addicted mother, who dodged bullets and nearly starved, became a man who started setting his alarm for 3 a.m. to take a series of buses to work, determined never to be late.
“I wish I could tell that young man that someday he’d sit on the executive board of IBEW Local 11 and sit as a trustee of the same union that I once thought was only for caucasian men,” he said in his prepared remarks. “More important, that he would change policies and provide career opportunities to hundreds of people that look like him and also help hundreds of others that don't.”
His second chance means that “hands that were used to sell drugs are the same hands that have built hospitals, sporting complexes, train stations, power plants and water facilities,”
They are hands, he said, that will never stop guiding people toward new lives, keeping families together and benefitting society at large.
But he stressed that he and 2nd Call can’t do it alone: leadership and funding are essential.
“I am asking you to help me transition people that may not have had the same opportunities others might have had growing up,” he told the committee. “My accomplishments show what hard work and assistance can do.”