Fresh out of jail, LIC man starts anew to inspire kids

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Howard Powell has spent most of the past 18 years behind bars.

It started when he snatched a pocketbook from a pregnant woman in the mid-1980s. The purse turned out to be empty — his victim kept her money in her brassiere — but the mugging soon landed him in jail when an off-duty police officer chased him down in his car.

The motivation for it was simple: “I wanted to get some drugs,” he said. “I wanted to get me some heroin.”

And his rap sheet grew from there.

Last Thursday morning Powell sat in his girlfriend’s apartment at the Queensbridge Houses on a beige couch covered in clear plastic, the kind put down to prevent kids from turning beige into purple with juice spills and markers.

It was a hot day in early June, and Powell spoke calmly and deliberately, his neat beard tracing a thin line around his jaw, framing his mouth in a well-trimmed goatee.

The lifelong Queensbridge resident has been out of jail since January, and while this is hardly the first time he has experienced the fleeting exhilaration of freedom, he hopes this time it will be more permanent.

He also carries a message for the teens he sees on the streets, standing on the brink of the same slope.

“I just feel that I can save some of these children,” he said. “I don’t want them to go through the same pain and suffering that I went through.”

He is 43 years old now and wiser for his troubles.

Powell has cleaned up his act since getting out of jail, having graduated from a recovery program in Jamaica called 820 River Street. He now regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous sessions.

At a public forum with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in late May at the Jacob Riis Settlement House, a community center in the center of Queensbridge, Powell stood up to admonish his neighbors for sitting on the sidelines, ignoring silent cries for help from the neighborhood youth.

“We complain about what’s going on in the community, but we don’t do anything to stop it,” he said from the couch in his girlfriend’s apartment, venting the same frustration he showed the crowd a week earlier. “These kids don’t respect no one because people don’t show that they care anymore.”

Nobody takes an interest in the teenagers any longer because they’re too scared, he said.

But not Powell.

“You approach them with respect. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” he said, explaining how he speaks to kids he may find selling or doing drugs in front of his building. “Them knowing where I came from, they see I’m not scared of them.”

But he wants his influence to go beyond the courtyards of Queensbridge. Powell has a story to tell and is looking for a venue in which to tell it.

“I went bad at the age of — I would have to say 24,” he said — although the roots of his downfall penetrate far deeper.

By that age Powell had already fathered three children by different women. He was also illiterate and had fallen into drugs because of depression.

He is the oldest of his mother’s four kids, born when she was 17. She was addicted to heroin and spent some time in jail, so his grandparents raised him alongside his four aunts and uncles — the youngest of whom was five months his junior.

He did poorly in school but excelled both in chess and in basketball, playing so well on the court that he coasted through JHS 125 and Long Island City High School without ever learning to read, a skill he only acquired through classes in prison.

“They didn’t care about my education because the gym teacher and coach would say, ‘Pass Powell,’” he said. “I completed the 10th grade with a third-grade reading level and fourth-grade comprehens­ion.”

They called him Sputnik after the satellite, because “I got up that high,” he said.

But he couldn’t make the pros without graduating from high school, so he dropped out as a sophomore — still incapable of reading with few prospects of holding down a job.

He turned to stealing when he needed to support not only a drug addiction but a growing family. Every time one of his children had a birthday, he wanted desperately to be able to buy them something.

His jail time came in spurts, a few years in prison followed by a few months out, then the parole violations that would land him back behind bars — often for minor mistakes like forgetting to register a change of address.

He has now made some changes to prevent himself from spiraling down the same road. He will not hang out with the same friends he once did, none of whom came to visit when he was the only one jailed for stunts they pulled together.

He wants to tell teenagers about the other side of a life hooked on drugs — the part that isn’t plated in gold.

“They see the drug dealers with the sneakers, the gold, and that’s what they want,” he said.

And he also wants just a little something for himself, too.

“I just want to be a productive member of society,” he said. “I want a job so bad.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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