from drug dens
Bobby Steele speaks to inmates about his criminal history and how he overcame it.
His story exposes the lack of re-entry services for ex-cons, particularly in rural counties.
July 11, 2017
The State Correctional Institution in Greene County sits at the end of a long, grassy road, right off of Route 21. The road is called Progress Drive. For most anyone though, going to this place is far from progress.
But Bobby Steele has come back here, the first state prison he inhabited. He’s here with a message of hope for the inmates, so he hides his nerves and is on his best behavior. Sitting in the blue plastic chairs in the waiting area, with two guards looking on, the clank of the armored door jarred Bobby to attention.
“You still sit up straight, you get alert when you hear that door open,” he said.
Around Greene County, Pennsylvania, Bobby Steele is something of a legend. You talk to anyone with some kind of clout there — the judge, the county executive, the prison warden, the folks leading the fight against the opioid epidemic — they all know him. He’s got a great story, they say.
Bobby is small town famous. He’s done what so few others are able to do: He beat his opioid addiction. On top of that, he’s built a multimillion-dollar construction company. In this part of Pennsylvania, Bobby is a 6-foot, 250-pound beacon of hope. He’s a glaring exception to every norm, but Bobby thinks if he can do it, maybe others can, too. At least in their own way. And he is willing to play a role of inspiration.
In reality, few will follow his path, which has wound precariously from drug dens to prison cells to job sites to his own office in Canonsburg. For much of the last decade, Bobby has found himself on a tightrope-thin road between addiction and success, wobbling all the way.
At once, Bobby’s story provides a hopeful example and highlights the daunting odds facing anyone touched by the opioid crisis. Prison, by almost any account, is not a substitute for rehabilitation. Outside of the urban core, options for re-entry services are scarce. And the deck is stacked even further against felons when it comes to job and education opportunities.
In front of about 15 prisoners, all of them serving life sentences for crimes they committed as teenagers, Bobby tells his story. He grew up in a trailer park in Washington, Pa., stealing bikes and causing trouble. He realized his family was poor and he would stuff clean shirts in his backpack to avoid smelling like home. Four years after high school, he was discharged from the Marines for getting into a bar fight. He turned to drug dealing for money. He got rich doing it. Then he got addicted to Oxycontin. The combination of dealing and using fast-tracked him into the state prison system. His marriage fell apart. His daughter was forced to go live with his parents.
Bobby avoids talking too much about his money or business. There is one thing he tries to sear into their minds: Start with yourself. “You can change your life, but you have to want to change your life.”
He focuses on small changes they can make: Get through the rest of your sentence with a record of good behavior. Find a job and show up on time every day for a month. Keep the same phone number for five years. Save up enough money to buy a new pair of shoes. It’s about responsibility and personal wins.
“Don’t set yourself up for failure,” he says. “Don't say that you're going to go home and be the CEO of a company.”
When Bobby does mention his company, R.J. Steele Construction, he offers all of the inmates jobs. “When you’re out of here, reach out to me,” he says. He’s serious, too. About a quarter of his employees (out of 80 total) have served time in prison. He leaves his phone number with the inmates.
Growing up, Bobby was smart, often bored in class, and excelled when he actually turned in his work. By the spring of 1993, Bobby had graduated from high school and was headed to a Marine base in Japan for a four-year stint.
Bobby liked the Marines and rose through the ranks to corporal. He ran with a group of guys he could party with. One night, in early 1997, Bobby got into a fight. Bobby had been playing pool and drinking beer. His buddy started arguing with another guy over a girl. They started throwing punches. Then Bobby smashed a beer bottle on the guy’s head. The bar erupted into “a melee.” Amid the chaos, someone robbed the bar. Police charged everyone with aggravated armed robbery. Eventually, Bobby’s charges were dropped but he was still discharged from the Marines, a month before his four years were up.
That first arrest started a vicious cycle for Bobby that would repeat for the next decade.
“And I'm like, this is just who I am. I'm never going to get out of that rut,” he said. “That was a turning point where I just said, ‘You know what? I tried to give it my best shot.’”
Back in Washington County, Bobby started selling marijuana. Business was derailed for six months in 1999 when he was sent to jail for robbing a home. Upon release, he was back to work. He added cocaine to his inventory.
He imported his wares from Mexico, eventually ‘employing’ about six people who would help him distribute the drugs. Think of the Hollywood image of a drug dealer: A patriarchal businessman; driveways full of expensive cars; Steelers season tickets for everyone. That was Bobby Steele. He said the police estimated he was making at least $30,000 per month.
Between 2001 and 2004, Bobby says he went to prison more than “seven or eight times.” The charges were rarely drug related but almost always drug influenced: Retail theft, disorderly conduct, giving false identification to police. This was his life, and he was OK with it. He didn’t think he could aspire to anything more.
Bobby remembers his first Oxy, an 80-milligram pill, one of the highest doses available for sale.
It was a hot summer day. He was in his car in the SHOP ‘n SAVE parking lot, waiting on someone to sell a bag of weed to. A friend, Chris, who has since died, approached Bobby’s car and offered him the painkiller. “You have to try this,” Bobby recalls him saying.
About this time, Oxycontin was the latest rage on the drug scene. Chris told Bobby how to peel the coating off, crush it up and snort it. Bobby took so much he couldn’t move. He was sick for a full day.
Chris instructed him on how to take the pill the right way, and then day after day, Bobby got the process down. By the end of it, Bobby was hooked.
“I was doing well financially so I didn't realize … one of these things cost $60, but I'm good, I can do one a day. But then one turned to two, two turned to four. All of a sudden you have a couple-of-hundred-dollar-a-day habit and you're nodding off and ...you're not paying attention to your wife or your kid or your whatever you're supposed to be doing. And then it consumes you.”
Bobby remembers the day he knew he had to get clean: July 5, 2006. He was in the middle of a six-month stay in the Washington County Jail for theft as he awaited sentencing. Like others he was locked up with, he spent his days dreaming of getting out so he could get high again.
He had some free time, so he called his 6-year-old daughter.
“I spoke to her on the phone and she told me that she was going to be a doctor,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Oh that’s cool you want to be a doctor.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I'm going to fix you because you're broken. You always get in trouble and you do bad things.’”
She hit a nerve. Bobby’s father had just told him he would watch his daughter grow up in photographs if he didn’t get clean and out of prison. A judge recently declared him a career criminal who would amount to nothing. He went back to his cell, stared into the polished metal they give inmates as a mirror and asked himself, “What does it mean to be a man? How can I change my life? Can I change?”
June 1, 2010: This is where Bobby first sets foot on the tightrope. He gets clean in prison and joins a therapeutic community, a type of rehab. A friend of his gets him a job on a construction site. Through the state Office of Occupational and Vocational Rehabilitation, he gets vouchers to buy work clothes and tools. He also gets a bus pass. He was placed in a halfway house in Braddock. Already, Bobby is far ahead of most former inmates. The state estimates that 12 percent of its inmates have an opioid addiction and many of them return to prison after being released.
While counties and the state do offer many resources to addicted inmates, the recovery process can be arduous, said Karen Bennett, the head of human services in Greene County. The systems don’t make it easy to get clean and start fresh.
“We provide a lot of resources, but people need to jump through hoops,” she said. “At the beginning people are very motivated but as time goes on, I don’t know how you keep it up.”
Bennett said government rules and regulations can hold people like Bobby back. The system needs to change, she said.
From the halfway house, Bobby would walk to a bus stop and ride into Downtown Pittsburgh. From there, a bus to Mount Washington, a bus to Bridgeville and a fourth to Canonsburg. By car, with no traffic, it’s an hour-long commute. It took Bobby four hours, so he had to wake up at 3:30 every morning.. If he got the wrong bus on the way home, he’d have to run half a mile back to the halfway house to check in before the 11 p.m. curfew. But he would do it, every day, for months.
The tightrope swayed, but he didn’t fall.
“When people were telling me, ‘Aw, this is bullshit,’ I'm like, look, we're free and we're not all the way free, but we're free, you know?” he said. “We put ourselves here. It's our responsibility to dig ourselves out of here. And if this is what I got to do to be a productive member of society and to be a father to my daughter, this is what I'm going to do every day.”
Driving wasn’t an option. After he was released, the state Department of Transportation [PennDOT] suspended his license until 2052 because of accumulated violations and fines.
So, in the few hours each day he wasn’t working, asleep or on a bus, he wrote letters to magistrates, PennDOT officials and others he thought could help, more than 100 in total. He spent his paychecks on stamps, envelopes, copy machine fees and even a driver’s license attorney. Within three months, he had a license in his hands.
Had his attempts failed, it could have been months or years before he was behind the wheel again. Another wobble, yet Bobby remained steady.
By the end of the year, Bobby was applying for a new job at an oil and gas company. He wrote on his application that he’d discuss any felony convictions in the interview.
He got the job, cleared his new workplace and hours with the halfway house supervisor and went to work. Within three weeks, he had attracted the admiration of his boss who saw him as intelligent and hardworking. But one evening, his supervisor told him he would have to stay and work late. That was a problem.
“I'm like, ‘I can’t, I got to be back at this center at 11 p.m.,’” Bobby told him. “And they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, we didn't know that you were there.’ They didn't know and I didn't tell them.”
Bobby’s reasoning was this: He had said he would discuss his convictions in the interview. But no one ever asked about them. He hadn’t lied. The operations manager, though, was livid.
“I said, ‘With all due respect, sir, I did write on my application that I would discuss that in the interview. You were the interviewer. I was the interviewee. Had I been the interviewer I would have asked that question because I would have read the application.’”
Bobby’s tightrope shook, threatening to buck him. But instead, the operations manager nodded.
“You're right. I should have asked. There's no reason not to give you a chance,” Bobby recalls him saying. A year and a half later, Bobby had risen from a laborer to an operations manager himself.
Bobby’s tightrope steadied. He moved out of the halfway house and in with his parents. He bought a car. He kept paying down his more than $10,000 in fines and started saving money. Despite his felonious past, he was moved to Ohio to help oversee a new division of the company.
He was provided a six-figure salary, a company truck and a house. He bought a speed boat. It was also in Ohio where he met a model and former TV show host named Megan. The two would later marry and move to Washington County when Bobby started his company. Their son, Bryson, is 3 now. They’re still trying to reconnect with Bobby’s now-teenage daughter.
Really, there are two ways to view Bobby’s story. From one perspective, he made a personal choice to change his life and has remained determined to make that happen for the last 10 years.
But from another perspective, Bobby’s success is the result of a freak set of coincidences and some predetermined favor the universe has granted to him. Perhaps, it’s a little bit of both.
You can tell Bobby has thought a lot about his circumstances by the way he tells his own story. He describes himself as both exceptionally blessed to be where he is today but also as someone who has maintained the personal drive to better himself.
“Because I took and took and took for so many years, I want to give back,” he says. “Life is not about taking. It's not. It's about accepting responsibility and being the best that you can be when no one's looking. If I go to one of these re-entry programs and one person listens and one person takes home what I talk about, then it's all worth it to me.”
Story — J. Dale Shoemaker
Illustrations — Idil Gözde
Idil Gözde is an award-winning multidisciplinary content creator
who is known for her whimsical taste and love for illustrating compelling stories.
Photography — Ryan Loew and John Hamilton
Web design and development — Natasha Khan and Cameron Scott