6x8 Portrait is a research project that will explore the impact of mass incarceration on families in the New York City metropolitan area in a way that aims to trigger a national conversation on the topic. 

Derek Drescher’s life on the outside is finally working out

Derek Drescher’s life on the outside is finally working out

Shortly before he turned 13, Derek Drescher stole a car.

He was arrested for the first time and brought to court. At his arraignment, Drescher recalled that he didn’t understand what was happening. He asked his father to bring him clothes. That’s when his father replied, “Son, where you’re going, you don’t need to bring clothes.”

This was the start of Drescher’s tumultuous life of crime, which involved going in and out of the prison system for the next 23 years. Shuffled around from group homes and juvenile detention, Drescher quickly grew up and had to learn how to take care of himself following that first arrest.

“I had to learn how to protect myself; how to take care of myself,” he said. 

Now a fitness instructor at ConBody, an exercise program that hires formerly incarcerated people to teach workout classes, Drescher is an example of how people can lead productive and successful lives after spending years in prison. The Brooklyn native spent most of his childhood with his grandmother, an organ-playing Puerto-Rican who “spoiled the hell out of me,” Drescher recalled, by taking him on trips to Florida and spending time at the zoo. 

Drescher now advocates for more programs that help former inmates re-adjust back into society. He remains optimistic that more people are focused on equipping ex-convicts to re-enter the outside world, since many former inmates have difficulty finding a job after release.

“Ex-cons become disenfranchised,” he said. “Giving people a chance is a beautiful thing.” 

It was Drescher’s relationship with his parents was rockier. When his grandmother died when he was 12, Drescher’s downward spiral began. 

“It was almost like losing my mother,” he said. 

Drescher began getting into trouble and acting out following her death, which lead to the car theft and his first arrest. After a year in jail, Drescher was released for about two weeks before landing back in the system for another year. In his teen years, Drescher bounced around group homes. In an attempt to achieve a normal life, he joined the army once he turned 18. 

But Drescher’s bad habits resulted in him getting into trouble again, which landed him back prison after three years in the Army. The unstable life Drescher led was not without consequences. The first time he heard his seven-year-old daughter call him “dada” was over the phone while he was incarcerated. The catalyst for much of Drescher’s time behind bars was his repetitive drug use. 

“I had gotten really bad with drugs and decided I needed to clean myself up,” he said. 

Drescher, now 36, said he’d been clean for 10 months before finding himself back in legal trouble. It was then that he decided it was time to turn his life around. 

“I made a decision to start holding myself accountable for my actions,” he said. 

Drescher served his last prison term in 2012 at the Orange County Correctional Facility in upstate New York. He was 33, and he remembers telling himself: “This is your fault – you have nobody to blame but yourself.” 

Once he was released, Drescher got involved with a program called “Back On My Feet NYC,” an organization designed to combat homelessness in New York. Drescher lost 60 pounds while in the program. Drescher was turning his life around. He was asked to speak at an event with them at a Marriott Marquis Hotel, which opened more doors for him. Drescher landed two jobs that night – one as an engineer for the hotel and another as a running instructor for ConBody.

Drescher said he credits his handy abilities to his time in the military and credits his love for fitness for his time spent with “Back On My Feet NYC.” His love of fitness perfectly correlates with his position at ConBody, an organization founded by former drug dealer Cos Marte. As an ex-con striving to better himself, Drescher said he is grateful for the opportunities that the organization has provided him. He’s run two New York City Marathons in recent years.  

“With ConBody I don’t have to hide who I am. There’s no filter or mask. Juvenile delinquent. Ex-con. Military person. I’m all that stuff,” he said. “I embrace it!”  

Interview by Madison Peace 

Written by Brianna Kudisch and Brooke Sargent

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