The shift away from a purely punitive criminal justice system to one that focuses on rehabilitation and mental health, in order to reduce the chances of recidivism, is a fairly recent concept. Assemblymember Eddie Gibbs, who was incarcerated, along with reentry facilitators say that “not enough” is being done to help this underserved population as they reintegrate back into society.

According to Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ), there are “nearly 750,000 people who carry criminal conviction records” in New York City in 2019, with Black and Latinx people making up about 80% of that group in their most recent findings. 

Gibbs made his first unannounced visit to Coxsackie Prison in upstate New York. He said the experience of being back inside of a prison at all was entirely emotional and overwhelming, but his mission was to speak with staff and inmates about the best ways to expedite services for people as they come out. 

“Segregated populations for those who fight or don’t get along, they put you in this little box area and let you sit there for 23 hours a day,” said Gibbs about his tour of the facility. “So I went there to talk to them and I reminded them, not their friends, not their girlfriends, but their parents are hurting because their kids are in prison and they have to come home and do better.”

Gibbs said most of the men he spoke with who were violent offenders wanted to be heard or supported but didn’t feel like they were. He emphasized that changing the narrative and one’s mindset is imperative to gaining respect and a life after prison. 

Gibbs is currently pushing legislation that will provide former prisoners with state identification as they get released, and making sure they are educated about opportunities to clear up their record once they complete their parole with no incidents.

Some laws in the works have already made a huge impact. 

The Less Is More Act deals with helping people who get locked up again for technical violations of their parole as opposed to actually committing a crime. It was passed, signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul, and went into effect March 1, 2022. Hochul and other electeds have also demonstrated huge support for the Clean Slate Act, which fights to end discrimination against people with conviction records. They want it to be passed and added to the state’s budget.

Meanwhile organizations such as Project Renewal and Fortune Society have been doing the groundwork of addressing the individual needs of former prisoners for years with robust and structured programs and facilities. Dr. Ronald Day is the vice president of programs and research at the Fortune Society, and Director Barry Campbell helps run the Fortune Society’s Freedom House. Freedom House is a 38-bed facility located in East Harlem for men over the age of 18 who are currently or likely to be detained and have behavioral health needs. 

Both Day and Campbell are formerly incarcerated themselves. Stable housing, wrap-around services for mental health, and education, as well as adequate legislation from lawmakers, plays a major role in rehabilitating a person upon their release from prison or jail, they said.

But, there are little things that can be done to make the transition smoother. Day and Campbell agree with Gibbs that just having access to state IDs upon release lets the formerly incarcerated sign up for jobs, substance abuse treatment services, medical care, and housing without trouble. 

Campbell said that in most cases men are coming to Freedom House directly from court or Rikers Island with mild to severe behavioral health issues. “For the most part they have none of their things—their property and identification is still on Rikers Island somewhere and it’s very hard for them to navigate to find it. We have to assist them in reconnecting with Rikers Island just to get them identification,” said Campbell.

Campbell said the biggest things that individuals struggle with is that they can’t go back to their original housing situation, the stigma of seeing a psychiatrist or a therapist on a regular basis, and either taking prescription medications or substance abuse.

“One of the things I noticed about this particular population coming in here is that most of the time they just need somebody to listen to them, and I mean really listen to them. Hear what they’re saying, and their side of the story, and then make a treatment plan based on the way that they feel,” said Campbell.

Day said that the reality about a rise in crime is that sometimes people do get rearrested, especially if their behavioral health issues are not addressed while in prison. However, most of those that do get rearrested are for technical parole violations at about 30%, and not committing violent crimes at about 9%, he said.

DCJ reported that a “significant proportion” of people with criminal conviction records in New York City are over 45 years old, have a single misdemeanor conviction on their record, have been convicted of drug-related crime, and/or have a conviction record that is over 10 years old. Basically, people aren’t necessarily committing new crimes. They might not have checked in with a parole officer and then got arrested for it, for example. 

Robert Blocker, Project Renewal’s senior director of reentry services, helps break the cycles of homelessness, poor health, unemployment, and incarceration. The program holds 90 transitional housing beds and 45 units of permanent supportive housing with services specifically for parolees with mental illness.

“Most of the clients we work with are repeat offenders,” said Blocker. “One of the reasons this program was created 20 years ago was trying to slow down recidivism. What we’ve done is just wrap around all the services we can think of that the client might need reentering the community.”

Blocker said that hands down, drug or substance abuse is the main reason why people end up violating their parole in his experience. 

The DCJ report indicates that about 77% of criminal convictions were for misdemeanors, and that drug convictions account for almost one third of those misdemeanor and felony criminal convictions in New York City between 1980 and 2019.

Blocker said that pre-COVID, vocational, educational, and mental health programs were offered and many of the formerly incarcerated and homeless individuals took advantage of it. He said that Project Renewal did get hit hard when they couldn’t get groups together in-person, whether it was for cooking classes or substance abuse clinics. The program also used to visit parolees often, either at the parole office or at the facility.

“We’re kind of anxious to get back to the program and the services we generally offer,” said Blocker. “I don’t think they realized how much they missed us since all the COVID restrictions.”

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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