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SHARED CONVERSATION — Audience members join panelists and moderators at panel on re-entry issues for incarcerated people at the Empire State Plaza in Albany February 15. At left (standing) are PEF members and staff Charles Roland, Radhakrishna Mohan, Leah Gozalez, Patrick Lyons, and Gina Lopez, a panelist (seated).

Panel delves into what helps, and what blocks successful re-entry for offenders

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One of the best things about the annual legislative conference in Albany held by the NYS Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators is the opportunity it offers for workshops and panels that delve into important issues that may not be highlighted in other venues.

PEF often supports and participates in these events, and this year it was part of a panel discussion on issues and challenges facing New Yorkers who are transitioning from incarceration or are in alternative-to-incarceration programs and are trying to establish better lives in their communities. The event, which focused on Prevention, Education and Progress, also enjoyed the strong participation and support of Catholic Charities.

PEF Division 236 Council Leader Gina Lopez was a panelist in this discussion that took place bright and early February 15 at the Empire State Plaza. As a parole officer working now in the Rochester area with a great deal of professional training and experience in helping New Yorkers with re-entry issues and alternatives to incarceration, she brought some unique insights to the discussion.

PAROLE PERSPECTIVE — Parole officer and PEF Division 236 Council Leader Gina Lopez speaks as a panelist February 15at the Empire State Plaza in Albany. The event took place during the 49th Annual Legislative Conference of the NYS Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators. The panelists spoke on issues related to re-entry of incarcerated people as they return to their communities. The panel moderators (standing) at right are state Assembly members Al Taylor and Diana C. Richardson. Panelists Leon Maxwell and Judy Juster are seated next to Lopez.

The panel was moderated by its legislative sponsors, state Assembly members Diana C. Richardson and Al Taylor who represent districts in Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively. In addition to Lopez, the panelists included: Judy Juster, clinical director of Abramham House (an alternative-to-incarceration residential program in the south Bronx for first-time offenders); Leon Maxwell, a former Abramham House client; Father Eric Cruz, a former chaplain at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and PEF member, who coordinates Catholic Charities services in the Bronx; Kevin Livingston, founder and president of 100 Suits for 100 Men in New York City; and Dyjuan Tatro, government affairs officer for the Bard College Prison Initiative that helps prison inmates enroll and earn their college degrees while serving their sentences at six different corrections facilities.

A dearth of needed community programs and rules that bar access to the existing programs are among the major challenges faced by nearly everyone striving for a successful re-entry, the panelists said.

Time is another issue the panelists cited, because participation in many programs is limited to a few months, which they said is not enough to be really helpful.

The panelists also cited poor funding for programs, saying that parole is the only one of the programs in which they work that receives state funding. The others all depend on church and private donations.

Maxwell said he grew up in foster care, and the encouragement and emotional support he received at Abraham House was extremely important to his successful re-entry. “That first encounter (with the criminal justice system) really rocks you. I had no family to support me. The encouragement I received at Abraham House has helped me move to a more positive environment and to be a better father to my daughter,” he said.

Juster and Tatro said the people served by their programs are far less likely to return to the criminal justice system. Both panelists said their programs have recidivism rates of just 4 percent, compared with the average rate of 40 percent.

Participants in the Bard Prison Initiative come from 22 counties. Tatro said some Bard College grads who finished their prison sentences are now working on the doctorates. “And they are actively working to make their communities better for everyone,” he said.

MORE FUNDING NEEDED – Panelists Kevin Livingston and Father Eric Cruz listen as Dyjan Tatro talks about high academic achievements by prison inmates pursuing college degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative. Some are pursuing their doctorates after their release from prison. Tatro and the other panelists called for public funding to open more doors to programs and services that are crucial to helping people create productive, fulfilling lives in their communities.

And while that success is significant, it could be even better with more financial support, Tatro added. “We need the public funding,” he said.

One panelist said studies show that for every $1 the state invests in such programs, there is a $5 savings when the former offender does not return to the criminal justice system.

Tatro also observed that it is helpful to look beyond individual experiences and stop blaming people who are caught up in societal issues that are beyond their control. “The status quo is invested in incarceration,” he said. “We should blame the system over the criminals and their communities.”

Tatro also pointed out that the state budget is about priorities, and it should put a much higher priority on services and programs that help minorities and impoverished people who are trying to change their themselves, their families and communities for the better.

Livingston said the 100 Suits project that he founded and heads strives to help impoverished mean and women get the help and clothing they need to successfully apply and interview for jobs in New York City. But the program goes far beyond simply collecting and distributing clothing and providing haircuts.

“We are currently serving 32 guys in two houses, 23 of those men (were charged with or convicted of) attempted murder,” Livingston said. It’s very difficult to have so many men, especially those with gang connections crowded into programs together, he said. Gang violence and opioid addiction are creating a far greater need for these services, and only four private companies are working with the 100 Suits program to hire and train people in the program. “We have to increase our programing,” he said.

Father Cruz emphasized the importance of reaching out to young children and giving them the support and encouragement they neeed.

“Grandparent are raising the kids, and the parents are lost,” Cruz said. Experience has shown him that “We must educate parents on how to be parents, and we must focus on reaching kids in fourth and fifth grades; 50 percent are lost by the time they reach sixth grade.”

“We know that hurt people hurt (other) people,” Assembly member Richardson said.

Parolees and others striving for a successful re-entry need mental health services, Lopez said. “How to access those services in your community is a problem, whether its co-dependence, such as mental illness and substance abuse or other issues. It’s hard to get parolees to overcome their aversion to the stigma (associated with admitting they need help and seek it).

Access to the few programs that are available in communities is often blocked by too many rules. Lopez cited the example of a woman who was drug addicted and gave birth in prison. She was allowed to keep her baby with her there. But when she was released on parole and was staying in a shelter, she could not enter a treatment program because she could not get daycare for her baby. She would have to be homeless to qualify for the only daycare program in her area.

“A women’s shelter is another service that could help,” Lopez said, “but it limits who can go there. So, yes, services do exist, but do they exist for my parolees?”

One group of audience members said they made successful re-entries because of help they received from a trade union apprentice program in the Capital District. Livingston asked them to meet with him after the panel ended to talk about how that apprenticeship program works.

Richardson and Taylor said they learned a great deal from the panelists and the audience, and will consider holding future meetings and events to continue the public conversation about the many issues that were raised.

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