The event, which was followed by a job fair targeted specifically for formerly incarcerated people, was part one of a three-part series of discussions hosted by DOC.
It shed light on the various reasons why people enter the criminal justice system, why some end up back in prison, and how others manage to find success.
Cynthia Brann, who was named commissioner of DOC earlier this month, said helping people who have been involved in the justice system integrate back into their communities is part of the agency’s mission.
“It is our hope that by the end of the series, we will have made meaningful and measurable impact on reducing recidivism rates in New York City,” she said, “by providing actual opportunities and a second chance to those who have served their time.”
In the last year alone, Brann noted that 2,292 young adults completed certifications in areas like construction, food handling, and CPR that will make them more employable when they return to their communities.
Now, DOC is working toward offering five hours of daily non-school programming for every person in city jails. According to Brann, studies have shown that employment can reduce recidivism by 22 percent.
James Walsh, deputy commissioner of adult programming and community partnerships at DOC, said the agency recognizes that many factors lead men and women into the criminal justice system in the first place.
“Our goal is to develop a program plan that gives the individuals in our custody the opportunity, while incarcerated, to address the reasons they’ve come to prison,” he said.
Once out of jail, DOC then tries to provide additional services to prevent former inmates from ending up back in prison.
“That transition period from jail to community is a critical time,” Walsh said. “It’s a time when the offenders need the most support.”
Walsh said the three components that inmates need are support of their family, a place to live and a means to support themselves. DOC’s aim is to develop a program that addresses their needs while in prison and once released from it.
The panel also weighed in on the root causes of recidivism. Khalil Cumberbatch, associate vice president of policy at The Fortune Society, a 50-year-old organization that serves 70,000 formerly incarcerated individuals, said socioeconomic issues are often at the heart of involvement in the criminal justice system.
Cumberbatch, who previously spent more than six years in the New York State prison system, said those who go to jail are generally “at a point in their life where they have to make a choice,” and are often choosing from the lesser of two evils.
He said he’s never met anyone who “woke up one day and said, ‘I’m going to actively choose to break the law.’”
“In the end, they reached a point when they had to make a tough choice,” Cumberbatch said. “That’s not minimizing some of the acts that people committed to land in jail or prison, but it’s to expose the fact that some folks generally just don’t have many healthy choices to make.”
The key to reducing recidivism is giving people access to services early on in their incarceration and once they leave jail, he said. Services include having appropriate identification, access to health care, and jobs.
Another long-term goal is to address the stigma and shame associated with a felony conviction. Many formerly incarcerated people often don’t disclose their history with the criminal justice system.
Even Cumberbatch himself told others that he was either in the military or in a job that took him somewhere else. He felt the shame associated with being in prison.
Part of dismantling that stigma, he said, is to be careful about the language and words that people use to describe formerly incarcerated people.
“Terms like inmate, convict, felon and prison, despite who’s saying it and the context they’re saying it, the knee-jerk reaction of those terms is always negative,” he said. “There’s a lot of negative connotation that comes with that.
“Language changes perception,” Cumberbatch added. “What we’re really trying to do is create a space where when folks come home, they don’t have to feel the stigma and shame associated with a felony conviction or any exposure to the criminal justice system.”
The next part of the event delved into city programs that were created to help formerly incarcerated people. Jennifer Scaife, executive director of prevention, diversion and reintegration at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), said the city is now building a system to provide tools and services for every person entering the system.
Launched in March, Jails to Jobs allows every person leaving city jails to visit a re-entry service provider and find employment or training. That includes the possibility of having a “paid transitional job,” a short-term work experience with a partner organization.
For those who are not quite ready for a job, they may be matched with a “peer navigator” who provides additional support for the transition back into society.
A third option is allowing those leaving city jails to continue their education. The city has a partnership with CUNY to support formerly incarcerated people with resources such as mentoring, academic counseling, support in applying for financial aid, buying textbooks or paying for classes.
MOCJ is also working on building a certification program so once people leave city jails, they can have industry-recognized credentials.
The last panelist at the event was Kevin Cummings, assistant commissioner of the Workforce1 Career Centers with the Department of Small Business Services (SBS). Cummings said he sees the agency as “another place along the continuum” for formerly incarcerated people to find employment.
“We’re hoping that these individuals are being developed and then getting to a place where they can walk into one of our WorkForce1 centers and be connected,” he said.
Part of their work, including initiatives like Employment Works, a program that helps probationers find and retain jobs, is to make sure those who have left the system see their time in jail as just a barrier.
“When we see this as a barrier, we know that we can educate them about their rights,” Cummings said. “They will become more confident, and that confidence can be leveraged toward getting over that barrier.”
SBS also works with employers, including small businesses, to better understand what their needs are to thrive as a business. Then they work to better equip individuals with the skills needed to fill those jobs.
John Albanese, a Bronx native who spent the entire 1990s in the prison system, attended the panel and job fair. He said he thought the panel was helpful, but wished more people came out to hear the message.
After spending 11 years in prison, Albanese came home in October 2001. He’s been involved in a number of training programs, but has yet to find a stabile job.
“It’s very frustrating, it kills your self-esteem,” he said. “Sometimes you feel like, ‘What are you here for?’ You don’t have any worth.”
Albanese said finding employment takes too long, and often during that time some people “mess around and end up behind bars.”
He attended the event with the hopes of landing a job with a group like The Fortune Society. Albanese said he has developed a passion for helping people who used to be in his situation.
“In my neighborhood, I was into a lot of bad things and I had a lot of followers. Since I left the neighborhood and I don’t do that anymore, I don’t have the same followers,” he said. “I feel it’s my duty to go back and try to pull them out.”