Historic Harlem Court House

The Harlem Community Justice Center's Reentry Services are located in East Harlem

2013 Reentry Graduation starts with a song

The choir started off the celebration this year at the Reentry Court Graduation

Family Reentry Summer Celebration

During the summer, we host a block party and celebration for Reentry clients and their families

Reentry Graduation

Young man thanks his Parole Officer for keeping him on track

Harlem Reentry Graduation

Families join to celebrate the accomplishments of graduates

Feb 8, 2015

"Who Would Have Known?": Unexpected Gifts from The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest

The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, located on E. 90th Street and 5th Avenue, took a leap of faith last month and hosted a panel discussion with its congregants about incarceration and reentry. The following week, they worked hand-in-hand creating over 80 care packages for people coming home from prison in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory.  The care packages would be offered to clients who participate in prison reentry programs at the Harlem Community Justice Center, a community court in East Harlem that works with its neighbors to solve local challenges and Network in the Community, a therapeutic reentry and community reintegration program that works with formerly incarcerated individuals.

Reentry client receiving a "Welcome Home" care package 
The gifts were received this week, with heartfelt appreciation, at the Harlem Community Justice Center. There was a mixture of excitement and skepticism as I passed out Heavenly Rest's care packages while our clients  waited to see their parole officers. The packages contained a scarf, hat, gloves, socks and a gift card to a local grocery store. 

As I sat with each client, explaining who the package was from and what inspired this project, they struggled to comprehend that a group of strangers cared about them...that someone they didn't know cared if they were warm this winter.  One of the young men that received a bag immediately put on the hat and said to his friend, “We should take a selfie and put this on Instagram, we just got a present AT PAROLE!!! No one is gonna believe this.” Ironically, his friend had previously declined the bag. After seeing his peer’s excitement and the bag's contents,  he bashfully asked me if he could still have one. Others were showing each other the gloves and proclaiming their excitement for the snow this weekend because they were well-equipped for it.

This was a transformative moment for many of our clients, who frequently experience rejection and isolation from positive social institutions and people, but like all of us, seek belonging and acceptance. In the words of one of our participants, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Who would have known?”

Thank you to the Church of Heavenly Rest for your care and inclusion, showing those returning from prison that we need them in our community and want them to stay home. 

Written By Amanda Levering, Strategic Coordinator of  Sharing the Journey Home: Harlem (formerly know as the Reentry Family and Faith Circles of Support). Lovingly Funded by the  J.C. Flowers Foundation,  Sharing the Journey Home is a local Harlem reentry partnership that includes The Harlem Community Justice Center, The Interfaith Center of New York, and Network in the Community. Sharing the Journey Home cultivates leadership among the formerly incarcerated, their families, and faith leaders to strengthen our communities.

Nov 26, 2014

Leading By Example: Raising My Voice Speaker's Bureau presents to Justice Involved Young Adults

On October 20th, 2014, three graduates of Raising My Voice, a leadership and public speaking training for formerly incarcerated men and women, shared their story with the Harlem Justice Corps, a community service, employment, and education program for 18-24 year old men and women with histories of justice involvement.  The packed room consisted of 21 corps members, staff and interns. When the speakers entered the room, the anticipation of the youth was felt and verbalized with statements like, “stop introducing them, and let them talk to us!”
With humility and grace, three graduates shared their life stories of childhood, gang involvement, robberies, homicide, incarceration and reentry. All three of these speakers were under the age of twenty when they committed their crimes. The speakers focused on the effects that their crimes had on the victims, their families and their lives.  When one speaker shared, “I made the choice of being in the street to get away from a bad home situation,” the silence in the room was deafening.  
Another speaker shared that his loyalty to a gang cost him nineteen birthdays in prison and in the end that gang showed him not one shred of loyalty back. The third speaker spoke about poor decision making and the unintended consequences of shattering his family. One speaker shared that he created a new life narrative during his incarceration by raising money to support an injured woman.
All of our speakers talked about the role of education and how it transformed their world view and self-perception. Each speaker described the relationship between being uneducated, lacking employment and life skills and their attraction to “street life”.
In a pivotal moment of the presentation one speaker remarked: “I knew I needed to change, but didn’t know how. I thought and thought about what I could do, and it hit me- I need to stop doing crime. Just that one thing began to change my life.”
At the end of the presentations, we opened the floor for questions. The first corps member to ask a question, a participant of the Reentry Family and Faith Circles of Support Program at Harlem Reentry, asked the panel, “How do you feel now that the holidays are coming?”
“The holidays didn’t mean much to me while in prison for all of those years- it was just another day. Now that I am home, I am going to have to get used to customs and spending time with my family. Prison teaches you to be isolated and alone, to be safe” responded one of the speakers.
Another question asked by a corps member was, “How much money did you get from these robberies?”  The speakers answered incisively: a very high price was paid, nothing was gained.
The messages of these three speakers weren’t just heard today; they were received. This was even clear after the presentation, when the Justice Corps members approached the speakers to shake their hands and thank them for coming. Maybe for the first time in their lives, they weren’t being lectured by someone in power – they were receiving a message from credible and skilled messengers. Maybe the next time HJC hosts speakers from this training, it will be former HJC members finding and raising their own voices.

 Written by Linda Steele, Raising My Voice Trainer and Workforce Development Specialist at the Harlem Community Justice Center

Aug 26, 2014

Do Criminal Justice Risk Assessment Tools Perpetuate Bias?

An interesting article on Vox explores the use of evidence-based risk assessments tools in sentencing decisions and poses the provocative question: Could these tools perpetuate racial bias? The article references an interview with Attorney General Eric Holder in Time Magazine where Holder expresses concern about the use of non-behavioral factors in risk assessment tools for sentencing. 

The proliferation of evidence-based  risk assessment tools has generally been seen by progressives and conservatives alike as a good thing. These tools, as pointed out in the Time article, have saved states millions of dollars through reduced prison populations without compromising public safety. 

As a mountain of social scientific evidence over the past 20 years makes clear, decision making in the criminal justice process is froth with racial and class bias. Michelle Alexander in her book the New Jim Crow chronicles the evolution of the American racial caste system from slavery through mass incarceration. She writes: 

Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal

Evidence-based risk assessments have gain currency in criminal justice reform circles because they reduce the subjective bias of individual decision makers in the criminal justice process. Ideally, they provide an objective assessment of a person's risk to re-offend that can be factored into decision making. Yet, how these tools are constructed and used is worthy of continued discussion and research

Aug 25, 2014

2014 Harlem Family Reentry Day Block Party

On Saturday August 23, the Harlem Community Justice Center organized its annual Harlem Reentry Family Day Block Party.  The day began with an army of green shirted volunteers that included Justice Center staff, participants in our prisoner reentry programs, faith based volunteers from the Family Reentry Circles of Support program, a partnership between the Justice Center, Interfaith Center of New York and Network Support Services, as well as some college fraternities and sororities and our funder the J.C. Flowers Foundation.

The Family Day event included performances by the Uptown Dance Academy, a martial arts demonstration by congregants from Masjidus Sabur, face painting and games for kids as well as food for all. Many of the participants were families who have had a loved one in prison. Yet, as one participant said, “this event is the beloved community where everyone is just a human being.”  The pictures really tell the story.

The Justice Center’s reentry partnerships seek to reduce incarceration, the stigma of incarceration and improve public safety. This is achieved not just through the use of evidence-based interventions for men and women leaving prison, but also by activating the informal assets in communities like faith volunteers, families and the formerly incarcerated themselves. Events like the Block Party are one way this is done.

In communities like Harlem the justice system disproportionately intervenes in the lives of families of color. The result is that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be poor, less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to serve time in prison later in life.   By some estimates half of all persons in prison are the parents of a minor child under 21. When a community’s collective efficacy is strengthened it is better able to respond to problems like child well-being and crime without over-relying on government intervention.

Special thanks to our sponsors and partners who made Family Day a success!

Community Partners: Network Support Services, Elmendorf Reformed Church, Alternative to Violence Project, Exodus Transitional Community Services, Palladia, Inc., Samaritan Village, Inc., Create Inc., Odyssey House, Masjidus Sabur, Seventh Day Sanctified Church, St. Luke’s AME Church, Riverside Church Barber Training Program.

Corporate Sponsors: Direct Print, Inc., Duane Reade, Costco Wholesale Warehouse, Target, American outlet, Dunkin Donuts.

Funders: New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance, J.C. Flowers Foundation, New York State Office of Court Administration.

Aug 14, 2014

A Journey of Love: Circles of Support Volunteer Profiles

Service is not limited to one demographic or approach. Just ask Sha Ron Mason, a chaplain at Word Enlightenment Church of Jesus Christ, who has served nearly every aspect of the community. Chaplain Mason has worked with children for over fifteen years as the former Director of Recreation through City Parks and Recreation, and she currently supports formerly incarcerated individuals through the Faith and Family Circles of Support initiative. In addition to volunteering at the Harlem Community Justice Center, she also serves through her church’s Give Away Program and Problem Solving Committee—an offshoot of Word Enlightenment’s youth program.
Chaplain Mason has also taken unconventional routes to community advocacy and activism. “I used to perform at the Manhattan Center. I would sing and act in political plays,” she reflects with a reminiscent grin. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life…and it’s still not over.” Chaplain Mason’s past involvement in social and political theater gives only a little insight into her journey to supporting formerly incarcerated individuals. Having grown up in the Jim Crow South, she has witnessed firsthand the oftentimes racially biased abuses of the justice system.  Wherever there is an abuse of power, Chaplain Mason is sure to be in the public eye advocating for change, whether here in Harlem or across the boroughs of New York City.
Chaplain Mason also recognizes the importance of taking proactive approaches to justice system reform. This is why she takes time out of her schedule to serve breakfast to individuals on parole every Thursday. “So many of these young men come in here with their heads hanging down,” she tells me as she imitates this introversive demeanor. “If you can just bring a smile on someone’s face, that is a huge help.” Chaplain Mason has a way with getting these individuals to smile. Her secret? Building trust. “I like to get to know their stories on a one-on-one level,” she says, flashing a smile as she hands a cup of coffee to a young man. It is this personal interaction and genuine spirit that fosters trust between her and the formerly incarcerated individuals she passionately supports.
Chaplain Mason not only exemplifies the importance of involving faith communities in reentry service, but she also represents the importance of supporting families of justice-involved individuals. “Families need counseling as well. Many of them have been hurt and sometimes taken advantage of and harassed,” she explains. “One of the most painful things is going to the police to get a court order of protection to keep your child from harassing you,” Sha Ron recounts of her personal experience. “I didn’t even recognize my son. It hurt so bad to see him like that.”
But Chaplain Mason did not let this low point keep her down. Her response highlights the value of faith to individuals affected by incarceration.  “My faith [was] the only thing that got me through that, because God was the only one I could turn to,” she reflects. Though Chaplain Mason has actively supported returning citizens, she urges more faith communities to get involved by “journeying with them wherever they are.” Meeting people where they are is another crucial factor in establishing trust. “If you can get them to open up on one of their issues, you can get them to open up on most of their issues,” she insists. As her journey of service continues, Chaplain Mason reveals the heart of her secret to establishing trust—love.  “That’s what love is about,” she reveals, “when you can journey with someone.”

With a grant from the J.C Flowers Foundation, the Harlem Community Justice Center, the Interfaith Center of New York and the Network in the Prisons/ Network in the Community Programs (Network Program) have created a partnership with the goal of engaging family members and faith community volunteers to support men and women returning to Harlem from prison. The initiative is called The Family and Faith Reentry Circles of Support Program.
The series of profiles of volunteers, staff, and participants, of the Reentry Family and Faith Circles of Support program, are written by Monique Claiborne. Monique--an Opelousas, Louisiana native-- is a Politics major at Princeton University. Currently an intern at the Harlem Community Justice Center, Monique plans to continue working for systemic justice reform as an attorney in the near future.