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

Jul 22, 2014

Your Tongue Can Deliver The Message Of Your Heart: A Speaker's Bureau of Formerly Incarcerated Individuals


“You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart.”

This sentence is posted to the wall in the basement of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church where thirteen men and women are chatting and breaking bread together on a rainy Monday evening. Deciphering the quote, one participant, Craig offers, “If you say it from your heart, you can say it freely and openly.” David suggested, “You’re confident when speaking about what you know.”

Although this group only first met the previous week, an outsider would have thought Monday night's gathering was a reunion of old friends. In fact, it was the second session of Raising My Voice, our inaugural Speaker’s Bureau training for formerly incarcerated individuals.

The Speaker’s Bureau is part of our Reentry Faith and Family Circles of Support initiative, a partnership with the Interfaith Center of New York and Network Support Services, generously funded by the J.C. Flowers Foundation. This public speaking and leadership initiative offers individuals who have returned from prison and transformed their lives the opportunity to share their personal narrative to: 1) inspire communities to mobilize around effective reentry policies and practices; 2) “give back” to communities they have harmed by deterring  others from walking in their shoes; and 3) develop critical work and leadership skills.  Raising My Voice members receive 22 hours of an intensive public speaking training utilizing an 11 session, highly interactive curriculum designed specifically for formerly incarcerated persons. Upon graduation, Raising My Voice members present to faith groups, community organizations, and students, as well as non-traditional audiences such as employers, prosecutors, and law enforcement. 

As evidenced from Monday night’s session, Raising My Voice also provides our participants with a strong peer support network. The basement of St. Philip’s was filled with an atmosphere of trust and safety as participants shared deeply personal experiences and in turn, supported one another with positive feedback. In the basement of St. Philip’s, the Speaker’s Bureau participants created their own sanctuary.


Linda Steele, HCJC Staff Member,facilitates the second
session of "Raising My Voice."
The night began with participants sharing a delicious dinner. The room quickly filled with sounds of laughter as participants shuffled in, greeting each other warmly. Capturing the special nature of this cohort, the group facilitator, Linda Steele told the group, “After doing interviews with you all, I needed to sit in dark room with no stimulation because I was so revved up for this group!”

The training kicked off with introductions in which participants were asked to share their reasons for joining the program: “I want to give back to my community”. “I enjoy writing personal narratives”. “Public speaking is my passion”. “I’m motivated to be around everyone and build community”.

 The core of the evening was spent on 2 minute presentations that participants had prepared in advance. Two of our faith-based volunteers, Eric Sessoms and Nuri Ansari helped out by videotaping the presentations so participants could assess their progress at the end of the program.

In their presentations, participants shared their aspirations. Each one gave voice to aspirations big and small; to become a social worker, to open a home for women coming home from prison, to learn to ride a bike, to go back and volunteer in prisons. They also shared challenges- being a single father for a young daughter, overcoming alcohol addiction, overcoming a speech impediment, and their experience with the criminal justice system. After each presenter, the group provided feedback in the form of “what was wow and what as good?”. Many members pointed to the sense of trust and comfort among the group that produced such heartfelt presentations.

Throughout the evening, the presenters approached the podium with grace and style, using presentation tools such as anecdotes and props. Most impressive was the courage and confidence they exhibited. After someone commented on one presenter’s bravery in speaking publicly about a personal topic, the presenter responded, “I think I’ve lost a lot of opportunities in the past by not being able to come up here and speak.”
 
After such a great start, we can only imagine the incredible accomplishments that are yet to come from this group!

 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.

Bina Peltz, author of this blog post, is a student at Princeton University, where she majors in Politics with a focus on the intersection of religion and law and sociology of law. She is a summer intern at the Harlem Community Justice Center's Reentry Program. 

Jul 21, 2014

It's the People: A Profile of a Circles of Support Volunteer

Though she is no longer a little child, Magali King is still fulfilling the mission that her mother instilled in her long ago—to give back to the community.  A home care assistant and member of All Saints Roman Catholic Church, Magali loves helping people. Serving breakfast at the Harlem Community Justice Center as individuals await their parole hearings is one of several ways she enjoys giving back. As a member on the usher board and regular volunteer in food pantries at her church, serving others is familiar territory to Magali. “This comes easy to me,” she says. “I just enjoy helping out and doing things for other people that can appreciate it.”  

As I am sitting with Magali in the breakfast room, there is an unmistakable sense of kindness and hospitality in the air. “Would you like your coffee dry or not?” Magali asks one young man. His response? “It [doesn’t] matter. I just appreciate it.” When another young man—walks into the room, he and Sarah Colburn—another Interfaith Center volunteer—share a few laughs over some Chris Brown lyrics. “That’s good,” Sarah says between chuckles. “We all need a good laugh.”

Migali King serving breakfast at the Harlem Community Justice Center
As someone who has justice involved family and friends, Magali’s interest in supporting returning citizens can be a bit personal. “When I was a child, my sister’s boyfriend’s brother was incarcerated, and my mother would take us with her to bring him food in jail.” Magali recounts that this young man’s family was not very involved in his life, and he was basically an orphan. But her mother’s kindness was not limited to friends of her family. “My mother would introduce herself to other inmates who didn’t have family, and she would help the too.”

Magali clearly knows how crucial family support is in fostering individual success, especially for individuals returning home from incarceration. “They need to feel comfortable, loved and understood,” she tells me as she pours yet another cup of coffee for a grateful returning citizen. “Family can help them move forward in society in a positive way with a positive mind frame.” Magali’s mentality is that people ought to respect and accept others’ situations. She adds, “If they’re not doing any harm to you, then you ought to be more than happy to help.”  Seeing smiles on peoples’ faces is enough to satisfy Magali. “We [volunteers] are just someone different they can talk to and relate to. If they have no one else, they have us.”


The atmosphere in the breakfast room is still thick with overwhelming friendliness and sincerity as breakfast time winds down. A young man walks into the room and eyes the fruit. “This is good breakfast. Healthy, with the fruits  and stuff,” he tells us. “They don’t do this at other parole offices. 
. And it saves me money because I don’t have to go out and buy it.” Healthy breakfast isn’t the only thing that sets the Harlem Community Justice Center apart. It’s the people. “We have a lot of nice people here. They should have more programs like this,” says Sarah Colburn with a smile. “I’m glad I get to volunteer here.” The rest of us—Magali, a couple of returning citizens and I—all smile and nod in agreement. Well said.

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.

Jul 14, 2014

A Human Face of God: A Profile of a "Circles of Support" Volunteer

The little things often make the biggest difference in peoples’ circumstances. Volunteers from the Interfaith Center of New York serve breakfast during parole hearings every Thursday. “Wow! You guys make a horrible situation better,” said one of several young people whom Rev. Lobie Redhawk has touched as a volunteer at the Harlem Community Justice Center. It’s amazing how much of a difference a friendly face and delicious breakfast can make to individuals returning from incarceration as they await their parole hearings. Little thing. Big difference.

While Rev. Redhawk is an associate minister at the Interfaith Temple, she does not confine her ministry to a single location. “That’s the whole point of my calling—to be available,” Rev. Redhawk informed me. She not only makes herself available every other Thursday to serve breakfast during parole hearings, but she also makes herself available to engage in cordial conversation to those whom she serves.

Reentry reform is a matter of securing human rights, according to Rev. Redhawk who feels that society has yet to embrace the “overarching reality” that human rights are the basis of society. In fact, human rights issues are what led her to interfaith ministry in the first place. “I’ve always been aware of social inequities and human rights abuses,” said Rev. Redhawk.  “Our spirituality is the linchpin of our humanity. When we recognize that humanity is our uniting religion, maybe then we’ll realize what human rights are all about.” 

Rev. Redhawk has witnessed human rights abuses of the justice system by watching the impersonal ways in which her neighbor, who was “arrested for the silliness that happened in the building,” was treated. By the time the of the young woman’s sentencing, she had already been in jail longer than her sentence, and the sentencing itself revealed a plethora of additional issues. Rev. Redhawk reports having watched a court
officer sexually harass her neighbor in plain view of the court. “At that point, it was clear that this was all orchestrated to keep her there,” said Redhawk, who eventually brought her neighbor home after hours of dealing with impatient and incompetent court and jail staff.

Having seen the ways in which prison abuses continue to traumatize her neighbor who is now back home, Rev. Lobie strives to do whatever she can to assist and encourage other justice involved individuals. In addition to service breakfast to returning citizens on Thursday mornings, she also serves as the primary United Nations representative for the Gray Panthers, a national non-government social justice advocacy group. 

“The chaplain’s responsibility is always to be the human face of God. An all-inclusive, loving person makes all the difference,” said Rev. Redhawk, who is setting a remarkable example of the power of faith in reentry reform. But what more could religious communities do to welcome formerly incarcerated citizens back into the community? Rev. Lobie Redhawk believes, “Houses of worship need to open their doors, open their hearts and share their resources. There’s always more work to be done.”

 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 forthcoming 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.

Jun 30, 2014

You Can Do it!: Profiles of "Circles of Support" Volunteers


If you ever thought telling someone “Good morning,” and flashing them a genuine smile was a futile effort at service, you clearly haven’t met Sarah Colbert. This 70 year old South Carolina native takes time out of her schedule Thursday mornings to do just that at the Harlem Community Justice Center during parole hearings.

“I’m glad it might rain so my friends can’t play the tennis match without me,” Sarah joked as she served bagels and muffins to the individuals under parole supervision awaiting their parole hearings at the Harlem Community Justice Center. That’s right. This retired radiology tech, Occupational Safety Department employee and nursing assistant has been playing tennis for the past seven years. She also loves bowling and volunteering through the Interfaith Center of New York and her church—St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church—where she has volunteered with the HIV/AIDS program, feeding ministry and health education.

You might notice a common theme in Sarah’s life based upon her former employment, current volunteer involvement and sports interests. “My heart is in health and service,” Sarah informed me. “My parents raised me to serve all people. There’s always so much to do.” Proud to call Harlem her home for the past several years, Sarah clearly did not leave her “southern hospitality” back in South Carolina.

But what brought Sarah to serve formerly incarcerated individuals as they await their parole hearings? “I love encouraging young people here and getting smiles and hearing their stories.” Considering the uncertainty and stress that precedes parole hearings, simple words of encouragement and smiles are worth more than you might think. I couldn’t help smiling as I observed Sarah talk and laugh with so many of these young men by name. It’s obvious that the fruits of her service extend beyond handing out breakfast pastries and beverages here once a week.

Sarah’s heart for justice involved young people is also a bit personal, as her son has been involved in his share of unjust run-ins with the police. “I also have a friend whose son was falsely accused, and he just received his bachelor’s degree,” Sarah shared. “I love when kids tell me they’re going back to school or whatever their plans are. I love watching them flourish.” One of the most important principles Sarah shares with these people is to be leaders, not followers. And when they lead, they must lead people down the right path.

“You can do it,” is one of two favorite phrases Sarah often shares with the young people she serves. The other phrase? “God promised it to you.” It is no coincidence that a majority of Sarah’s community service involvement has been through church ministries. In fact, all of her service has been inspired by her faith. Her favorite Bible verse is Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  The importance of service that her parents instilled in Sarah is truly a living principle as Sarah continues to live this message.
 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 forthcoming 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.

Jun 12, 2014

New York State Reentry Task Force 2014 Annual Meeting and Criminal Justice Trends

Yesterday, the Manhattan Reentry Task Force's leadership (Co-chairs, Lee Tennyson, Bureau Chief from New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), Chris Watler, Project Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center) and I joined the 19 New York State County Reentry Task Forces and criminal justice leaders from across the state for our first Annual County Reentry Task Force Meeting. The goal of the meeting was to highlight the promising reentry work that is being done across the state, share best practices, learn about criminal justice trends, and hear directly from state leadership.

The New York State County Reentry Task Force Initiative, spearheaded and funded by the Division of Criminal Justice services "allows counties to employ reentry coordinators who work with a diverse group of agencies - including police departments, community supervision agencies, mental health and social service providers - to identify gaps in service and provide coordinated services to offenders at a high risk of recidivism with needs such as housing, employment and substance abuse treatment."


Anthony Annucci, Acting Commissioner, NY State
DOCCS
 
New York State DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annuci, kicked the day off by observing that "not until very recently was the term 'reentry' part of the criminal justice language." He praised the work of the Task Forces, noting that the 2500 individuals released each month from the 58 Correctional Facilities across the state all benefited from the Task Force's hard work. To drive home the point, he read the eloquent words of Larry White, a formerly incarcerated man who "dreamt of going many places [ over his 30 years of incarceration], but found himself most frequently, on a park bench [after release]."
Thomas Abt, Deputy Secretary for Public Safety, New York State
Thomas Abt, the Governor's Deputy Secretary for Public Safety, called the work of the Reentry Task Forces" a special type of public service" and communicated his priorities for enhancing public safety: behavior change of high risk individuals via cognitive behavioral interventions and the power of swift and certain sanctions. He also introduced a new project called, RESET (more to come!), which will be a fundamental shift in way the parole supervision takes place in the state. Additionally, Mr.Abt announced the creation of the Governor's new Reentry Council, which, will examine the thousands of collateral consequences to convictions and the "incredible cumulative effect" that is often "counterproductive" to our public safety goals.

Before launching into panels that examined best reentry practices across the state, Tery Salo, DCJS Deputy Commissioner, reviewed the latest New York State Criminal Justice trends that many continue to describe as the "New York Miracle." Here are some of the most salient:

Crime and Imprisonment Rates:
  • New York State crime is down 62% since 1990, with NYC's crime rate dropping by 73%.
  • Violent crime is down 64% since 1990, with NYC's violent crime dropping 70% and the rest of the state dropping 36%.
  • Statewide all homicides are down 75%, with NYC's homicide rate dropping 85%.
  • Since 1990, NYS' crime rate has declined at a greater rate that the rest of the country.  (64% versus 43%).
  • New York State has both the lowest crime rate and lowest imprisonment rate of any large state. (Texas has the highest crime rate with 3,770 per 100,000 individuals and New York with 2,329 per 100,000 individuals and the highest imprisonment rate with 606incarcerated per 100,000 individuals and New York with 276 per 1000,000 individuals.
Also dramatic is the decrease in felony drug related commitments and the increase in felony firearm commitments:
  • Felony drug commitments to prison are down 40% from 2008, the year prior to the Rockefeller Drug Law Reform. Since the law change, incarceration of black men for felony drug convictions are down 40%.
  • In 2013, 76% of individuals who received felony firearm convictions were sentenced to prison, the highest reported ever. Contrast this with 55.7% of individuals who were sentenced to prison on similar charges in 2004. The increase can be attributed to the increase in penalties for firearm conviction in 2006 and the change in prosecutorial policy around firearms.
Most directly pertinent to our reentry work was the information conveyed regarding the recidivism risk of those who are returning from prison. Of those formerly incarcerated individuals who have been assessed using an actuarial risk assessment as "high" and "moderate" risk (the population the Task Forces serve), 54%/37% respectively will be convicted of a new crime within 3 years, and 69%/43% respectively will be reconvicted within 5 years. For this reason, it is especially important that the Task Forces target higher risk offenders. (We also know that lower risk populations tend to do worse with more interventions!) As Ms. Salo remarked, if the Task Forces can eliminate the recidivism of 10% of 1,000 high risk individuals (69% of whom would otherwise return to prison within 5 years) we have 69 fewer individuals going back to prison and 179 crimes avoided (higher risk individuals tend to be more criminally active than lower risk populations).   

For more information on evidence based practices in recidivism reduction, click here.

Debbie Boar, Deputy Project Director, Harlem Community Justice Center, and Manhattan County Reentry Task Force Coordinator