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

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.


 

Jul 28, 2014

Each One Teach One: A Profile of a Circles of Support Volunteer

Meet Aubrey Woods, Jr., a religious education teacher at Carmel Hayes Catholic High School and Community Outreach Youth Coordinator for his housing development. Having first got involved with the Interfaith Center of New York when he attended one of its workshops on working with troubled youth, Aubrey learned of the opportunity to serve breakfast to young men awaiting parole hearings at the Harlem Community Justice Center.

Born and raised in Harlem, Aubrey prides
himself in having lead Boy Scouts, ranging from ages six to young adult, for twenty-five years. It is no wonder that he finds himself volunteering to serve breakfast at the Justice Center on Thursdays. “My work with boy scouts got me interested in serving the young men here,” Aubrey informed me as he manned the beverage station. Aubrey’s relationship with his former scouts goes deeper than the usual teacher-student model. His work with the scouts has informed him of the needs of young men in this community, especially their need for a father. “I’ve become a father-figure to many of my scouts. Usually, their mothers would put them in the program hoping they would find positive male guidance.”
In fact, Aubrey is a godfather to three of his scouts. Anthony was his first godson and former religious education student. “Anthony used to imitate me all the time, and I quickly became a father figure to him.” After his baptism as a young man, Anthony chose Aubrey to be his godfather. Now a father himself, Anthony strives to be a father to his child the way Aubrey was like a father to him. 

When Aubrey was growing up in Harlem, the entire community was like a mentor. But he doesn’t see the same community support anymore. “These young men need to return to a community that supports them, and that’s why I’m here. I love seeing them succeed,” Aubrey said with a smile as he handed a glass of orange juice to a returning citizen.

An active member at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Aubrey also credits much of his community involvement to his faith. “My father always told me, ‘Keep the faith,’” Aubrey said. What does he continually tell the young men he serves and mentors? “I always tell the young men, ‘Be all that you can be,’ and ‘Each one teach one.’ It’s clear that Aubrey is seeking to not only mentor young men in the community, but he is also ensuring that they will continue to be mentors to the young men that come after him.

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.


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.