Jul 1, 2010

My visit to Coxsackie: Department of Correction's first Reentry Symposim

On, June 29, 2010 the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) held its first Reentry Symposium at Coxsackie Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, New York. Coxsackie is a maxium security prison holding approximately 1,000 men. I, along with most of New York State's other County Reentry Task Force Coordinators, came to the facility that morning ready to meet with men beginning to prepare for their reentry back into their communities.

While trying to arrange my trip up to Coxsackie, located about two and half hours from New York City, I encountered the same type of obstacles that families hoping to visit their loved ones upstate meet--transportation and time. First, there is no direct bus from NYC to Coxsackie. To make it to Symposium on time, I would have to take a bus to Albany the night before and sleep over at a hotel. I would then have to catch a bus to Coxsackie and take a cab to the facility. Then, I would have to catch a bus back to Albany the next morning, which would mean another night in a hotel, this time in Coxsackie. Not many families with a loved one in prison can afford such a trip. The distance, time, and cost of the trip made very real the barriers to reentry that locating our prisons so far away from the city have created. The importance of family and community in the reentry process cannot be overstated and without resources and time, it is nearly impossible to maintain a supportive relationship with an incarcerated individual, prepare reentrants for the reunification process, or to conduct in-reach.

With the luxury of my trip being paid for, I decided to take a car, sleep over one night, and drive back after the Symposium.

On the morning of the 29th, I entered the prison ready to answer questions and distribute our Coming Home Guide, and other brochures from non-profits that assist individuals returning to their communities. 180 men being released within the next six months would be attending the Symposium. Although I knew from my work that a disproportionate number of inmates would be returning to Manhattan (about 5,000 return to Manhattan each year), I was not prepared for the line that formed at my table. While other counties spoke in a relaxed manner with a few men, a line quickly formed by my table and remained steady throughout every session. While other Task Force Coordinators would likely see many of the men they connected with at the prison in their Case Management programs, unless they were placed in one of the 250 spots in our reentry programs at the Harlem Community Justice Center, it was unlikely that I would see many of these men again. The challenge of reentry posed by the sheer numbers of individuals returning to Manhattan was illustrated for me by the lines formed at each county's table and the very few minutes I had to talk with each individual.

During the Symposium, I had many conversations with men about their excitement and anxiety about their upcoming release. Nearly every man I spoke with approached me with two questions, the first: "Where will I live?" Many feared not being able to return to public housing because of their criminal record. Others could not live with their families because someone in their family was on parole. While some feared returning to difficult home situations, a more frequently expressed fear was being released to live in shelter, a fate one man described as a "recipe for reincarceration." A seventy two year old man, who had been incarcerated for thirty years, was particularly fearful of having to live in a shelter and not being provided the health care he needed.

Even more common than fears about housing were worries about finding a job. I acknowledged the reality of difficulties finding a job with a criminal record, but offered the hope that many individuals do find work post incarceration. I also directed them to the diverse and rich network of workforce intermediaries that offer services to formerly incarcerated individuals in Manhattan.

When I left the prison that day, I thought about the meaning behind DOC's sponsorship of the first Reentry Symposium in a New York State Correctional Facility. I thought about the positive movement that such a event signals. And I thought about all the work the Task Force has ahead of us and the unique challenges that Manhattan faces. With the collaboration taking place among state and local government,non-profits, faith-based initiatives, and academic partners in Manhattan County, I am hopeful that each year my lines at DOCS' Symposiums will get a little bit shorter.