This is our second interview profiling individuals working in the reentry field that took an unlikely path to their current destinations. This week features Gregory Russell, a formerly incarcerated man, who now works for the Kings County District Attorney’s Office. As a Case Manager and Community Advocate for the DA's acclaimed ComALERT reentry program, Mr. Russell serves as a mentor to formerly incarcerated clients, assists in employment, and offers advice on staying out of the criminal justice system.
Interviewed by Anisah Thompson
Can you tell me a little bit about your criminal justice background?
Well, I have a lifelong criminal history. The last time I served time, I served for 10 years. I was released in 2006 to parole supervision for fourteen months.
How did you stay out of prison after your last sentence?
I think, when I came home this time my mind was so focused because of the amount of box time [solitary time] I did, so I was tired. I also had a close knit family and I had a tremendous amount of support from them, financially, spiritually, emotionally. They were like my best friends. None of them wanted to see me go through experience of being jail again.
Everything with me was different this time. It was God, my higher power that put me in positions to find employment. Within my first two weeks home I had a job as a personal trainer in New York Sports Club. Ask me how I got it, it was God!
I also think the thing that I did to make sure I secured employment was to change my demeanor. I knew I had to change my look, I had to soften my look so what I did was I invested in suits, and those suits catapulted me into the working force. It wasn’t by any means of a community based organization (CBO) that helped me or trained me in anything. I actually got in by the grace of god. Not to downplay any CBO because there are CBOs that do a pretty good job with assisting formerly incarcerated people.
Tell me how you landed this position at the District Attorney’s Office?
It was epic, it had to be from the movies. First of all, I never thought I would be working in a District Attorney’s office The irony is that the first job I got as a case manager in a CBO was because basically using by using things I was doing my last year in prison when I was working for a Youth Assistance Program (“YAP”) while I was incarcerated. It was a counseling and nurturing type of situation where we had the youth come in from the neighboring high schools in the area and we would counsel them, give them workshops, and presentations. That started me to working on the road to CBO’s and social service, and to working as a case manager at the DA’s Office.
What is like working for the same system that is in charge of prosecution?
When I first told a couple of cousins and uncles, the first thing they said was, “Man you know they checking backgrounds right?”and I was like, “Yeah, they checked my background already.” When I interviewed with the District Attorney Hynes and another assistant DA, they actually had my rap sheet right in front of them. I had given them my social security number before I even had the interview, so I was exposed to highest degree. There was nothing I could have said or got around any of the crimes I committed.
My friends, and most of my peers were shocked that I was working here. A lot of them were excited saying that it actually gave them a ray of hope saying. “If he can be in the District Attorney’s office so can I.” So I felt kind of good, I never got any shade from being in the DA’s Office.
Does having “been there” help you in your job as a case manager?
The clients respond to me in a very positive light, I normally don’t disclose anything about my background until I need to- I like to be able to get off on the right note without having to disclose too much personal information about myself. I try to show them a professional side first and if need be I will go into where I been just to give them a ray of hope. I use my past as a trump card to give inspiration to actually motivate them to want to achieve and get where they need to be or to whereever god has intended for them.
Do you face any unique challenges having been where they are now?
Yes, yes, there are unique challenges. I want for them what I have for myself, trying to convince someone that there are better days coming when they are in a state of despair, is kind of a hard. How do you that? There’s no rhyme or reason, no set way all I can do is try to take as many workshops as I can to try to gain new skills to help. How do I motivate someone who has low self esteem? Something I notice about most of the black males coming out of the system is that their self esteem level is at an all-time low. So how do you give someone self esteem? You can’t, the only thing I can do is try to empower them and that’s the premise of my whole make up to trying to empower people to want to do better.