Yesterday afternoon I attended a wonderful Lunch & Learn event at Elmendorf Church here in Harlem. The event arose out of our work with the Interfaith Center of New York funded by the J.C Flower’sFoundation; we call it Reentry Circles of Support. The approach is simple: activate the family and faith community volunteers to support young men returning from prison. We embarked on this work with our partners because of the challenges young men of color face as a result of mass incarceration. Consider the following. In 2012, 3,140 individuals were released from prison and returned to community supervision (parole) in Manhattan, the highest number of any county in New York State. Younger parolees are less successful in the community and more likely to be returned to prison. The population of former persons on parole in New York State prisons is younger than the general inmate population, 30 vs. 32 years old on average, and half of all parolees that were admitted to NYS prisons are under the age of 30. Nationally, half of all first admission to prisons occurs between the ages of 18 and 24. When young men of color return from prison to Harlem they face high rates of unemployment, crushing poverty, and the stigma associated with a felony conviction. An analysis by our partner organization, the Center for Court Innovation, found that within one year of release from prison, 37% of Manhattan parolees under supervision between 2001 and 2007 were arrested for a new offense, and 29% were convicted.
The Reentry Circles of Support initiative use evidence-based practices, family involvement and a “ministry of presence” approach provided by a diverse group of committed faith based volunteers to try and change the culture of parole reporting. Reverend Ferguson and his colleagues at the Interfaith Center of New York recruit congregations to serving as “places of welcome” for men and women coming home from prison and their families. Each Thursday at our Parole Reentry Court hearings Interfaith Center staff and religious volunteers are in the court house serving refreshments to the parolees while offering them encouragement and support.
The Lunch & Learn events are the brainchild of Reverend Ferguson. They began as a monthly opportunity to bring together our parole clients, staff, and parole officers, to break bread and hear inspirational talks from local leaders in the reentry community. Yesterday’s event was special because Reverend Ferguson has accepted a position working with the Osborne Association in their fatherhood initiative and will be leaving our team. As you can see in the picture above, it is hard to tell who is a parolee, parole officer, court administrator or social worker. It is a sign, I believe, of how we are changing the culture of parole though a climate of accountability, respect and support for everyone involved in the reentry process. I leave off with a quote from Reverend Ferguson for those of us laboring to make a difference: “You are a miracle. You were born with a promise that you can accomplish anything.”
By Christopher Watler, Project Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center