Oct 30, 2013

A Different Kind of "Return" to Otisville Prison: Offering Hope and Resources to Incarcerated Men at Otisville

By Cramon Milline, Reentry Aid, Harlem Community Justice Center and Amanda Levering, Social Work Intern, HCJC, October 2013

        On October 18th, 2013 the Otisville Correctional Facility held its Annual Resource Fair in Otisville, New York. The theme was “helping people to break out of the revolving door.” As I got dressed at 4:30am to start the two hour journey up to the Resource Fair, I started to reflect on how I “broke out of the revolving door” myself. Today I would walk into a facility that housed me as an inmate in 1969 as a free man and not only as a free man, but as a service provider. This full circle moment is something I could never have envisioned as I was in and out of the system for over twenty years. As my coworker and I got closer to the facility, My directions were more accurate than the GPS. Everything looked exactly the same. The correctional facility sits up on a hill that overlooks the beautiful mountains and hills of the area. I went back into time.
As my coworker and I waited in line to enter the facility, I was beyond anxious, I was physically shaking.  I feared that something would go wrong with my last minute clearance due to my criminal history and that my coworker would go in alone. As we sat in a line of cars, the inmates were walking across the entrance, presumably walking to breakfast. Once we cleared the gate, we parked and entered the facility to be “processed”.  I continued to feel a wide range of emotions as I went through the x-ray machine, provided my ID and was searched by the Correctional Officers. Eventually we were transported over to the gymnasium, where the resource fair would be held. As we road in the back of the transport vehicle, I sat in awe looking at the landscape and the buildings that had changed very little since 1969.  The structures were essentially the same, but the campus itself had expanded greatly. There were four other agencies there to provide information about their services as well. As we set up our tables of information, we were ready to meet the guys.
Throughout the morning and afternoon sessions, we spoke to over 100 men that were interested in hearing about the Harlem Parole Reentry Court and available resources for them upon their release. We met men from all over New York. Some of them shared their stories with us and I shared my story with most of them. It was an honor to be able to say to them that I was once in that facility as an inmate and that there is hope. That I am a living and breathing example of how someone can get out of the system and change their life.
Otisville Correctional Facility, NYDOCCS
We ran out of resource guides during the morning session and although we were initially very upset about not having enough information, we quickly realized that way more important than providing them with booklets and papers, was giving out hope. Throughout our conversations with the guys, we learned that Otisville had become a “graveyard” prison. Approximately half of the guys we spoke to received sentences of 15, 20, 30 years to life.  It was overwhelming. Despite the number of years in their sentence, many of these men shared their thoughts and dreams about a life outside of these four walls. 
It caused my coworker and me to think a lot about the needs of re-entry for individuals that have served a significant amount of time. Although often overlooked, their needs are quite different than someone who has served 3-5 years. On top of all of the reentry needs of housing, employment, support, they are being released to a world that they no longer know. To a world that is full of technology that is likely unimaginable to them.
At the end of the day, we were astounded with how many men we spoke to, the stories they shared of strength and hope and their desire to make a positive contribution to society. Many of them expressed gratitude for taking the time to come and speak with them and it occurred to us how often they feel “forgotten.” In reality, we were grateful to them for sharing their stories with us. What if we lived in a world that saw people’s strengths and supported them in changing their lives for the better? How fewer men and women would be incarcerated? Ultimately, that is why we do what we do. I know that I am a product of that value. Someone valued my experience and my strengths and that is why I was able to walk both in and out of Otisville that day.