Welcome to the Criminal Justice Forum where we discuss key issues in the criminal justice system that impact you and your family.
Hi I'm Jack Aernecke. The concept of offender re-entry is beginning to attract an awful lot of interest in the criminal justice system.
Re-entry is the re-integration of prisoners into society and criminologists are increasingly viewing re-entry not just as letting someone go but preparing them for release and successful transition back into a community so that they become productive members of society.
And today I am joined by a couple of people with a really unique perspective on re-entry. Glenn Martin is vice president of development and public affairs for the Fortune Society, Vivian Nixon, executive director of the College and Community Fellowship and both Glenn and Vivian have served time in prison, and experienced first-hand the difficulties of re-joining society and now they are helping other offenders make that same journey as successfully as they have made it.
Vivian and Glenn, welcome to Criminal Justice Forum. I'm glad you are both here today. Glenn tell me a little bit about the Fortune Society, your NYC based, what do you do?
Sure, we are a multi-departmental, multi-service agency that works with people with criminal records. A person could have spent a night in jail or 35 years in prison, we serve anyone who comes through the door. We have a low threshold so it doesn't matter what the crime is we serve everyone. We provide services such as education, counseling, career development, family services, a host of services to help people to re-integrate back into society. For many people it's the services that they may not have received before they went to prison or may not have had received in prison, and then we also have a policy department to address some of the systemic barriers that people face who are trying to re-integrate.
Is the stuff that you're doing - working with your clients - your clients, is that the stuff that really should have been done in prison?
You could argue that. Most people come out and things such as GEDs, they don’t have their GED so we start working with them to help them get their GED. We believe that it should have happened in prison many people stay in prison for three, four or five years and unfortunately because of a lack of services, don't get the chance to engage in GEDs. Other folks, sometimes it's vocational training, but then sometimes it's other things that a person that may not get in prison such as programs on how to deal with their children, parenting skills and so on.
So they are very specific programs that we think meet the needs of the people help them re-integrate and ultimately lead to public safety, increasing public safety.
Do you work at all with folks before they actually get out?
We do. We are in some of the prisons, we don't have a lot of funding to go into the prisons and many of them are located pretty far away from New York City although the majority of people end up in prison are from New York City. So, sometimes it's difficult for us to be able to travel to the facilities that are really far away on the northern border. But we do work in about 10 different prisons to help prepare people to try to create a continuity of care, especially for people who have HIV or AIDS.
And, ok, Vivian tell me about the College and Community Fellowship, what is it that you, your organization does?
The College and Community Fellowship works with women who have been involved with the criminal justice system who have been in jail or prison and who want to go to college and see higher education as a way to secure an economic future for themselves and their families. In order to help people get a college degree we provide services such as mentoring, and tutoring and peer support groups that help ensure that a person will actually get a degree and not just take a few college courses.
In addition to that, we connect them to more broad based services such as the Fortune Society offers when they need those types of services, but our specific goal is to help women who've been involved with the system get a college degree.
And you guys work together?
We do. Yeah absolutely we do and we as Vivian said refer clients to each other. Our folks once they get their GED is sort of a natural fit to refer them to Vivian's program.
And when you use the word prison, your talking state prison, you're talking as something other than a county jail?
Ah no, that's not necessarily true. We do work with women who only have had experiences in local jails. If a person has been arrested and convicted of a crime and feels that they need the type of support that we offer in order to go to school we give that. Because we figure if a person gets to the point of being involved with the criminal justice system at all, that there are other social factors that have contributed to that problem. So they need some support system, so we have a low threshold in that. A bunch of society issues that, that are there.
Exactly. Well, I mean what we find is that the folks who have served time in prison usually need more help because it's not just the barriers created as a result of the criminal conviction but there's also the disconnect from their families, their communities and loved ones and so on, and the lack of resources. But we serve just about everyone.
In fact, we have six programs that specifically are called alternative to incarceration programs. So we actually do work to keep people out of prison in the first place, so a judge would sentence the person to come into the Fortune Society and work with us for 6-18 months on some of the issues that are probably leading to their criminal behavior. And successful completion of that program leads to a judge giving them a more favorable sentence.
I'd like to ask each of you a little bit about your background because you did, it did mention in the introduction that you have both served time in prison. Glenn tell me a little bit about the background, what, you know, little bit, what your comfortable with, with the experience and what happened after you were done. Sure, so I went to prison for six years in New York State for a violent crime. While no one was hurt during the commission of the crime it was still a violent crime under statute of New York. And there was the potential for someone to get hurt so it was a violent crime.
I did six years in New York State prison, I came home about seven-and-a-half years ago, dealt with all the barriers that people face
coming home, I was lucky enough to engage in some programming while I was on the inside, that I think was beneficial to me and helped with my re-integration ultimately, but, yeah, so you start out in jail, you know, in New York City, I was in jail for about a year as a detainee, waiting to get sentenced or take a plea, and then ultimately to serve the rest of the time in state prison, pretty far from New York in Attica County in New York. Yeah far from New York City. And then you said you were involved in some programs which actually helped when you were, when you were released, is that, are they readily available for everyone, and did you, were you just the one that had the smarts to take advantage of it, or what?
You know, people, people often look at my story and say oh well, you know, maybe, you’re the exception and then I'll say no, I was just the person who was exposed to exceptional opportunities, I was exposed to college program, and there's no systemic college in prison any more.
I went in with a high school diploma, so I was really prepared to go further, but just didn't really have the sort of self-esteem and belief that I could go to college while I was on the outside so to me it wasn't an option. And some of it had to do with family income level, and so on.
Right. That I was just too poor to go to college essentially, and I went to prison and the correctional counselor took a look at my test scores because you go through sort of an orientation period and I think this was really the turning point the way he put his hand on my shoulder, and essentially said that to me, you look like you should be going to college based on these scores and I think that was the first time someone had ever said that to me so I don't know whether it was the college degree or this person saying this, but definitely that became sort of the point where I started making this 180 degree turn, so I had the chance to take advantage of this college program that existed in Attica, New York, pretty far from my family but it was important for me to stay there so I could finish the program but unfortunately those sort of programs don't exist throughout the system any longer.
They were taken away in 1994 when we were sort of being tough on crime. OK. And basically taking opportunities away from folks to make their lives better if they have taken a wrong turn. Yeah, even though the evidence shows that education is the one intervention that really turns people's lives around it was something that we took away at a time when we thought we just wanted to be tougher on people committing crimes.
And I would think that in this day and age of some much computer interaction with colleges where you can do distance learning it would really be a heck of a lot easier these days.
Yeah. And cheaper. No absolutely, I mean, some of my work post incarceration has been working with other states to help them bring college back to the system and states such as New Mexico have very systemic college programs, using distance learning, absolutely using technology.
But New York you haven't succeeded so far.
Not yet. Not yet. I'm hopeful.
I like the not yet part. Vivian, tell me what you're comfortable with telling me about your past.
I was convicted of a non-violent crime, a felony conviction and was sentenced to three-and-a-half to seven years in a state prison. I served a year at the local jail and then was sent to the state system where I did another two-and-a-half years before I got paroled.
My turnaround point story is very similar to Glenn's. When I was at Bedford Correctional Facility which is kind of a processing facility, I was there for a few weeks and learned that they offered college and was told very similarly when I went through the orientation process and took all the tests that that's something that I should consider because my test scores indicated that I would do well in college, I already had a high school diploma. Did all of that and paperwork was being processed and I was getting ready to register for my first round of courses and then I got moved much further upstate to Albion Correctional Facility where there was no college available.
And there was nothing I could do to circumvent that happening that I had no power to stop it. And that was devastating to me because in that one offer of possibly getting a college degree I saw hope, like, oh wow, the next two-and-a-half years of my life were not going to be wasted, I'm gonna be able to accomplish something.
So I was devastated by that, and became obsessed with the idea of trying to somehow go to college, so the seed was planted at that time and I never lost that bug, but unfortunately didn't get an opportunity to go to college until I got out.
What, why didn't you consider college beforehand or did you consider it and just dismiss it?
I considered it beforehand, but, issues got in the way, financial issues, substance abuse problems, and you know, just other factors played in, into my never going to college before I ended up in prison.
And was it the almost the magic moment of one person touching you on the shoulder and saying, you can do this?
It was pretty much that, yeah.
Wow, that's amazing, it's the most important work any of us ever do is touch someone else's life I guess. Coming out of prison, being released from prison again, Glenn let me ask you, how did you get involved from that point into the Fortune Society?
Right, for me, you had - you were able to get your degree in college, right?
I was in prison, yes, I was able to get my degree.
I meant in prison, I'm sorry.
Absolutely. And then how did, what happened when, after you got out?
So you know, I obtained a degree while I was on the inside, so I was very hopeful coming out that I'd be prepared and that I'd be embraced by employers and other folks and I had a reality check shortly after being released. First of all, being released with no identification from prison was the first blow that really set me back for weeks. It may not sound like a huge issue but what can you do these days without identification. So that was the first thing, I had to get over that. And then, searching for employment, having conversations with employers about what I thought I'd bring to the table including the completion of a college degree while I was on the inside, having the college degree was very helpful in terms of the conversation with employers, to sort of shift the balance of the conversation so it's not all about the conviction record, it's sort of like, I committed this crime, however, here's what I've done since then. And repeatedly I had doors closed in my face, based solely on the criminal conviction, not taking into account any evidence of rehabilitation, the college degree and so on.
Some employers did give some credit to it and did, you know, sort of tell they were pretty impressed that I was able to accomplish something while I was in prison, but I mean, so many opportunities were closed to me, so what ended up happening is that I went to an intermediary organization, an organization like the Fortune Society that essentially has relationships established with employers ready, they have career developmental departments if you will.
And so they ask the employer to give you an opportunity based on the trust they have built with that employer through those relationships, and that landed me a job at a place called the Legal Action Center, which was a non-profit law firm similar to legal aid, a law firm that had been around for years in New York State working on these very issues addressing barriers that people with criminal records face. And from there I just learned how to do the work, learned how to help other people who were coming out of the system facing barriers, legal barriers and practical barriers, and once I felt as though I'd learned from some of the best and that I'd done the work for a pretty long time I wanted to move over to an agency that was working with large numbers of people coming out of prison, so I could apply, you know, that new found knowledge that helped, you know, these thousands of people.
At the Fortune Society, we serve about three thousand people per year, and I thought it was important for me to take those expertise and bring it to the organization.
And Vivian what about you, you were not able to get you college degree while you were in prison, but you had the bug already.
I had the bug already, and right before I was released somebody handed me a brochure about this organization called the College and Community Fellowship that was designed to help people get their college degrees when they got out of prison. So, when I got out the second phone call I made after my parole officer, was to this organization and they helped me get a college degree and that was the easy part, the hard part was finding work in the meantime. Went on interview after interview, after interview. Same barriers. And experienced the same barriers. Even though I had a lot of previous work history before I went to prison, had always been, my employment record was not bad, there was no real reason to deny me employment other then the felony conviction and I had a real hard time and really thought that if I went ahead and got a college degree, that would give me, you know, a leg up, a leg up, and the College and Community Fellowship helped me do that.
Your degree is in what?
My degree is in Human Services Administration.
And yours, Glenn?
My degree is in Liberal Arts.
OK, what role did your families play in your success and how so, in your success coming out of prison, was there a family role?
Yeah for me there was a huge family role. Many people coming out of prison and don't have a stable place to go, my family was there for me, embraced me coming back, gave me a place to stay, gave me that stability to be able to look for a job, to be able to be turned down many times and still know I had a place to rest my head at the end of the day and to wake up the next morning and start all over again. And then there was just the initial resources up front, clothing, some of the things you need to even go look for a job, a resume and a computer, actually. Purchase a computer, which helped me get more familiar with computers, something I wasn't really exposed to while I was in the system. And, so yeah, for me that was critical especially within the first few months where you just sort of out you know, you have these plans, your plans fail sometimes, and just to be able to come home and talk to my family about what I was working on and have them say, you know, everyone's plans fail from time to time and you know, that doesn't mean that you don't get up the next morning and start all over again.
Just somebody to encourage or a group of people to continue to encourage is important I imagine, as opposed to someone trying to do it alone.
Could you have done it alone?
I couldn't have done it alone. I don't think anyone can do it alone, um, I'm actually surprised, I mean we have a pretty high recidivism rate nationally, I'm pretty surprised at the group of folks that actually make it, you know, I don't think anyone can do it alone. People need families, people need friends, communities and I always tell people to ask for help. It took me a while to learn how to ask for help, I thought I was a pretty independent person but everyone asks for help and I learned how to ask for help, it's important.
Vivian, what about you, what role did family play?
Absolutely critical role, I was you know, blessed enough to have a family that protected what little bit I had before I went to prison. For instance when I came out I still had clothes to wear, I still had some of like my possessions, um, they gave me a place to live and with the understanding that of course, I was gonna try and find work, I was gonna try to become independent again, but not with kind of a short time frame.
A lot of people come out of prison and initially family does take them in but, you know, after three or four weeks it's like ok, why are you still here? My family wasn't like that, they understood that with the criminal
conviction it was gonna be a much longer period of time than usual for me to find a job. So they kind of stuck that period out with me.
And part of it was because they saw that I was trying, you know I got back in school right away, and they really saw that I was making the effort. But those supports are absolutely critical to a person's success, and if indeed I did not have that place to stay and did not have those supports people to lend me their car or drive me around when I needed to go on an job interview to let me use their computer when I wanted to research jobs on the internet, I absolutely could not have done it.
You'd be back in?
And you would be too?
If you didn't have the family support, absolutely I'd be back in and at the Fortune Society, we try to take it into account that some people may not have family, especially when you've spent a really long time in prison, people may have died, you may just be totally disconnected and so part of our job when people come through the door at the Fortune Society is to welcome them into our family and we become their family. So the idea is to provide the same sort of support that your family would provide, including being, we've even housed people who have criminal records, we have actual housing where we've transitioned people into stable, affordable housing in the community, but they come to us first, and we become their family.
What is the one program or intervention that had the most impact on your successful re-entry, Vivian?
The opportunity to go to college. It's that simple. That was it. That was it. It was the hope of getting a college degree and really turning my life around. Recreating my image, because I felt like college was transformational enough to not only make changes within me but to make changes from the way people saw me. So I would say that's the greatest intervention.
Education, college education, I've seen it for a lot of our clients. For me, definitely was education, and you know, the quality liberal arts degree that I received while I was on the inside allowed me to navigate the barriers I was gonna face once I got out.
It gave me an understanding why I was facing those barriers, why some of those barriers are in place, how to navigate those barriers, but definitely that was the one intervention where I just sort of started turning things around.
And as a result of all of this, as a result of what you've been through, what you've experienced coming back out again, the difficulty you had in getting yourself re-established, how has that made it change in how you approach your role in dealing with other people who are just in the process of coming out. What has that taught you and how do you approach what you do?
I approach it from the point of view, um, of telling people that there are opportunities out there. There may not be as many opportunities as we'd like, and may not be as easy as you want it to be, some things are hard, but just because something is hard doesn't mean we don't do it.
That if an opportunity is presented, we have responsibilities to take full advantage of it. And my approach is walking people through the necessary steps, to do what may be hard, but what in the end is going to be most to their advantage, and increase their chances of success.
Have you, in the College and Community Fellowship, have you actually created or been part of creating programs that are a direct result of the experience you've had?
I think the College and Community Fellowship itself is a direct result of these types of experiences because it really is a group of like-minded women who are all trying to get college degrees with the history of a criminal conviction.
That's why we offer the real community support aspect of the program, but a spin off of that, one of the statistics that come from our own internal research is that 70% of the people who get college degrees through our programs go into some kind of social service field. They work for organizations like the Fortune Society or other re-entry organizations in New York City because they understand that kind of part of their responsibility in their success is to share that success with other people and share how to do it with other people. We even have a few students who have started their own organizations to do similar work in the community. So, while we don't have any direct spin offs, the work has multiplied in other ways.
Have you had any success to Glenn's point earlier, getting college back in to the prison system?
But you two are working together.
We do we collaborate between the Fortune Society and College and Community Fellowship and other organizations like the Correctional Association, and other organizations interested in doing that, it's, there's a lot that can be done. There's a lot that can be done aside from changing the law, but changing the laws are a long process, but we're also looking at other ways like giving people access to educational release, which is similar to work release. Which is on the books, it's a law that's on the books, there's nothing that says the Department of Corrections can't implement it, it's just kind of changing the culture around it and making it happen.
Glenn, what about the Fortune Society, is there anything that has been created or that you've been part of creating as a program that was a direct result of the experiences you have to try and make it better for others?
Yeah sure, so there's no programs created from scratch, I came to an organization that had a multitude of programs already in existence. However, I think my approach, is starting to, my approach to the work based on my experiences are starting to spread throughout the agency and it has a lot to do with self-sufficiency. I believed everything we do we should be moving people towards self-sufficiency so not giving people a hand out but sort of giving them a hand up, if you will, meeting people where they are, providing the right intervention at the right time at the right level, to help people to do what they need to do, to be responsible themselves. I really believe that people rise to the occasion and that's what it was for me, I came out, I had a college degree, it was like give me an opportunity.
My first job , just to be clear, was answering the phones, making $16,000 a year, when I was in the street I used to make $16,000 in a day and so, the idea of being humble enough to take a job that create opportunity where I could show the people who hired me and the people who gave me an opportunity that I could rise to the occasion and be an asset to them, was really important for me so now, at the Fortune Society as I look across the scope of our programs and have conversations with our programs directors and managers, I remind them all the time, that we need to do just enough of an intervention to get people to meet us halfway, be responsible, rise to the occasion and move towards self-sufficiency.
How do you know your program works?
We measure our programs. We actually do sort of measurements where we ensure that people are taking advantage of a wide array of our services but also measure our recidivism rates and while we try not to hang everything on recidivism rates, um, it is one of our key measures. So nationally the rates are at two-thirds of people go back after three years and our rates are lower, much lower, around 20 something percent, 30 something percent based on which intervention they may have had a chance to take an opportunity, to take advantage of at the Fortune Society. I mean some of our programs of the people of heavy drug and alcohol use in the past - Right. And so there you may see a slightly higher recidivism rate, but across the board, our recidivism rates are down and for us it's not the only measure.
If you have a guy that's been going back to jail or prison repeatedly for violent crimes for the last 40 years and he goes back and it's for substance abuse because he got caught in possession for drugs because he relapsed, then you know what, we see that as a success and the person is moving towards success and the person will come back to us hopefully and will remember what we did for them in the first place and remember that he has a family at the Fortune Society.
Vivian, how do you measure, how do you know you're successful?
We measure our success in a few ways. One of those ways is by monitoring the recidivism rate, which by the way in 8 years of operation is less than 2 percent.
Wow. You can't beat that.
No, you can't, absolutely not. But the other thing we do is that when people leave our program after they get a degree and some of them don't leave after they get their first degree, we have people who are in master's degrees programs, who stay with us and say you know what, I think I want to get a Ph.D.
We have two of those people still with us, right now, and we actually have one person get a Ph.D. last year. But when they leave our program we ask them are you better off than you were, when you came in. And so we measure it, are you -- is your income higher, do you have a better relationship with your family, do you feel that there's less stigma attached to the fact that you have a felony conviction. Some of what we ask is quantitative but a lot of it is qualitative. Are you better off than you were before you came to our doors? And most people say yes.
As a matter of fact I don't know anyone who said no. Ha, I was gonna say most or all. I would imagine it's all.
Gosh our time is gone and I'm sorry to hear that because we could've really gone on for a long, long time. I want to thank both of you, Glenn Martin and Vivian Nixon for coming and joining us today talking about the Fortune Society and the College and Community Fellowship. It's been for me in many ways an eye-opening experience and wish you both much, much success in the work you do which is basically making this world a better place for all of us.
Thank you very much for all your personal effort and the effort and the effort you making now to make it better for everyone else.