NYC Mayor Appoints Nationally Acclaimed Prison Reformer, Joseph Ponte, as New Commissioner of Corrections

NYC mayor appoints Ponte as Commissioner of Corrections

New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio is bringing in a nationally acclaimed prison reformer, Joseph Ponte, as New York’s newly appointed Commissioner of the NYC Department of Correction. Mr. Ponte has worked in corrections for 40 years, most recently as Commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, where he reduced solitary confinement by two-thirds and eliminated disciplinary segregation for people identified as mentally ill. His appointment marks a major sea change in New York City corrections policy, as the NYC Department of Corrections seeks to end the overuse of solitary confinement, curtail officers’ use of excessive force, and improve resources to handle the needs of incarcerated people living with mental illness. If successful, this will lead to healthier people inside prisons and jails and healthier people returning to the community.

In Mr. Ponte’s own words: “Every resident of this city [New York, NY] deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. From schools to hospitals to prisons, we cannot let our commitment to safety and fair resources falter for a single member of our society. We need to end the culture of excessive solitary confinement and unnecessary force, and bring a new mentality of respect and safety to our wardens, officers and inmates alike.”

Root & Rebound is thrilled to see the nation’s largest city bring a major reformer into the world of corrections. In past blog posts, we have written about awful prison practices like solitary confinement, which only serve to break people down and exacerbate mental illness. Dignity & respect, as Mr. Ponte so eloquently said, underly the need to reform and eliminate such practices. Treating people currently and formerly incarcerated with dignity & respect will lead to healthier, happier, more productive people both inside and outside of prisons and jails.

Root & Rebound applauds you, NYC!

— The R & R Team

Read more about this story in the N.Y. Times & from the NYC Office of the Mayor.

Meet the Center for Community Alternatives & Deputy Director Josefina Bastidas

Above, a CCA participant and her daughter

Above, a CCA participant and her daughter.

Root & Rebound had an incredible meeting in NYC a couple of weeks back with Josefina Bastidas, Esq., Deputy Director for the New York City offices at the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) in downtown Brooklyn. Immediately upon walking through their office doors, we felt and were treated like CCA family. During our visit, Josefina introduced us to some of CCA’s social work clinicians, attorneys, program and service directors, administrative support staff, and mentors. Every person greeted us with kindness and support. CCA’s positive work culture and community impact radiated from every person we met.

CCA promotes reintegrative justice and a reduced reliance on incarceration through advocacy, direct services, and public policy development in pursuit of civil and human rights. CCA works with people who would otherwise be incarcerated—men, women, and youth—and provides an alternative to incarceration. In an average year, CCA successfully diverts 400 people from more costly incarceration and provides reentry services to roughly 500 individuals; in doing so, CCA’s programs reduce the collateral consequences of incarceration, strengthen families, and build safer communities.

The way it works is that courts actually sentence people to CCA programs instead of prison or jail time.  CCA provides these clients with client-specific planning, addiction recovery and treatment, family reunification, educational planning support, workforce readiness, social support, and policy advocacy. Another benefit of diversion programs at CCA is that, for every person mandated to CCA instead of incarceration, New York State taxpayers save at least the $32,000 in annual state prison costs. Even more savings accrue through reducing time in local jails or juvenile justice placements, which cost more than twice the amount of state prison.

Josefina—who provides the leadership and oversight for all services provided out of CCA’s New York City office—has an amazing professional history. She received her law degree from Santa Maria University and was a District Judge in her birth country, Venezuela. But after coming to the United States, she was relegated professionally to the bottom of the legal professional totem pole. From Josefina’s drive to rebuild her legal career in the U.S., she received her Master of Laws Degree from Georgetown University Law Center. Josefina not only rebuilt her professional life in the United States, but has also made it her life’s work to help people whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system and mentor young people who care about social justice and criminal justice reform. She is nothing short of inspirational.

R & R discussed with Josefina the challenges of starting a reentry legal services nonprofit, and how Root & Rebound could learn from CCA to build the strongest foundation possible for its work. Josefina described the vision of the founders of CCA and the growth behind its reentry services model. Josefina’s biggest piece of advice was to pick one area of narrow focus and to build from there. For example, she cited CCA’s early focus on sentence mediation for people facing criminal convictions, which has since grown into a focus on all things related to alternatives to incarceration and reentry.

And there is still lots of innovation going on at CCA! As an example, CCA, in conjunction with the Vera Institute of Justice and other stakeholders, is developing a pilot program that partners with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to allow a small cohort of people with felony records to live with their family members in NYCHA housing upon release.

Currently, NYCHA has a rule in place that forbids people with a felony records from living in New York City’s public housing. These types of housing restrictions may increase the likelihood of recidivism, as a formerly incarcerated person may end up in less stable living environments or even homeless. But this pilot program will change all that. It will allow 150 individuals with felony records who have family living in NYCHA housing to live with that family upon release. The families that will be involved in this pilot program are those that welcome and desire their formerly incarcerated family member to live with them. Thus, NYCHA will forego its traditional rule that forbids people with felony records from living in public housing for these 150 people and their families. From there, CCA, The Vera Institute, NYCHA and other program leaders will monitor positive outcomes that flow from allowing these 150 individuals to live with their family members. There is hope that, one day, the success of this pilot program will lead NYCHA to remove its housing restriction against individuals with felony records. The pilot program hopes to show that families are perfectly capable of bringing a formerly incarcerated family member into their home, in turn improving that person’s likelihood for reintegration, stability, and success in society.

We were so inspired by our talk with Josefina, and her advice to build the strongest foundation possible for our organization so that we can continue to innovate in the world of criminal justice reform & reentry. From the bottoms of our hearts, from our deepest roots to our highest branches, Root & Rebound would like to thank Josefina and the CCA staff for welcoming us into their space in Brooklyn, sharing their work, and supporting our mission to support individuals exiting prison and jail in Northern California.

Onward!

– The R & R Team

Please take a moment to learn out more about CCA and support them here!

Finding roots of reentry in NYC! First Stop: Friends of Island Academy

This Friends of Island Academy mural was created and painted by Mr. Anthony DeJesus, a youth leader.

This Friends of Island Academy mural was created and painted by Mr. Anthony DeJesus, a youth leader.

Welcome to the Big Apple—New York City! As big believers in finding and establishing roots here at Root & Rebound, we decided to take a work trip to the birthplace of the term “reentry”— where the roots to much of the work we care deeply about began. Whereas California’s reentry legal services are often far and few between, New York City has had decades of building up a robust, interconnected system of legal, social, and medical and health service providers for people exiting prisons and jails. People like Stanford Law School professor Debbie Mukamal, who we featured on our blog a couple weeks ago, were the foremothers and forefathers of reentry services on the East Coast. Several others will be featured on the Root & Rebound blog this week.

One of our first meetings was with the incredible Edgar La Luz Torres from Friends of Island Academy (“Friends”) in Harlem. At Friends, they strive to break cycles of incarceration by offering youth members a sense of belonging and limitless opportunities for achievement and growth. When young people become youth members at Friends, they map out personal milestone goals along five key program domains: education; employability; health & well-being; community participation; and recreation & arts.  The longer they remain engaged and connected to the program, the greater the influence on their trajectory to becoming economically independent adults, connected to their communities in positive ways. Friends leverages their strengths, resilience, and hopefulness as they overcome obstacles and transform their lives and communities for the better. Youth member alumnae remain connected to Friends for years, and through their youth leadership services, have had an impact on hundreds of at-risk children and young adolescents delivering their message.

The concept for Friends of Island Academy (“Friends”) developed in the late 1980’s at the alternative high school located in one of the facilities on Rikers Island housing sentenced adolescents.  At that time, the leading cause of death among black male adolescents in New York City was homicide, and the average daily population at Rikers Island was almost double what it is today (approximately 21,000 vs. 13,000 inmates).  In the earliest years of the organization, young people spoke about the importance of having proper clothing to attend funerals, and mothers and grandmothers expressed relief when a son/grandson was incarcerated, as they believed their child would be safer in jail than on the street.  The disproportionate per capita incarceration of young African American males was climbing at an exponential rate. The organization was rooted in collaboration between education and social service staff who sought to address the recidivism rates, untapped potential and disproportionate minority representation among thousands of adolescents who attended school on Rikers Island each year.

In the past 22 years of operation, Friends has seen a shift toward progressive approaches to deterrence and punishment.  The need for effective reentry services and supports became a legislative and executive priority around the nation.  In 1990, Friends was a pioneer in New York City reentry (a term which did not even exist then) by focusing on this specific population of youth in an adult justice system and beginning the reentry process inside, prior to an individual’s release. In New York, youth age 16 and up are prosecuted as adults in New York’s criminal justice system. Friends is unique in that it targets these young people in its work.  The only people they serve are youth coming out of jail and returning to NYC.

Nine years ago, Friends expanded their services in order to break intergenerational cycles of incarceration by providing support to fathers.  Their Friends 2 Fathers program, operating out of a community center in the Parkside Houses in the Bronx, provides services to noncustodial fathers in order to improve parenting skills, address domestic violence and anger management issues, and facilitate employment and child support.

In May 2012, Friends of Island Academy was selected as one of two providers under the nation’s first Social Impact Bond, in which private investment is leveraged to achieve public good.  This initiative, known as the Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience (ABLE), focuses on personal responsibility, education, training, and counseling with the goal of reducing the likelihood of re-incarceration.

Friends’ staff of facilitators and advocates is on Rikers Island every weekday, Monday through Friday, delivering an evidence-based cognitive behavioral curriculum and connecting youth to resources on the outside.  Together with the Osborne Association, we are delivering the curriculum to approximately 3,000 young people on Rikers annually.

Some of Friends’ core values are engaging in relationships with individuals pre-release, while their clients are still incarcerated, and encouraging their participants to become leaders and mentors in this work. These are program qualities that Root & Rebound hopes to institutionalize in our own work—supporting our clients to become active community members, mentors and leaders, and establishing relationships with individuals pre-release.

Please learn more about Friends of Island Academy here!

We also encourage you to check out some of the other great orgs we’ll be talking to in New York City this week:

Hopefully some additional NYC community profiles to follow!

– The R & R Team