Written by Sean Larner Evan Ebel was worried about leaving prison — and reasonably so. His last couple years were spent by himself in a cinderblock cell the size of two queen mattresses. Before his release Ebel wondered, in a … Continue reading
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
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:
- New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
- The Bronx Defenders
- Youth Represent
- Legal Action Center
- Center for Community Alternatives
- New York Legal Assistance Group and their Mobile Legal Help Center
- The Osborne Association
Hopefully some additional NYC community profiles to follow!
– The R & R Team