Reflections on the Annual Prisoner Reentry Conference

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Yesterday, the Sex Law and Policy Center joined the discussion at the New Jersey Reentry Corporation’s Annual Prisoner Reentry Conference. With few exceptions, most people incarcerated today will eventually be released back into their communities. Continued success in the community requires strategic interaction between advocates, attorneys, law enforcement, the formerly incarcerated, and the community. Each of these stakeholders plays a critical role in ensuring a successful transition for the formerly incarcerated. In doing so, each acknowledges the challenges returning citizens face. As acting U.S Attorney General for the state of New Jersey said yesterday, “reentry is good social policy.”

The conference had a tremendous challenge, which it met with success, - to unpack this “good social policy” and meaningfully discuss ways to improve upon it. The Fortune Society, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting reentry efforts, described the problem best: “The system dooms the formerly incarcerated to failure, and victimizes our families and communities.” This encapsulates the underlying theme of the day; our communities suffer when we don’t support the formerly incarcerated.

Our communities suffer when we don’t support the formerly incarcerated

Luckily, numerous community organizations, advocates, law enforcement, and attorneys have found ways to support the formerly incarcerated during their reentry. The Reentry Corp implemented a multi-agency collaborative effort to reduce the hurdles involved in just getting identification after discovering the immense difficulties the formerly incarcerated face during reentry. As the Executive Director John Koufos put it, “without an identification you don’t have a name.” Speaker Vincent Prieto also outlined legislative changes to expungement procedures, such as decreasing the time to apply for expungement, in order to aid returning citizens with a better chance of regaining their life.

Aside from policy changes, there was a lot of positive discussion about restoring humanity to the formerly incarcerated. Both Speaker Prieto and Senator Cunningham urged us to look past the conviction and instead see the human behind the label. Speaker Prieto also prompted us to be compassionate and thoughtful, and lead by example. Senator Cunningham echoed his sentiments with her reflection that we “treat returning citizens with disdain, instead of dignity, with no pathway to success.”

Their belief in the humanity of returning citizens and the obstacles to reentry was echoed in the subsequent panel discussing success after conviction. The Reverend Al Sharpton reminded us to give the formerly incarcerated second chances, while Andy Wiederhorn, CEO of Fatburger, expressed there can’t be enough attention given to reentry. Dr. Brandi Blessett tweeted that “the stigma of incarceration plus the intersectional experiences of race, gender, class, and sexual identity increases disparity.”

We can no longer afford to incarcerate our way out of criminal behavior

Dr. Blessett’s observation highlights the simple fact that reentry is a complex problem requiring a humanistic approach to ensure success. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of discussion about investing in human capital to address the problems leading to incarceration. Namely, the twin problems of poverty and violence riddling many of our low-income communities of color. We can no longer afford to incarcerate our way out of criminal behavior.

We have to discover ways to improve the structural and institutional challenges in our community. As it is now, we have systematically oppressed entire communities with the end result of mass incarceration. Following incarceration, we often focus on, as Mary Gatta from CUNY asserts, short-term goals with reintegration and lose sight of long-term sustainability. We can, and must, do better.

One thing we at the SLAP Center feel was missing were the voices of those who need or are provided with reentry supports. There was a lot of great conversation from the people who are helping those in need, but there was a noticeable lack of conversation with people receiving reentry supports. The conference could provide formerly incarcerated people an opportunity to give voice to their community’s systematic oppression.

They are given so few chances to explain how criminal behavior became their vehicle of choice for success, how the system changed that perspective, and what reentry programs and services did or did not do to aid them in furthering their perspective change on the outside. There is little focus on the narratives of the formerly incarcerated, and this is a missed opportunity to educate the larger community. If we want to start attracting people outside of criminal justice reform to reentry work we need to give them what they want. What they want, is to know whether their communities are safer as a result of these reentry programs and service’s effectiveness.

Perhaps a future convening could engage a panel of the formerly incarcerated to discuss how reentry programs and services aided them in successful community reintegration. Having a panel across the spectrum of risk needs, like people formerly incarcerated for low-level drug crimes, property crimes, and sex offenses, would showcase the diverse needs of people entering reentry programs. A panel like this could provide people with an idea of their reentry needs and allow the community to understand the varying challenges and best practices for successful reentry.

Celebrity Chef Jeff dished out a perfect summary of the annual conference yesterday:

We must build the vehicle for our success. I had to chameleonize my approach to opportunities. I had to think, what does success look like? When I got out, I had to wear tight buttoned pants, buttoned up all the way to here. Want to know why? Successful men in America wear tight pants. Success is a game of chess, not checkers.