As our luxury coach speeds up Interstate 87, Pablo Santos remembers sitting on a bus in shackles. There were guards, and bars on the windows, and he was not allowed to speak. He was on his way from Green Haven to Fishkill Correctional Facility, and for the first time in 14 years he was seeing a tiny part of the world beyond prison walls.
“I remember seeing a little boy walking a dog. Just seeing this little kid with his dog, I started crying,” says Santos, who served 27 years for a murder he says he didn’t commit. It took him over a week to recover from the brief experience. “My mind was frozen. I didn’t know if I was dreaming or what. It was like a vacuum when they shut the prison gate behind me. Like being sucked back into a black hole.”
Today, two years after his release from prison, Santos doesn’t quite know what to feel about these memories. It’s a splendid day in May, with hawks sailing peacefully overhead, cows grazing on the side of the road, and little rivers rushing down into valleys as if unable to contain themselves after months of frost and waiting for warmth. This time, Santos says, he’ll take charge; he’ll start paving the road for change, helping others with criminal records move along smoothly. “This trip is good,” he says. “It’s going to help me detach myself from my past. This is something we’ve got to do.”
"Something we’ve got to do" is also the motivation of Gabriel Torres-Rivera, the organizer of the advocacy trip to Albany and the luxury coach on which Santos sits. A former member of the Puerto Rican Hispanic Nationalist group the Young Lords, Torres-Rivera spent eight years in prison for bank robbery in the seventies. After his release, he started a family, regained the right to vote, and became a taxpayer. Today he is the director of the Reentry Initiative at the Community Service Society (CSS), a non-profit with a 160-year history of representing the needs of New York’s poor.
But like innumerable fellow citizens, Torres-Rivera still hasn’t been able to completely shed his criminal past. His wish is to become a notary public, but he hasn’t been granted a license because of his record. “This issue is one of my pet-peeves,” says Torres-Rivera, a salt-and-pepper-haired teddy bear covered in tattoos.
Under Torres-Rivera’s leadership, CSS started holding the monthly New York Reentry Roundtable in December 2005. The goal was to address the obstacles facing ex-offenders who try to reconnect with their communities and with society at large. The meetings, which attracted an average of 60 individuals each, featured prominent speakers like the Administrative Judge for the NYC Courts Juanita Bing Newton, former Attorney General of New Jersey Peter Harvey, and director of the National H.I.R.E. Network Glenn Martin.
Over the past year and a half, Torres-Rivera has created a far-reaching network of more than 90 New York-based non-profits; among the most active being the Center for Employment Opportunities, Argus, the Bronx Defenders, the Interfaith Coalition of Advocates for Reentry and Employment, and Cultural Renaissance for Economic Revitalization. As a result of the collaboration, the Roundtable created a legislative proposal that addresses the obstacles facing ex-offenders and summarizes suggestions for a better reentry.
At dawn on May 22, two buses set off for Albany carrying ex-offenders and their families, reentry experts and activists. The goal of participants like Santos is to speak with Senators and Assemblymen about what it’s like to be denied and excluded from employment, housing, health care, education and voting rights.
In Albany, the participants are divided into small groups and assigned parallel 15-minute meetings with legislators and their representatives in offices on all nine floors of Albany’s Legislative Office Building. The men and women disperse nervously, many hanging on to the larger group, distressed at having to venture through the august halls by themselves.
But this was meant to be an empowering experience, and eventually each individual finds their way to the elevator, where a bright yellow sign announces the “Who Will Be the Legislative Idol of 2007” event. The possible candidates include Dan Burling, who represents Wyoming County and parts of Genesee, Livingston and Allegany counties. Assemblyman Burling, whose counties house a comparably low four of New York’s 70 correctional facilities, is not in his office this morning. The only trace I can find of Burling is a photo of one of his offspring kneeling on top of a 10-point buck. But as the day’s participants cram into his office, Burling’s aide, Barbara Fink, lends a patient ear.
“We are trying to join society,” begins Angel Ramos, who recently finished serving 30 years for murder. “I just want the same problems as you have,” he tells Fink. He gives her an idea of what his current problems are: although he earned a college degree in Computer Science while still behind bars, Ramos has not yet been able to get a license, let alone a job. Still, he was lucky to have received a college degree at all. Higher education in the prison system was largely abolished back in the 1990s.
“We are finding that people who study for their GED don’t go back to prison,” adds Maria Casapini from Project No Return at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Barbara Fink nods and takes a note.
Casapina is right: Studies show that recidivism is lower among ex-offenders who received education while incarcerated. The Roundtable’s legislative proposal calls for the reinstatement of Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants and for the return of higher education courses in prisons. It further demands legislation that makes it illegal for colleges to ban applications of people with criminal records. It also supports the lessening of barriers to employment. New York’s licensing and occupational bars exclude people with records from a large number of jobs. Individuals may apply for a “Certificate of Good Moral Conduct” to be granted a license as a plumber or a barber, but often the State refuses to grant them. Ironically, both occupations are commonly taught in prison. Individuals with certain (even non-violent) felony records are completely barred from becoming bus drivers, notary publics and even junk dealers.
Two floors above, Barry Campbell’s goal is to put a face on the issue of healthcare. When the special assistant to the CEO of the Fortune Society, a service and advocacy organization for ex-offenders, starts talking, it’s as if he has opened a can of worms. His group has gathered in the office of Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, who represents the 64th district in Manhattan (Chelsea, Clinton, Murray Hill, and Midtown).
Gottfried isn’t there, but his legislative associate Bryan O’Malley listens to the men’s horror stories. Pablo recalls how he almost died from bleeding ulcers; Robert reports having received cholesterol medication for a whole year without the required follow-up blood work; and Alan, who is bipolar and has suffered from seizures, complains that his mental health treatment was neglected in prison.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, one sixth of America’s two million prisoners are mentally ill. There are also far more individuals with HIV and hepatitis in prisons and jails than among the general public. To make things worse, prisons are exempt from Department of Health (DOH) standards. The Roundtable’s proposal argues that incarceration provides an opportunity to test, treat, and educate prisoners and recommends the DOH be authorized to oversee correctional facilities.
“People don’t stay in jail forever,” agrees O’Malley. “Whatever health conditions go untreated in prisons become health conditions in the community. We have a constitutional obligation to treat people. It’s a human issue, but it’s also a common sense financial issue.”
O’Malley’s boss, Assemblyman Gottfried, is known as a leading state health policy maker: he created the Prenatal Care Assistance Program for low-income women and the Child Health Plus Program; among other things, he sponsors the SHU bill, which aims to prevent the isolation of inmates with mental illness in segregated housing units.
In Alan Maisel’s office, the Brooklyn Assemblyman (59th district: Canarsie, Mill Basin, Bergen Beach and Marine Park) is represented by Carolyn Mullen, who seems utterly surprised to find out that parolees can’t vote. The Roundtable’s proposal not only asks for parolees’ voting rights to be restored, but also supports Assembly Bill A554, which would require the Department of Corrections and the Division of Parole to inform people of their voting rights in writing.
If Mullen’s expressions of surprise (“Really?”… “Whoa!”… “Ssss!”) are a testament to what the group taught her, she must have learned a lot today. The fact that public housing in New York excludes people with records from living with family members seems to particularly shock her. “Really?” she asks again.
“If you come home and you can’t come home, you are homeless,” Joey Palermo from the Bronx HIV Care Network responds.
Homelessness, along with a lack of legitimate work opportunities, has long been the biggest problem for people released from prison. More and more landlords and employers conduct criminal background checks, and the extensive dissemination and easy accessibility of criminal records put an extra burden onto a population that already struggles with societal prejudices.
While Mullen seemed to be an eager student, her response illustrates a serious problem: the public (and even the policy makers) simply aren’t aware of what awaits the 630,000 men and women who are expected to come home from prison this year. The main consensus is that criminals deserve to do their time. And although our society claims to believe in the Christian value of redemption and forgiveness, hardly anyone seems to care about what happens to people once they’ve served their time. They are widely expected to reconnect with society as if nothing ever happened.
After serving years or even decades under the tough mandatory sentencing laws established by former governor Nelson Rockefeller, millions of individuals will return from prison within the next few years. Educating the public, legislators and their aides is only the first step in a painstaking process that is expected to grow in importance as the flood of people coming home rises.
Once people know about the unfair policies that keep ex-offenders from reentering society, many seem outraged. The issue of overburdening child support orders that await some fathers after their release is just one such example. A prisoner makes 15 or 25 cents an hour working inside, while his child support payments keep accumulating at an unproportional rate on the outside. Thus it is not uncommon to face an insurmountable debt of $10,000 or $20,000 at the moment of release. Most men I talked to said they would be willing to start paying their debt if given a job—but this is where Catch-22 kicks in.
During a lunch break, Walter Fields, CSS’s vice president of Government Relations and Public Affairs, warns of expecting too much too quickly. “You’ve got to dig your heels in and know that this is a long process,” says Fields, who inspired Torres-Rivera to coordinate the Roundtable.
“Part of the challenge is being seen,” he says, explaining that a lot of groups make the mistake of being seen only once, only to disappear from the horizon. His observations echo those of David Miljoner, Senator Martin Malavé Dilan’s legislative fellow, who praised the CSS for its “comprehensive presentation with many effective ideas. This is different to a lot of groups who don’t have concrete ideas,” he said during one of the meetings.
“Senator Dilan might be interested in taking the lead,” Miljoner encouraged the group. “The issue is on his radar.” Dilan represents Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and East New York—the three Brooklyn neighborhoods, which, according to the Justice Mapping Center, are among those with the highest concentration of people currently incarcerated or being released in New York. But even if the Roundtable manages to find a key leader in Albany, many challenges remain. “You have other parts of the state that look at this from a very different angle,” Fields tells his fellow activists.
Some politicians argue that being tough on crime equals long prison sentences. The participants of the Roundtable believe that in most cases incarceration is not the solution. They point to Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) programs that are more cost-effective and more humane, as they allow offenders to make a living while staying connected with their families and communities.
The Albany Advocacy Day’s grand finale is the appearance of Assemblyman Darryl Towns, who represents Brooklyn’s 54th District (Bushwick, Cypress Hills and East New York) and is the Chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican/Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus. His lateness was promptly forgiven as he rushes into the hall with his daughter in tow, a charming little lady in pink with propeller-like pigtails.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, not only to get brothers home, but to keep brothers home,” Towns tells the group. He is optimistic with the changes in the Administration. “With Governor Spitzer, we are no longer talking at a brick wall.”
Towns wants people to realize that society loses vitality when New Yorkers are locked up. After his speech, he responds to questions about his political strategy to better the lives of people with criminal records. “Getting the person back out and supporting him in his family is much more cost-effective,” he says. “I don’t care how people are going to sell this—if it’s going to be fiscally conservative, that’s fine with me.”
To Pablo Santos, Albany Advocacy Day was a success story in and of itself. “I never dreamed of being part of this event. My personal experience was more important than the political agenda,” he says. He feels it was a bittersweet experience to talk to the people who represent the state that put him in prison.
“I was in the belly of the beast,” he laughs, strained. “It was like therapy.”
Santos may only gradually be freeing himself from his shackles, but on a warm day in May in Albany, another shackle burst.
SABINE HEINLEIN is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and photographer who lives in Brooklyn. Her website is www.sabineheinlein.org.