(Reprinted from Fall 2014 issue of The Episcopal New Yorker)
How one community center in Harlem helps reduce rates of recidivism through love, compassion and support.
By Shaini Kothari
“I was on parole four times in four states”, Mr. Rodriguez tells me while we wait in the narrow corridor outside the courtroom at the Harlem Community Justice Center (HCJC), “but this is unlike any other parole court.” I had to fumble with my recorder to make sure I got his answer loud and clear. “They serve me breakfast here, I get to talk to the priests, they refer me to places if I need documents and they pay for it” he said. “And the judge also helps out, you know? And she asks how you are doing, and if you need a further push down the line, she would talk to the right people and get you further down the road. It is inspiring and I look forward to it.” He was as incredulous as I was—this court was unlike any other that I had seen.
The HCJC is located on a rather quiet street in East Harlem. It is a handsome brownstone—quaint yet stately. However, as archaic as the façade of the building appears the work that goes on in here is anything but. Among other community court services, such as youth crime and landlord-tenant disputes, it also runs one of the few community based parole re-entry courts in the state. This 9-month parole re-entry program is unique because it is supported by a faith-based program, Reentry Family and Faith Circles of Support (RFFCOS), which is a joint collaboration between several Harlem Episcopal congregations, the Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY) and the HCJC. RFFCOS was established in 2001, with the goal of easing the parolees’ transition into society, and thus preventing recidivism. I was there that day on behalf of Episcopal Charities which has only this year began providing funding to the RFFCOS.
Over the years, this program has proven invaluable to the community. The 7 block stretch along Lexington Avenue between 119th Street and 126th Street, which is served by the HCJC, is often nicknamed the “Re-entry Corridor” or even “Convict Alley”. 1 in 20 men have been incarcerated and, of these, 2,200 parolees return back home every year. Given the high rates of poverty, unemployment, stigma and lack of opportunities, it is not surprising that many of these parolees are tempted back into a life of crime. And thus, recidivism continues to be a huge problem within this community. “The folks who come back through the justice system are often viewed as huge liabilities in the community”, says the Rev. Chloe Breyer, the director of the ICNY “but our goal, as part of this program, by just providing somebody with hospitality, and dignity in the system that doesn’t treat them with dignity, is to remind people that they are assets, and that they have assets.”
The crux of the RRFCOS program is to provide congregation-based support to parolees as they attend their mandatory parole meetings every Thursday. As part of the program, parolees are receive breakfast through the Thursday Hospitality service and are invited to attend congregation based support groups where they are provided social service support with respect to employment and housing as well as counseling to work on family relationships, faith connections, skill development etc., in addition to their minimum parole requirements. “The last thing we want is for anyone to go back”, says Theo Harris, the outreach coordinator for RFFCOS. The Thursday volunteers that come from the St. Phillips and St. Mary’s Episcopal churches, as well as other faith communities, help parolees feel welcomed by engaging them in conversation as well as serving them breakfast.
However, as upbeat as all the volunteers and staff seem about the program, there is no doubt that working within the justice system came with its own set of challenges. “The most difficult part is that there are so many obstacles.” says Rev. Breyer, “It’s difficult to remind yourself that you are making a difference in people’s lives.” She illustrates this point by introducing me to a parolee who had been in prison for 40 years. When he was arrested, he gave his Muslim name, but the officers refused to accept it, and gave him another name. For the next 40 years, he was identified with the wrong name, and now, when he has been released, he cannot get any identification or benefits. Rev. Breyer said these stories boggled and disheartened her, but yet in the same breath she managed to be thankful to at least have the chance to be able to be there for him at that moment.
My visit finally came around full circle when I had a chance to watch Mr. Rodriguez’s parole hearing. Flanked by his counselor and parole officer, Mr. Rodriguez appeared confident, happy and ready to talk to the judge. The hearing was quick—a few updates on his housing and work situation were discussed, and then he was given a chance to speak. All he did was showed us his one month sober chip proudly. He was called up to the judge and told that she was very proud of him and hopes that he continues on this path to becoming a law-abiding citizen again. “Where else can you go up to the judge at a hearing?” Mr. Harris proudly whispered in my ear at that moment. In general, parolees within this reentry program are convicted at a rate 19% lower than comparison groups on standard parole. And the RFFCOS does not let that feat go unnoticed. Twice a year it holds a graduation ceremony for the participants that have completed nine months in the Reentry Court, where they receive a certificate, and are asked to speak a few words—it truly is a fitting tribute for all the hard work involved.
As I got ready to pack up and get back to the office, I asked Rev. Keith Johnson, the rector of St. Phillips and regular volunteer for RFFCOS, how he would summarize what this place was really trying to do and how that tied in with his personal philosophy on justice. He simply quoted Robert Kennedy, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
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