‘The Day I Came Out of the Shadows’

In just one day last year, Charles Rivers went from being a supervised parolee to a welcomed professional in the same state office building where one individual held the power to revoke his freedom.

That day, he was on his final scheduled office visit with his parole officer, known as a “PO,” and he was nervous.

“As a parolee, you look at your parole [officer] as an adversary,” Rivers said. “You go in thinking, ‘I got to go see this guy that could violate me at any time.’ ”

But Karen Loftin, another returning citizen who had worked with Rivers for just over two months at that point in the Syracuse, N.Y., community center that Rivers directs, pushed him into it.

‘You’re going,’” she told him firmly. “‘You’re a coordinator now.’”

Rivers now calls it “the day I came out of the shadows.”

For the past three years, Rivers has overseen PEACE, Inc.’s Emma L. Johnston Southside Family Resource Center. He came there after spending more than 19 years in prison.

When Rivers met with his PO that last time, relief should have been instant. But the nerve-wracking feelings of stress, intimidation and mistrust, even after hearing praise for all he had accomplished were hard to shake—even after purchasing a home, earning a bachelor’s degree, and mentoring parolees.

Even for those who have managed the uphill journey of remaking their lives after years behind bars, it’s a common occupational hazard.

It’s no coincidence that the organization Rivers directs now has as one of its principal missions easing the difficult transition between prison and normal life.

PEACE, a nonprofit agency which describes its mission as helping to “empower people to thrive,” focuses on re-entry support for people like Rivers fresh out of prison as one of its core activities.

PEACE Inc

The Emma L. Johnston Southside Family Resource Center offers wraparound services to South Side residents in need. This center, run as an extension of PEACE, Inc., offers a food pantry, computers for job searches and re-entry support for ex-offenders. Photo courtesy The Stand/File Photo

In December 2016, PEACE was awarded a $95,000 grant by New York State to launch a pilot program for family reunification. Many experts in the field say that the struggle of ex-offenders to reconcile with family members who may have spent years or even decades without them is as critical a barrier as finding employment, adequate housing, and even attaining photo identification.

Rivers says it takes time to reconnect, and to figure out what day-to-day life will be like moving forward. The grant allowed Rivers to focus on the needs of offenders’ family members as well.

Loftin, who spent over a decade in prison and has been off parole for 16 years, was hired in February 2017 to serve as the re-entry case manager.

The grant — also awarded to two other cities —allowed each resource center to craft its own plan modeled on the successful New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) initiative launched in 2013 called the Family Re-entry Pilot Program (FRPP).

According to a 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, New York ranks ninth nationally in recidivism. According to the report, individuals released on parole are more likely to be imprisoned again—not for new convictions, but for violating the conditions of their parole.

According to a New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) fact sheet, in 2012, 9,372 people were released from DOCCS facilities and placed on parole. Within three years of their release, more than half were reincarcerated — 83.7 percent for violating the conditions of their parole and 16.3 percent for committing a new crime.

The aim of the NYC pilot was to reconnect individuals with their families and provide stable housing after incarceration. Because many public housing authorities and private landlords have strict policies that exclude individuals with criminal records from being added to a lease, finding a safe and supportive place to live is a challenge.

When individuals apply for housing, the public housing authority runs a criminal background check of the applicant; everyone 16 or older who might also live there; any biological parent of children who will be living in the household, even parents who do not plan to live there and who are not part of the application.

Rules governing who may be denied are very broad, allowing housing authorities to exclude people it believes will risk the health and safety of other tenants. Federal Law (42 USC § 13661(c)) gives public housing authorities the power to deny people based on criminal activity.

Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons is the executive director and president of the New York State Public Housing Authority Directors Association. Photo courtesy The Stand.

However, Bill Simmons, executive director and president of the New York State Public Housing Authority, says the Syracuse Housing Authority (SHA) has a long history of embracing individuals with criminal backgrounds, citing a past re-entry job-training initiative, the Altamont Program, as one example.

“We never flat out denied them housing,” he said, noting the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has two bright-line rules: you cannot live in public housing if you are a level-one sex offender or were convicted of producing methamphetamine.

“Outside of that, it was up to the individual housing authorities to have their own policy. Traditionally, we were case by case already,” he said.

On March 3, 2017, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo publicly announced the Family Reunification Pilot Program. In addition to Syracuse, authorities in two other New York cities—Schenectady and White Plains—also launched pilots in partnership with Schenectady County Community Action Program, Inc. and the Westchester Community Opportunity Program (Westcop).

The goal of each pilot was to enroll 12 individuals by year’s end.

Individuals found their way to PEACE by word of mouth.

“Many times, a family member reached out to us from housing who knew of someone that was up for parole,” Loftin said.

Once an individual was vetted by parole, the family member on the lease also had to agree to serve as host. Loftin met with both the potential participant and the lease-holder to go over the program, its requirements and rules.

An agreement was signed and next sent to housing, which then conducted its own review. SHA had the final say if a participant could move into a unit or not.

The clearance of property managers was key, Loftin says, because they are privy to details that may not be part of someone’s official record. They often remember the individual and know the family situation they are returning to.

“Syracuse is a small enough town that if the property manager knows the name, they’ll know any issues that could surround that family,” said Annette Abdelaziz, an SHA grant procurement specialist, whose main job function is ensuring residents stay housed.

Charles Rivers

Charles Rivers greets a resident one Thursday evening as they arrive to the center to visit the food pantry. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

Currently six individuals are enrolled under the grant, having extended-stay guest status, which is a policy adjustment SHA made for enrollees of this initiative. The governor’s release stated that at the conclusion of the pilot program, successful participants could be added to a household’s lease.

By the end of the grant period, PEACE had seen eight individuals enrolled and living in public housing. Two of those eight, however, dropped out of the program by December 2017 — one by choice; and one violated parole and was reincarcerated for a minor offense.

With the goal of 12 parolee participants falling short, the stipulation on requiring participants to live in public housing was lifted by the state, and the pilot period was extended until grant money ran dry.

In Syracuse, that allowed a continuation into mid-February 2018. In White Plains, that extended into April 2018, but with no set closing date because additional avenues of funding had been incorporated into its plan. For example, two of the 12 participants were veterans and funded through HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) vouchers, an exception HUD allows for veterans with convictions.

With removal of the requirement of living in public housing, Syracuse instantly jumped from six participants to 17, because of PEACE’s long-standing practice of supporting individuals’ re-entry. Rivers said he was able to pull participants from that pool and bring them into the pilot.

All three cities regularly stayed in touch over the course of the pilot, and staff in both Syracuse and White Plains noted that Schenectady’s initiative never seemed to take off. Staff with the Schenectady Community Action Program declined to speak for this story.

By March of this year, the state asked only Syracuse and White Plains to submit for a grant renewal.

Lessons Learned

The problems faced in enrolling participants provided a few lessons learned.

In the weeks leading up to being released, prisoners are asked to provide an address. Typically, they give a family member’s, spouse’s or partner’s home address. In Syracuse, if there’s no family immediately available to contact, they’ll often end up at the Rescue Mission.

James Rivers

James Rivers, Charles’ uncle, an ex-offender, sits at a computer in the center’s public computer lab, offered for residents to complete online job applications and print resumes. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

When released, they’re given $40 and a bus pass to return home. Rivers describes this as “the symbolic 40 acres and a mule.”

Next, they have 24 hours to report to parole, where an assessment of their mental health and level of risk to the community is conducted.

An individual’s most urgent needs during the transition are housing, health and income, says Bruce Western, author of the forthcoming “Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison.” The book, scheduled to be released May 15, examines what individuals face upon returning home through detailed accounts from more than 100 individuals on probation.

Researchers on Western’s team also spoke with family members.

In these in-depth interviews, conducted five separate times along the span of a year, participants in the book’s study shared that probation officers chiefly focus on compliance and monitoring.

“For most, we found that there was no process with probation to develop a plan and tackle priorities,” Western said in a phone interview with The Stand, noting only a few went above that level to also discuss with a probationer goals for the year ahead. “There is a deficit of that kind of support.”

Western calls it an unmet need right now.

Rivers and Loftin would agree. When working with their clients, they first share: “We are not your parole officer.”

It helps.

“After telling them that, the air clears,” Rivers said. “It’s like a big sigh of relief, and in that meeting, we can tell tension has left the room.”

In describing a successful model, Western, who also teaches sociology at Harvard University and is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab, says case managers would engage parolees for long periods of time, serving as advocates.

“Coercive treatment is a difficult model,” Western said. “This type of role should involve noncriminal justice actors that don’t wield the threat of arrest and revocation. People view it as a continuation of surveillance and control, and many times we heard from respondents that ‘the system just wants to make money off of us.’”

For this pilot, gaining such trust took time.

“If they can feel it, they will be willing to work with you,” said John Fuller, who oversees the pilot program in White Plains, N.Y., stressing that consistency is key.

“You have to be able to follow up and deliver something tangible.”

He said if released offenders trust the case manager, they’ll pass on the referral to others.

‘Reentry Malaise’

 Fuller says that, once enrolled, the majority of his new participants exhibit what he terms “re-entry malaise,” where people struggle with their self-worth, settling for their current limitations.

In an open group discussion with Syracuse participants in February, one man shared that “you know you are doing your best, but your best is never enough.”

Later, Rivers paused, locking eyes with another grant participant.

“We said one day we’d be out,” he said while maintaining eye contact.

Both walked the yard together and lived in the same cell block, at various prisons, at different points in their pasts.

“On those walks, we said we’d have a second chance, and that time is now,” Rivers concluded.

Next he encouraged the men to share their personal stories in order to illustrate to others what barriers they face in their transition from incarceration to free society.

Re-entry support is not all hand-holding, the case managers note. There is a spectrum with some requiring help as minimal as a bus pass to make a job interview. But for others, support offered by a case manager could be in tackling their staggering issues of self-doubt when rejections seem to be at every turn — “no” from a landlord; “no” to callbacks on potential jobs; even “no” to requests to reconcile with an estranged child.

Karen Loftin

Karen Loftin, 52, was hired by PEACE under the Family Reunification Pilot grant to work as the program’s re-entry case manager. She worked one-on-one with each ex-offender to support their needs during transition from prison back to their family. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

For Loftin, patience is what she stresses to each of her clients. “It takes time to get back to a sold foothold,” she tells them. “But when parolees come home from prison, they want everything back immediately.”

She adds that society tells them the same thing: Be productive now.

“That’s where the frustration comes,” Loftin said of her clients’ feelings, “and as a case manager that’s where I come in and can be advantageous and tell them ‘listen, it’s not going to happen overnight.’”

It takes time.

Lots of time.

Loftin says the “top priority” is to ensure they meet their parole conditions.

“Whatever the commissioner said for you to do upon release — education, drug treatment, counseling — everything else has to be met around those.”

She gives an example. Several clients wanted jobs because they felt having money in their pockets was empowering, but if assigned by parole to be in a substance-abuse program four days a week, you first have to complete the program, she says.

This works as good discipline, discouraging hopes of the quick fix. “That hustling mindset,” she began, “has to be changed. While those actions may be quick money, they come with greater consequences. Let that patience have its perfect work to get a greater reward.”

Fuller has also found this to be a population full of fear.

“They are afraid to fail, afraid of rejection,” Fuller said. Some he has worked with have such high levels of anxiety and post-traumatic stress that they aren’t mentally ready for a group training.

Even scheduling a meeting during peak office hours when foot traffic is high is too overwhelming.

In substance-abuse counseling, there’s a common saying. “Recovery is the bridge back to life,” Fuller said. “But if you’ve never had much of a life, there’s really no point of reference for what you’re trying to return to. You never had glory; you never had direction; you never had good counsel.”

Deep trauma was the most surprising factor Western learned in the process of interviewing subjects for his book.

“The extreme level of violence people have had to contend with over a lifetime,” he said, “may seem obvious, but we learned that nearly everyone we spoke to had been seriously victimized by violence.”

After Prison, Resilience

He noted many had done very violent things themselves, but they also had serious histories of victimization. Despite this, he said, many displayed resilience.

Fuller says a major component of his role is teaching individuals how to find value in themselves. He said this is something they’ve been missing.

“For some — all of their lives.”

Many are scared to death, he added: Scared to go to that job interview, to try, for fear of failing yet again. “Then when we get that spark, we fan it,” Fuller said with enthusiasm. He noted that success isn’t always employment. “Sometimes success is getting a guy to BOCES to complete a basic course, because sometimes we have to set up wins for them in order to grow their confidence and show them what’s possible.”

Still he views this as a collaborative effort, not simply him telling them what to do. “They have to be invested,” he said “… be part of their own rescue.”

Even if the grant is not renewed, Rivers says, PEACE will continue its re-entry efforts.

“This is something I’ve done since I started and something we were doing before the grant,” he stressed. “The support I offer is not dependent on this grant continuing.”

Neither is the passion the others in this field feel.

Loftin, who spent over a decade in prison and has been off parole for 16 years, says serving as a mentor is ingrained to her core. Rivers’ and Loftin’s past experience, they say, helps to connect with their clients and to show what is possible in the long term. The pair’s combination of having both experienced prison makes them uniquely qualified for this work, making their role instrumental in the grant’s success.

As well, Rivers has earned his master’s degree in social services, while Loftin is pursuing her master’s.

For housing, grant continuation is a major factor in future approval of a tenant with a criminal background.

“A participant’s willingness to participate in case management services is an important indicator of their commitment to change,” said Annette Abdelaziz, the SHA’s grant procurement specialist, whose main job function is ensuring residents stay housed.

Currently, three potential enrollees serving out their sentences are in the pipeline to join family in public housing when up for parole. SHA says no decision to approve their move will be made until a release date is near.

The stall is due to the uncertainty of the grant. If the grant is not renewed, SHA staff would not confirm if their efforts will cease, noting that decisions on individual approval will continue on a case-by-case basis.

“While we want to ensure the case management will be there,” Abdelaziz said, “we won’t tell people ‘no’ yet.”

 This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in The Stand, a community newspaper produced in Syracuse, NY in partnership with S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Ashley Kang, director of The Stand, is a 2018 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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