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ReEntry aims to ease journey from prisoner to citizen

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HUDSON–Several people at the well-attended ReEntry Columbia Task Force meeting January 8 discussed what does–or could–encourage people to live as law-abiding citizens after they leave prison.

The organization ReEntry Columbia had a contract with Columbia County to provide support for people whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system. But now its executive director, Laurie Scott, is retiring, and she recommended that the county’s next contract go to Exodus Transition, which provides the same services in New York City, Poughkeepsie and Newburgh.

Several representatives of Exodus Transition attended the meeting, as did several representatives of Hudson Link, which provides courses for college credit in prisons and is expanding into re-entry services.

“We see people as who they are, not as the crime they committed,” said Júlio Medina, who founded Exodus Transition in East Harlem. “This is a humanitarian issue, not a political issue.”

“Our commitment is to involving everyone,” said Kathleen Bernier, a case worker for Exodus Transition.

Kiki Dunstin, alumni services coordinator for Hudson Link, noted that people getting out of jail after 20 or 30 years need help adjusting. But no matter how long the incarceration, opportunities to help former prisoners adjust should start when they step out of the prison door.

Ninety percent of the time, when someone leaves prison, the person who is supposed to pick them up “does not show up,” said Ms. Dunstin.

Some have to report to Albany Parole Board within 24 hours of release in order to avoid violating parole, added Ms. Scott. Most places have no public transportation that will get them to Albany on time and return them home before night. Perhaps, someone suggested, the person could be released in Albany rather than the prison parking lot.

Somebody from Exodus Transition said that when people come to their office wearing prison-issued clothes, the staff invites them to change into civilian clothes, of which the office has a stash. And once in civilian clothes, the people themselves are changed, he said.

In addition, he added, “We take time to talk with them,” as long as they need, whether 20 minutes or 90 minutes. “Anybody who comes to our door we want to treat with dignity.”

One person at the meeting spoke about the need to make it easier to get affordable housing, despite inauspicious results on background and credit checks.

Many with no home seek help from the Department of Social Services (DSS). But the DSS lodges its “homeless” clients in motel rooms, and some motels will not lodge people who have committed some crimes. Furthermore, Claverack has passed law that motels that rent to registered sex offenders must post a sign saying they do so, no matter how long ago their crime took place.

“As our guys get released, we find re-entry resources lacking,” especially outside of New York City, said Lee Cruceta, an academic coordinator for Hudson Link. So his organization is establishing two houses for people just out of jail. He envisions them staying in such homes three to six months.

“It’s a good opportunity,” said Vince Doto, the county director of probation.

Carolyn Polikarpus, who recently retired as a case worker for ReEntry Columbia, said that people leaving incarceration “need healthy activities” to do “so they won’t go back” to the same circumstances that led them to commit a crime.

As for public transportation, the problem is not only providing it but also helping people use it. Kaja Bace, assistant to Supervisor Sarah Sterling (D-Hudson, 1st Ward) noted that Fountain House in Connecticut provides transportation coaching for its clients.

A youth mentor for Exodus Transition said, “One of the problems I had on my release was interaction with the police.”

Now, Exodus Transition has a “very close relation with law enforcement,” even though “90 to 95% of the people who work with us have had justice involvement,” said Ms. Bernier. “We are unique in that despite this, our relationship with the police is not contentious.”

Mr. Cruceta said that by passing Hudson Link’s prison courses, inmates get credit from Columbia-Greene Community College.

“We have a lot to do,” said Ms. Scott. “Keep moving forward.” She hopes both for more law enforcement people at re-entry meetings and for connections between re-entry service providers and “the community of formerly incarcerated people.”

New York’s bail reform law, effective January 1, allows people suspected of several crimes to remain free, without paying bail, until and unless found guilty. Sergeant Pat Delaney reported that the number of people released from jail in Columbia County because of the reform law was about six. However, bail reform is still so new that “nobody knows what will happen.”

“There is no funding from the state for bail reform,” said Mr. Doto. Right now he needs more resources to monitor more people electronically 24 hours a day.

Mr. Medina of Exodus Transition called current reforms of the criminal justice system a temporary window of opportunity that must be taken advantage of while it lasts.

The next ReEntry meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, March 11 at 10 a.m. at 325 Columbia Street.

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