Gotham Gazette Thu, 02 Jul 2020 17:07:59 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) With Push from Cuomo and Funding from Vance, New York College-in-Prisons Program is Flourishing bpi photo 3

(photo: Bard Prison Initiative)

In February 2014, early in his first reelection year, Governor Andrew Cuomo made what proved to be a bold proposal to reduce recidivism by creating opportunities for higher education in state prisons, seizing on an enduring problem at the intersection of social and criminal justice reform efforts. But he had misjudged the political landscape and the announcement was met with significant backlash followed by an uncharacteristic reversal for the seasoned New York powerbroker.

It took nearly four more years, and litigation with the world’s largest banking institutions, before a similar plan was recrafted and set in motion again. Two years into the rebooted plan, the state’s College-in-Prison Reentry Program has served 506 incarcerated students. Sixty-two of those students completed a degree behind bars before being released.

It was a cold Sunday morning in 2014 when Cuomo, then a first-term Democrat, was flanked by clergy and a smattering of elected officials as he announced a plan to provide state funding to college programs in 10 New York State prisons, an approach he said would cut recidivism and save taxpayer money. He was speaking at an event hosted by the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus of the State Legislature at Wilborn Temple, a black Pentecostal church near the State Capitol in Albany.

“In this great state of New York, this laboratory of democracy, this progressive capital of the country, there is nothing that we can’t do when we’re willing to work together,” he said to fanfare at the end of a speech that tied together employment, education, and incarceration while invoking familiar themes from the Civil Rights Movement and the New Testament.

But by the time the state budget was passed six weeks later, Cuomo had pulled the idea in the face of intense criticism from conservatives, including his Republican challenger Rob Astorino, who said the state should not be funding college for convicted criminals while law-abiding students struggle with the rising costs of higher education.

It wasn’t until August 2017 that the governor launched a second attempt, this time in partnership with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, announcing a five-year $7.3 million initiative to fund higher education programs in prisons using money raised not through taxes, but through criminal asset forfeitures. The money was handed over by banks as part of settlements in the wake of the financial crisis late last decade, and is controlled by Vance’s office, which now oversees the college-in-prison program, run by the CUNY Institute of State and Local Governance.

The largest of the state’s prison-based college programs, the Bard Prison Initiative, is now the subject of a heralded four-part documentary series, “College Behind Bars,” which first aired Monday, November 25, to praise from many advocates and elected officials across the country.

First announced as part of Cuomo’s State of the State agenda in 2016, the College-in-Prison Reentry Program is intended to help standardize and provide consistent funding for college programs operating in state prisons, which lost their main sources of public financing when state and federal grant programs were peeled back in the mid-nineties. To date, no state budget funds have been allocated to the program, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget told Gotham Gazette.

Despite the controversy around the program’s inception, prison reformers, elected officials, graduates of the offerings, and the new PBS series are attempting to show the value of higher education in prisons -- both for incarcerated people on the threshold of reentry to the larger society, and for state coffers.

“Going to the college courses, interacting with the professors, engaging theories and texts that I would have never come across in the life I was living beforehand made me want to be a better person and made me want to go back to my community and become an asset and not a liability,” said George Chochos, a BA-recipient through the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers courses in six state correctional facilities and is now partially funded through asset forfeitures.

“It provided hope in a hopeless situation,” he told Gotham Gazette by phone after work Wednesday evening. Chochos is the assistant director of program management at the Georgetown University Pivot Program, a business certificate program for formerly incarcerated individuals. “It’s one of the few things inside of a prison that allows you to break away from the monotony of the prison system, to where your identity is a student not a number,” he said.

The College-in-Prison Reentry Program is available to students regardless of the crime they were convicted of, requiring only that they have fewer than five years remaining in their sentences, according to Danny Frost, Vance’s director of communications. Seven colleges and universities were selected to receive funding through the program to deliver courses and reentry services at 17 New York State correctional facilities.

It is intended to create 2,500 seats in prison-based college over five years. Two years into the project, nearly $2.8 million has been paid out to the schools and the CUNY Institute of State and Local Governance for program evaluation and support.

In a speech last fall, Vance said “the program is tailored by design to cover New Yorkers who are on that reentry journey -- who in just a few years will be expected to compete in a labor market with community members who were not incarcerated.”

Studies have shown that higher education in prison can significantly reduce recidivism rates and leads to better outcomes for people exiting prison, including in terms of employment. But it has faced a rocky history in New York State and nationally, where critics say it rewards criminal behavior in a system created to penalize it.

“I’ve been incarcerated for 13 years, and from my experience I can tell you prison is here to punish us, it’s here to warehouse us. But it’s not about rehabilitating, it’s not about creating productive beings, it just isn’t,” said Rodney Spivey-Jones, a BA student in the Bard Prison Initiative, in the first episode of College Behind Bars, which is directed by Lynn Novick.

The Bard Prison Initiative, launched in 2001 by Bard College, is the largest recipient of College-in-Prison Reentry funding at $1.3 million over the five year period (2017-2022). It became internationally famous in 2015, when the BPI debate team at Eastern New York Correctional Facility beat Harvard’s.

The six other schools receiving grants through the program are Jefferson Community College, Medaille College, Mercy College, Mohawk Valley Community College, New York University, and Cornell University in partnership with Cayuga Community College. To receive the money, the schools must be able to match the grants with other funding sources like charitable foundations or federal grants.

Each school offers different courses and degrees in line with the curriculum standards offered on their main campuses. Five offer associate’s degree programs and two offer bachelor’s degrees. They provide between 1 and 10 courses per semester, with most offering more than six.

College programs have been operating in New York State prisons since 1876, but they received a boon in the mid-twentieth century through post-World War II charitable initiatives and federal funding like the GI Bill, according to a report from John Jay College’s Prisoner Reentry Institute. In the mid-1970s, the establishment of federal Pell grants and the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for low-income students allowed prison-based college programs to significantly expand. Nationwide, the number of programs exploded from from 12 in 1965 to nearly 350 in 1994, the report says.

But in 1994, the funding rapidly dried up. That year Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (often referred to as the 1994 crime bill), which barred Pell grants from going to incarcerated students. The following year the New York State Legislature rescinded TAP for students in state prisons. The results were dramatic: in the spring of 1995, 25 college-in-prison programs served 3,445 students in New York; a year later, only 256 students were being served in four prison-based programs across the state, according to the John Jay report.

Since then, higher education in New York State prisons has relied mostly on private funding. In 2015, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell pilot program, which allow Pell grants to be distributed for prison-based programs to test their impact on post-release outcomes. A number of the schools participating in the College-in-Prison Reentry Program have used the pilot to match grants from the Manhattan District Attorney, according to Vance’s office. In May, the federal Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the Second Chance Pell pilot would be expanded.

As of November 26, 44,710 individuals were incarcerated across the state’s 52 prisons, operated by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), according to a department spokesperson. At the beginning of the month, 1,580 of those individuals were enrolled in college programs in 29 facilities, DOCCS representatives said.

When the College-in-Prison Reentry Program was launched in 2017, there were just over 1,000 students already in prison-based college programs, according to a press release announcing the program.

Providing access to higher education in prisons has for decades been a contentious issue in the state, where it is often expressed in political discourse as a trade-off between support for “law-abiding” students struggling to go to college and “criminals” receiving taxpayer benefits.

In 2014, two days after Cuomo first announced a plan to fund prison-based programs with state funds, then-State Senator Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, released a petition opposing the plan.

"I support rehabilitation and reduced recidivism, but not on the taxpayer's dime when so many individuals and families in New York are struggling to meet the ever-rising costs of higher education," said Grisanti in a press release launching the petition. (Grisanti lost his reelection bid that year and was appointed by Cuomo to the New York State Court of Claims in 2015. He now serves as a state Supreme Court Justice in Erie County.)

Reducing recidivism has always been a focal point of college-in-prison programs, and fewer individuals living in state prisons means taxpayers are spending less on detention. Cuomo, in 2014, said the math favors more prison-based programs, which studies have shown significantly cut recidivism rates for participants. Despite that outlook, he did not put up an aggressive fight for the program when crafting the state budget with legislative leaders that year (at the time, the Assembly was controlled by Democrats, while Republicans controlled the Senate with help from a breakaway group of Democrats).

In 2014, it cost the state $60,000 annually to incarcerate one person and approximately $5,000 to educate them, Cuomo said when announcing the later-abandoned initiative. But supporters say higher education in prison has a good return on investment, both for the individuals served and in terms of recidivism. An oft-cited 2013 RAND Corporation study found that people participating in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison and 13 percent more likely to find employment upon release.

“Providing the opportunity of a college education to the men and women in New York State prisons is a no brainer – it saves the state money in the long run while benefiting our society and those looking to make a better life for themselves and their families,” wrote Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for the governor, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “College degrees for people exiting prison provide them with a real chance at getting a job and staying out of the cycle of crime, and we are proud that in New York we’re helping make that a reality.”

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about whether there are plans to expand the initiative, including through the state budget.

The Vera Institute for Justice is expected to release an evaluation of the College-in-Prison Reentry Program in mid-2023, which will analyze recidivism rates for participants, according to a spokesperson for Vance. According to the latest data available to DOCCS, people released from state prisons in 2012 had a 43 percent chance of returning to prison within three years, in most cases for violating parole conditions (since 1996 the recidivism rate has hovered around 40 percent).

A DOCCS representative wrote in an email that recidivism rates could fall to as low as 16 percent for people who have attended college in prison, citing “decades of data.”

“I remember when I first got in, calling my mother and hearing the joy in her voice. Neither of us knew where it would take us,” Chochos said. He was accepted into Bard’s program in 2004 at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, four years into his term. He went on to receive an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s in social studies from Bard, and a masters from New York Theological Seminary before being released in 2011.

Since exiting the state prison system, Chochos has received two master’s degrees from Yale Divinity School, graduating with honors in one of them in 2016.

“It gave me a new language by which to contextualize my own life and the choices that I made,” Chochos said of the education he received behind bars. “It encouraged me to dream for the first time.”

Prison-based college programs serve a more diverse student population than traditional college programs. According to the 2019 John Jay College report, citing DOCCS data from 2016, the state prison population is “25 percent white, 48 percent black/African-American, and 23 percent Hispanic/Latino,” with a similar distribution among the subpopulation participating in college programs. By contrast, “[w]ithin the SUNY system, 57.3 percent of undergraduates are white, 12.3 percent Hispanic, and 10.8 percent are black/African American,” the report notes. (Three of the colleges involved in the College-in-Prison Reentry program are part of the SUNY system.)

Two bills in the State Legislature could impact the future of prison-based college in New York. One sponsored by Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry and Senator Velmanette Montgomery, two New York City Democrats, would restore eligibility for TAP, the state-funded tuition assistance program, to students in prison.

Another sponsored by Aubry and Senator Jamaal Bailey, a Bronx Democrat, would establish a commission on post-secondary education in prisons to evaluate and make recommendations on higher education in the state prison system. But they face an uphill battle: the commission bill stalled in committee last year, according to a spokesperson for Assembly Member David Weprin, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Correction.

Meanwhile, the New York City Council has committed city funding to education programs for people involved in the criminal legal system as part of a $13.5 million investment in alternatives to incarceration in the current fiscal year. This year, $850,000 was allocated to support education for formerly-incarcerated individuals after being released. Of that funding, $250,000 will go to the Bard Prison Initiative to support reentry and alumni career development activities in prisons for the 6-12 month period before release.

The remaining money will go to the College and Community Fellowship, which provides educational support for women upon reentry and serves approximately 120 women, according to a spokesperson for Speaker Corey Johnson.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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With Push from Cuomo and Funding from Vance, New York College-in-Prisons Program is Flourishing Mon, 02 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Experts Discuss Diversion and Decarceration for People with Serious Mental Illness first lady chirlane mccray host convo across

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Five leaders in criminal justice and mental health discussed wide-ranging options to keep seriously mentally ill people out of the prison system during a panel discussion held by the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice last week at Baruch College. Two out-of-state panelists, from Arizona and Florida, elaborated on initiatives in their states that have not made it to New York.

The discussion took place just a week after the New York City Council held an oversight hearing on recidivism for those with serious mental illness and what to do about it, and not long ager the New York State Assembly and State Senate unanimously passed legislation to create a commission to explore further state investment in underfunded mental health housing programs.

The panel, moderated by Greenburger Center Executive Director Cheryl Roberts, consisted of: Arizona State Representative Nancy Barto, Florida Circuit Judge Steve Leifman, Judge Matthew D’Emic of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, co-Director of the Columbia Justice Lab Vincent Schiraldi, and DJ Jaffe, Executive Director of the Mental Illness Policy Group (Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clarke was slated to participate but was replaced on the agenda the day before).

Each panelist was invited to speak on one particular specialty or accomplishment in their career related to diversion or redirection from prison for those with mental illness. The panel was part of a series called “After Rikers,” which the Greenburger Center is organizing to discuss how those with serious mental illness will fare once the jails on Rikers Island eventually close.

Jaffe discussed a way, assisted outpatient treatment, in which the courts can order someone with a serious mental illness to participate in community-based mental health care services before they become violent. AOT, otherwise known as Kendra’s Law in New York, was pioneered by New York in 1999, an effort in which Jaffe was instrumental (Roberts introduced Jaffe as the “Father of Kendra’s Law”).

“Kendra’s Law is simply the single most effective program that the city has or the state has for the seriously mentally ill,” said Jaffe. Serious mental illnesses, which plague an estimated 239,000 New Yorkers and 4% of the U.S. population, are advanced diagnoses, typically schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder.

AOT is utilized for those who have rejected treatment or shown violent tendencies in the past but whose loved ones or psychiatrists can petition for a court-ordered treatment program. In essence, Kendra’s Law is aimed at preventing people suffering from serious mental illness from committing violent crime, in the vein of the namesake incident whereby Kendra Webdale died in 1999 after being shoved in front of a New York City subway by a man untreated for his schizophrenia.

The population of people eligible for assisted outpatient treatment is relatively small – currently fewer than 1,400 people are under court-ordered treatment programs, although Jaffe estimates that number should be closer to 4,000 if New York provided more resources and was more appropriately aggressive in the use of Kendra’s Law to keep dangerous people in treatment.

Barto, of Arizona, discussed her recent legislation to create a secure community residential program that provides long-term housing placements for those who have resisted help and failed traditional housing programs.

“The goal is to enable a person to not walk away from treatment due to their illness, which is happening in an unsecure setting so often,” said Barto. The facility will be “secure” as in the patient will be unable to leave the gated facility until his or her program terminates.

Barto agreed with Roberts’ assessment that the facility is “a civil commitment to a community-based locked facility or house rather than an institution.”

Nationwide, the mental health field has shifted away from inpatient care (i.e. psychiatric hospitals or “insane asylums”) and towards community-based outpatient methods.

Currently, New York offers some supportive housing options similar to Barto’s legislation. Both New York City and State have programs to build thousands of additional units of supportive housing in the coming years, allowing more individuals to receive mental health care and other social and medical services where they live.

Leifman, of Florida, discussed two major initiatives: the implementation of Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) and the creation of a $42.1 million “one-stop shop” mental health facility. The facility -- full of programming, short-term residential beds, crisis intervention teams, and tattoo removal services -- is designed for those with mental illness who may not recognize the severity of their sickness and go through the treatment system many times.

Through the CIT training program, Miami-Dade trained 6,700 police officers representing each department in how to handle an emotionally disturbed person during a crisis. A similar training has been slow to take hold in New York City, where as THE CITY reported, just 11,970 of the NYPD’s 36,753 uniformed cops have been trained to handle EDP calls as those calls have jumped to 180,000 last year.

Furthermore, Miami-Dade recently created CIT 3.0 as a result of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018. The program, called a threat management unit, has detectives daily go through every call to the CIT program and look for indicators for threats of violence which leads to an officer checking in on the caller.

D’Emic, of Brooklyn, deals with mentally ill individuals after they have committed a crime. His court, started in 2002, is referred mentally ill offenders and he decides if they go through a mental health program instead of jail or prison. It’s this type of alternative to incarceration that many believe should be the model, but must be matched with good mental health care and careful oversight.

Schiraldi spoke about what to do with people after they leave prison. He worked closely on the recently failed bill in Albany entitled the “Less is More Act,” which would prohibit New Yorkers on parole from being re-incarcerated for smaller technical violations of parole such as being late for curfew.

A former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation, Schiraldi took a largely critical stance on the entire probation system, saying: “there is not a lot of strong evidence that probation and parole has an impact on public safety or rehabilitation. If this was a medicine, doctors would stop prescribing it.”

“The major reason it will exist tomorrow is because it existed yesterday,” he said.

There was one point of disagreement during the panel: Jaffe was much more bearish on the impact of peer groups on mental health than the rest of the panelists. A question from guest moderator Valentina Morales of The Fedcap Group asked how involved people with lived experience should be in the planning of mental health programs. Each panelist took the chance to praise people with mental illness who’ve completed mental health programs and work with ongoing patients, while Jaffe mentioned how that can at times lead to a closed feedback loop.

[READ: City Council Looks at Reducing Recidivism for People with Mental Illness]

by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Experts Discuss Diversion and Decarceration for People with Serious Mental Illness Mon, 01 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio ‘Jails to Jobs’ Program Launches Rikers jails to jobs

On Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Judith is a newly-minted head chef. She had previously been a line cook, and was nervous about interviewing for a job running her own kitchen, but decided to take the plunge after some convincing. When it came time to speak to the hiring manager, Judith, in her own self-assessment, “killed it.”

Before Judith was head chef, before she was a line cook, before she knew kitchen skills, she was incarcerated. But it was her time in “Rosie,” the Rose M. Singer women’s jail on Rikers Island, that placed her on her trajectory to becoming a chef.

In April 2017, four months before her release from Rikers, Judith began participating in the workforce development programming offered onsite by the Osborne Association, a New York-based nonprofit that provides social services for the currently and formerly incarcerated. Osborne offers a number of professional education workshops and certification programs on Rikers, and Judith began training intensely with the group.

“I took advantage of...everything I could get my hands on,” she told Gotham Gazette, and ended up leaving Rikers with certificates in food handling, culinary arts, building maintenance, and job safety.

Upon her release, Osborne’s housing staff helped her secure a home, and its employment team reviewed her resume, coached her on interview skills, organized her paperwork, and placed her in an apprenticeship in a kitchen. When the apprenticeship ended, Osborne helped Judith find permanent employment and supported her emotionally as she progressed professionally.

“They kept encouraging me that it’d be okay, that I need to keep pushing forward. It wouldn’t have happened without them,” she said.

The Osborne Association is one of several organizations in New York City providing services to those incarcerated in city jails, both during their confinement and after their release. Most have been operating for decades — Osborne was founded in 1933, and its peer group, the Fortune Society, has operated since 1967 — and receive city funding. But it’s only been within the past year that the city government has mobilized the Osborne Association, the Fortune Society, and six other incarceration-services organizations — Samaritan Daytop Village, Fedcap, Housing Works, Friends of Island Academy, the Women’s Prison Association, and the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College — to provide short-term transitional employment to every individual leaving a city jail after serving a sentence.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that lofty goal, which he promised to actualize through the new “Jails to Jobs Initiative,” in March 2017. Jails to Jobs is now a component of the mayor’s ten-year plan to shutter the city jails on Rikers Island by reducing the jail population, combating recidivism, and opening or expanding modern borough-based facilities. The mayor’s announcement was scant on details on the program, simply promising that “everyone leaving city jails after serving a sentence will be offered paid, short-term transitional employment to help with securing a long-term job.”

Employment after incarceration has been shown to reduce recidivism by 22%, and de Blasio says that the city needs to reduce its jail population to 5,000 — almost a 50% drop from figures at the time of his announcement — in order to make feasible the closure of Rikers. In 2017, the average total population of those incarcerated on Rikers or the city’s other jail facilities stood at 9,148. On Monday, July 2, the total city jail population was 8,208, including 6,138 on Rikers, down from 9,206 one year prior.

Roughly 8,500 people leave city jails each year after serving a sentence (many more are incarcerated after an arrest but do not necessarily serve a sentence in a city or any jail or prison). It is not clear what capacity the city needs to ensure through provider agencies to make sure that each of those individuals has access to a “paid, short-term” job. The program is in its infancy. There is no set duration for “short-term,” a mayor’s office spokesperson said, indicating that it depends on the needs of the client and the service-provider.

Employment is, by most empirical measures, both crucial to successful post-incarceration reentry and disproportionately difficult to attain for the formerly incarcerated. In 2017, 80% of those who served a sentence in a New York City jail had been unemployed at the time of their arraignment, and the National Institute of Justice estimates that between 60 and 75 percent of formerly-incarcerated individuals are jobless up to a year after their release.

This joblessness does not seem to be for lack of effort. A survey conducted by the Urban Institute reported that 79% of formerly-incarcerated individuals sought employment once out of jail, but data show that justice-involved individuals consistently face legal, perceptive, and racialized barriers to employment. More than 80% of employers in the United States perform criminal background checks on potential employees, and a government-published study conducted in New York City found that a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a job callback by almost 50%.

Still, white justice-involved applicants were twice as likely to hear back from a potential employer than black justice-involved applicants were. In a city that jails black and Latino people almost exclusively, this racial disparity has far-reaching effects.

Guaranteed employment for the formerly-incarcerated, then, would radically alter the conditions of thousands of New Yorkers leaving a city jail, and Jails to Jobs seems to be the first initiative of its kind in the United States. It may prove to be a massively complex undertaking.

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) is spearheading the initiative in collaboration with eight criminal justice nonprofits. “The bulk of the initiative,” said Patrick Gallahue, MOCJ’s senior press director, “includes paid transitional employment and supportive services in the community.”

The city works with groups that provide an array of services. For instance, the Friends of Island Academy holistically focuses on the needs of formerly-incarcerated youths while the Women’s Prison Association offers gender-specific services, and Housing Works helps the formerly-incarcerated secure stable housing, a well-documented struggle for justice-involved individuals.

Several leaders of the city’s partner organizations spoke to Gotham Gazette of Jails to Jobs’ collaborative nature, whereby affiliated groups freely refer individuals to other organizations that may be better suited to their needs. For instance, if a Brooklyn resident sought assistance from the Fortune Society, based in Long Island City, Queens, staff there said they might refer them to the Osborne Association, which runs a center in Brooklyn Heights.

The Jails to Jobs initiative officially commenced on January 1 of this year, but most organizations began providing services under the program’s auspices in the spring, meaning the program has only recently launched in earnest.

The network of groups finding employment for formerly-incarcerated people is labyrinthine, and Jails to Jobs runs slightly differently between organizations. When MOCJ solicited programming proposals for Jails to Jobs, it wrote that the city would “strongly favor proposals that demonstrate partnerships through subcontracting or formal cost-sharing arrangements.” As a result, most Jails to Jobs participants are placed into internships through subsidiary organizations.

As of mid-June, the Osborne Association had employed 30 formerly-incarcerated individuals via three different, smaller groups — the Center for Employment Opportunity, Exponent, and the Hope Program — though it hopes to reach 150 people by the end of this year and 200 by the next.

The Center for Employment Opportunity primarily provides day labor cleanup crews and employs Jails to Jobs participants for four to five hours a day at $13 an hour. Exponent, a substance-use program, provides services and certifies in counseling. Programs have not yet begun at the Hope Program.

The Fortune Society, for its part, hopes to place 300 individuals in employment by the end of the year, and had enrolled 128 as of mid-June, 2018. That enrollment figure, as with all similar statistics from service providers, includes more than just the individuals who are currently employed in a paid, temporary internship — Jails to Jobs also funds hard skills training, including culinary, construction, and CDL driving certification.

“It’s going to look different for each person,” said Katharine Samberg, the Fortune Society’s Manager of Trainings and Transitional Programs. “Some don’t have job experience, and the transitional work program is for people who need to get a footing and realize they can be a beneficial employee.”

Experiences vary along lines of gender, as well. In 2015, women comprised roughly 6% of the city jail population, and their experiences before, during, and after incarceration differ from those of men, said Nyasha Rivera, who oversees the Jails to Jobs program at the Women’s Prison Association.

“We are not using tools that were created for men or are gender-neutral,” Rivera told Gotham Gazette. Since they are often the primary caregivers of children, meaning they must live in bigger homes, be nearer to sources of support, and are often more undesirable to landlords, women typically face less housing stability post-release than men do, which depresses their ability to find employment. And gender-specific “trauma that women experience prior to incarceration, during incarceration, and in the reentry process...serves as a barrier,” Rivera said.

The Women’s Prison Association offers, through various partnerships, employment tracks in culinary arts, building maintenance, and front-of-house restaurant work. As part of Jails to Jobs, the Association offers eight paid weeks of job training followed by a two-week paid internship, a different program than those run by other service providers.

Still, explained Jim Hollywood of Daytop Samaritan Village, “all Jails to Jobs contracts across the city have a similar construction to the programs.” Job training services begun during incarceration place individuals in contact with service providers, who continue employment support after release, which comes, in part, in the form of a city-subsidized temporary internship.

MOCJ allocated almost $9 million -- $8,885,492 -- to the Jails to Jobs program in its first year, which it’s spent mainly in the form of grants to service providers. That money pays for the minimum wage salaries of program participants for up to 21 hours a week, assuaging, the hope is, any sense among employers that to employ a formerly-incarcerated person is to undertake a risk.

Employers can choose to supplement the schedules and salaries of their formerly-incarcerated employees beyond what the city guarantees. Such is the case of Alexandra, who spent 18 months on Rikers Island and a little over a year in state prisons. She connected with the Fortune Society while on Rikers through taking its anger management, family safety, and job training workshops. Upon release, Alexandra entered into an internship at a home health services facility that employs her for over 40 hours a week, paying the half of her full-time salary that the city, through the Fortune Society, does not cover.

Like Judith, Alexandra (Gotham Gazette agreed to withhold last names) credits her connection with an incarceration-services group for her stable re-entry process. Immediately following her release from the Taconic State Prison, where she was sent after time on Rikers, staff at the Fortune Society helped Alexandra open a Medicaid account, apply for food stamps, and begin learning skills necessary for re-integration. She called it a “one-stop shop” in an interview with Gotham Gazette, and is now poised to be hired full-time as a coordinator at the home health services facility once her internship ends this month.

It is difficult to ascertain whether the successes of Judith and Alexandra are representative of most participants’ experiences with Jails to Jobs; most organizations only began running the program two or three months ago. But each service provider, as per the terms of MOCJ’s solicitation for proposals, already has extensive experience in reentry programming in New York City.

Data points for the program are tricky to come by. For example, Gallahue, the MOCJ press director, told Gotham Gazette that the city does “not have a precise number” regarding the expected demand for jobs among recently-released individuals. Though at this time it is known that approximately 8,500 people leave city jails after serving a sentence each year, MOCJ could not say how many individuals who had served a sentence could be expected to be looking for a job at any given time.

No organization told Gotham Gazette of having to turn away an individual for lack of space in an employment program; if anything, most are eager to grow. But, in the words of City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Committee on the Justice System, without a figure from the city, it is nearly impossible to assure that “every person serving a city sentence would have access to this job training, job placement’s incumbent on the city to explain how it’s going to meet its commitment of serving every person serving a city sentence.”

Anecdotally, a minority of those released from city jails, even those who’d been involved with a service provider while incarcerated, seek post-release services. Judith said that she is the only one of her roughly 20 peers who’d been enrolled in Osborne’s classes on Rikers to seek out the organization’s help once off the island.

Her two closest friends from Rosie “have every excuse [to not go to Osborne]...For one, it’s easier for her to sell drugs on the street, and, for the other one, it’s her boyfriend.”

Improved outreach would help, she said — for some, organizations should “take them by the hand.”

The employment services Jails to Jobs has added resources to have changed Judith’s life, she said.

“I’m so grateful to that program. They did a wonder job on me. A wonder job.”

by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio ‘Jails to Jobs’ Program Launches Thu, 05 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
High Rates of Head Trauma in New York City Jails Raise Public Health, Recidivism Concerns Rikers Island guards

(photo via The Mayor's Office)

When a head injury occurs in any of New York City’s 12 jails, no one bats an eye, according to Jonathan Stenger. “It’s accepted,” said Stenger, who was formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island and now works with inmates in the city’s jails through the Osborne Association. “People are just used to it.”

Quantifying these incidents for the first time, a new study finds that the rate of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) sustained by inmates in New York City jails is more than 60 times higher than in surrounding communities. A head injury is considered a TBI if it causes the person to lose consciousness or to become confused and dazed. Published in the August issue of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, the study also provides estimates for the 5,000-plus jails and prisons across the country; the five-person research team concluded that there are some 600,000 incidents of head trauma annually, close to 90,000 of which are TBIs.

The new findings could help researchers better understand recidivism and the long-term mental health issues facing many individuals who are spending or have spent time in jail, since these injuries can lead to degenerative brain diseases. They also raise questions about the societal costs of injuries incurred in jails, about officer training, and about the need for better injury and health recording systems in jails, which aren’t required to maintain such data.

“Brain injuries are a chronic health condition that shorten and diminish quality of life,” said Wayne Gordon, a rehabilitation medicine professor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “We need to be looking at how to make jails safer for these individuals, or it will continue to have significant public health implications.”

During a traumatic brain injury, the brain—which has a consistency similar to gelatin or firm tofu—shakes and jiggles within the skull. No matter where the head is hit during a severe injury, the gelatinous brain collides with and scratches against the front part of the skull that has bony ridges, damaging tissue. If there’s enough movement, tissues connecting the mid-brain and frontal lobe move at different speeds, harming connections from one area to the other.

“The frontal area is what makes us most distinctly human,” says John Corrigan, director of the Ohio Valley Center for Brain Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation. “Relative to the weight of the brain—we have way more frontal lobe than any species.”

This area primarily regulates impulse control, delayed gratification, and the ability to understand abstract and nuanced concepts. Following a TBI, people commonly report an inability to concentrate and high levels of fatigue, among a host of other symptoms that have implications for recidivism rates and employment.   

Repeated brain trauma can deteriorate brain tissue to the point where it loses some function—a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Symptoms of the disease, which has drawn public attention because of its impact on players in the National Football League, include aggression, depression, confusion, suicidal tendencies, and progressive dementia. The National Institutes of Health has taken the lead on conducting CTE research, but has mainly studied the disease in football players and boxers.

Prisoners have not been studied and one of the main reasons, Corrigan said, is a lack of data. Jail and prison facilities across the country aren’t required to keep standardized injury logs, and many facilities haven’t implemented electronic medical records. New York City was among the first to do so, and is one of a handful nationwide that uses records as a surveillance tool to monitor head injuries.

The research team behind the new study jumped on the opportunity in 2012 when the city announced it would use electronic health records to monitor medical care in its jails. They tweaked the recording system so physicians working with inmates would be prompted to ask more specific questions if their patient had a head injury—including detailed descriptions of the immediate effects, and how the injury happened.

The researchers looked at 42 months of records of nearly 275,000 New York City inmates, and observed that, over this period of time, nearly 14 percent of inmates suffered a traumatic brain injury. After examining emergency room and clinical records across New York City, the researchers calculated that the rate of TBI sustained in jails over the three-and-a-half-year study period was about 63 times greater than in community settings. Experts said there’s no reason to believe much has changed since the study period ended.

A possible limitation of the study, said lead author and physician Anne Siegler, is that someone who experienced two traumatic brain injuries could have been counted as two individuals. The researchers were unable to identify unique incidents in the emergency room data due to privacy reasons, and therefore chose to tally each head injury as one.

The study was able to identify causes. The team found that inmate-on-inmate fighting and the use of force by an occupational officer were the greatest sources of head injuries: 42 percent (5,966) and 23 percent (1,776), respectively. Other causes included self-injury, slipping and falling, and attacks.

As they began to collect data, the researchers noticed how frequent head injuries were, which echoed their anecdotal experience. Homer Venters, an author of the study and former chief medical officer of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, described hundreds of visits he had made to city jails during his two-year tenure that involved treating patients who had suffered head injuries. Often, Venters recalled, a light would go on for an inmate he was treating when he began reciting the cognitive issues associated with TBI.

“It runs counter to the narrative they get everywhere else, which is that they’re lazy, they’re dumb, or there’s a problem in their will or moral character,” said Venters, who is now the director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights.

One patient Venters worked with said he used to read hundreds of pages a day before a correctional officer injured him; afterward, he had trouble reading more than a page or two in one sitting. He told Venters he felt tired and unable to follow the text.

Experts in the field say the new findings are alarming, particularly when extrapolated to the national level. The 600,000 or so head injuries that the researchers estimate occur in jails nationwide would amount to an additional 40 percent of head injuries if included in data collected by U.S. public health systems, said Venters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2.1 million individuals suffer TBIs annually.

More accurate numbers could be found with better record-keeping in jails, Venters said, but no one seems eager to quantify the scale. There is a dearth of data on the methods cities use to record injuries in jails or whether steps are being taken to implement electronic health records. “Jails and prisons don’t really want to know rates of injuries,” said Venters. The federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) office of public affairs said the bureau does not monitor these injuries “due to the fact the cause of inmate head injuries in the BOP may vary.”

Experts say that the new findings suggest that only better record keeping will make fully clear the extent of the injuries on a national scale, and that training programs for re-entry should include discussions of TBI and its implications. Another study published in February 2017 found that former inmates in Indiana with TBI were more likely to return to jail than former prisoners without TBI.

Corrigan described the importance of arming re-entry workers with strategies to effectively communicate and create treatment plans with this subset of the formerly incarcerated population. If someone is displaying a short attention span and has a history of TBIs, slowing down when explaining something, recapping points and asking them to summarize major points can help them process information.

Members of the team said that training prison officers is critical as well. When Venters and his colleagues noticed the frequency of head injuries, they reached out to correctional officer training academies, delivering a handful of lectures about how to identify when incarcerated individuals may be showing signs of head injury. But the future of these or similar training efforts is not clear. Following multiple requests for interviews about guard training, a public relations officer at the Department of Corrections sent an email with a statement attributed to spokesperson Peter Thorne: “The Department cares deeply about the health and well-being of all inmates and is working closely with our city’s correctional health services provider to ensure people in our custody are provided with quality health care.”

Stenger said he hasn’t noticed any changes in the prevalence of head injury in the people he has worked with over the last few years. He described the jails as still feeling “unsafe.” Venters seems to agree:

“The way the jail system confers new health risks onto the people that pass through it is profound.”

by Maya Miller for Gotham Gazette
The author is a freelance journalist currently earning an M.A. in health and science journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

High Rates of Head Trauma in New York City Jails Raise Public Health, Recidivism Concerns Tue, 02 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000