Friday, June 8, 2012

Transforming Lives


Yesterday was a day spent thinking about prison.  It started with a breakfast hosted by the Osborne Association, one of New York's oldest and best alternative-to-incarceration programs.  It was a great event, highlighted by an incredibly moving presentation by a 17 year old kid who had benefitted from Osborne's programs while his mom was in prison.   Liz Gaynes, Osborne's executive director, also spoke beautifully about the importance of empathy for those who are incarcerated.

As wonderful as the Osborne breakfast was, it was topped later that evening when I attended the latest graduation exercises for our reentry court at the Harlem Community Justice Center.  Thirty-six men and women received certificates of completion along with hugs from administrative law judge Terry Saunders.  Eugene Schneeberg, the director of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships for the U.S. Department of Justice, offered a keynote address that was alternately funny and inspiring, drawing on his own experience growing up without a father in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

But, as always, the highlight for me was hearing directly from the program graduates, many of whom had spent decades behind bars.  I'm always interested to hear how they describe the program and why they think the reentry court made a difference for them.  Here are some selected quotes that I scribbled down in my program:

"They gave me the push I needed."

"They treated me like a human being not a number."

"They gave me tools here and I used them."

"I got support."

"I learned discipline and responsibility."

I found this testimony to be a reassuring confirmation that the participants in our programs share our sense of what the key ingredients are: a combination of punishment and help, a focus on procedural justice, an emphasis on neighborhood-based service delivery, etc.

Sandwiched in between the Osborne breakfast and the Harlem graduation was a farewell party for Raye Barbieri, who is leaving the Center to become deputy commissioner at the City's Administration for Children's Services.  A busy day devoted to thinking about reentry was a fitting way to say goodbye to Raye, who always brought not only enormous energy to her work but a real sense of caring for those who needed a second chance in life.  We will miss her.