Thursday, March 27, 2014

Celebrating Parolees in Harlem


Tonight, the Harlem Community Justice Center celebrated the latest class of graduates from its reentry court -- three dozen parolees who have managed to make it through the first portion of their parole term with the help of the extra structure and support that the Justice Center provides.

I've been to probably a half dozen or so of these graduations at Harlem.  A search of the archives reveals that I've written about them quite a few times on this blog.  I'm not sure I have anything  to say beyond what I've said before: these are without fail inspiring events that offer a powerful reminder of the human capacity for reinvention.  The participants in our reentry program have spent years, and in some cases decades behind bars.  Many are starting at zero in terms of education, employment and their family lives.  But they persist in the face of enormous obstacles.  Tonight was an opportunity to offer them a modicum of encouragement, while acknowledging that there are still plenty of challenges to come as they seek to make the transition to community life.

I thought I'd try to offer a little of the texture of the evening's festivities. Below are some notes I jotted down while listening to the speakers.  Some of the quotations hint at what makes the reentry program special -- the unique dynamic that exists between parolees and their supervisors in Harlem.

Chris Watler, Project Director, Harlem Community Justice Center: "We have a fundamental belief that each person can change."

Kelly O'Neill Levy, Presiding Judge, Harlem Community Justice Center: "How did you [program graduates] get here tonight?  You got here because of your courage, strength and determination...tap into the feelings of accomplishment as you go on to face new challenges."

Noreen Campbell, Administrative Law Judge, Reentry Court: "We have your back."  "This program is about problem-solving and making the right choices."  "This program is successful because of the synergy of all the members of the team."  "Our graduates learn to trust themselves."

Rev. Vernon Williams (keynote): "Be better today than you were yesterday."  "The only reason you are out of the belly of the beast is God."  "Now my family can look at me and say something other than 'jailbird' or 'drug dealer.'"  "Don't be afraid of success.  Don't be afraid of being different."

Various Participants/Graduates of the Program: "If you ain't positive, everything around you will be negative."  "This [program] ain't 40th Street [regular parole].  "Our challenge is getting people to see past that paper, that crime...that preconceived notion [of who we are]."  "[My parole officer] is like a little dad to me.  He's my surrogate father."  "I'm going to be starting college next semester."  "This program is like a dream...it exceeded all of my expectations."  "I have a job."  "I'm trying to stay on the right track."  "I just decided when I was in prison that I was ready, willing and able [to change."  "I got tired of being in the box."