Bronx Reentry Working Group Holds 4th Annual Forum

Ramon Semorile, BCS
              On the 17th of July the Bronx Reentry Working group held its Fourth Annual Forum at Hostos Community College in collaboration with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Bronx Community Solutions and HealthPeople. The intentions of the community forum are to: 1) provide a venue to showcase some of the wonderful activities happening in the Bronx related to community reintegration, and 2) to showcase the practice evidence that professional support - education, employment, social service/health agencies and community supervision, in conjunction with long-term social and emotional support - are key ingredients to the reentry process in the Bronx. The program brought together 70 individuals representing community members, returning citizens, health providers, corrections officers and professionals from local service provider organizations. Special thanks to Peter Mertens, Assistant Dean of Continuing Education and Workforce Development of Hostos Community College for providing us with the space to hold this forum and to HealthPeople for providing MetroCards and catering the event. 

 - Ramon Semorile, BCS Crew Supervisor and Reentry Working Group Member

The Forum  was covered on local news! Bronx News 12 was present to cover the event. You can see the footage and hear more about it here:

Bronx Community Solutions intern Carmen is a student at John Jay School for Criminal Justice. Carmen Alcantara has been a huge help to us this summer and will continue working with our intake and compliance department through the rest of the summer. She attended the Forum and describes it in greater detail below. Well done, Carmen!
Support for Our Returning Citizens
by Carmen Alcantara
At the Fourth Annual Bronx Reentry Forum, health and professional development providers, reentering citizens, and community supporters gathered for Bronx Reentry Working Group’s collaboration with Bronx Community Solutions, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Health People for a presentation focusing on reentering citizens called I’m Home…What’s Next? Held in the Multi-Purpose Event Room at CUNY Hostos Community College, not only was this a welcome space for providers to share their ideas and passion for social change but also a place where reentering citizens could find others who experienced some of the same obstacles that they have and educate themselves on the services available to reentering citizens and their families.

In order to reenter society and become successful, you must "aim in a direction,” as the keynote presenter Cary Grant described from his own experiences as a reentering citizen and his success story. His success would not be possible if it were not for the Bronx Reentry Working Group. It was with Bronx Reentry that he found hope. There he discovered something about humanity: errors may be committed but you can still regain the normalcy of life after incarceration.

Successful Reintegration
Mario Rodriguez, Bronx Reentry Working Group
During a question and answer session, we were able to receive some insight from four returning citizens that prove there is life after prison, and they can be just as successful, if not more so because of their experiences. On the panel, which was moderated by Valerie Alvarez, sat Selina Fulford, Mario Rodriguez, James Braswell and Rodney Creshall. Questions were posed to them about the challenges they faced coming home, what they wished they knew before leaving prison, advice they would give to those returning home and what help have they received since their reentry.

Many of the challenges each returning citizen faces is, “Where am I going to sleep?” “How am I going to get a job?” What may seem easy to us is virtually impossible to returning citizens. This may have been the only home they ever knew before prison or the only door open to them, but the door was slammed in their face once again by legislation forbidding them from residing with anyone living in New York City Housing Projects. Rodney Creshall said readjustment was probably the experience that most stuck out in his head. Something as simple as a subway ride or a cell phone are things returning citizens must get used to. After being locked in prison, a subway ride can agitate feelings of distress. He went on to describe how a friend returning after 27 years in jail was waiting for a call from his mother. He refused to go outside because he was adamant about waiting for her call. Rodney had to explain to him that you can travel with cellphones and still receive calls. No matter how uncomfortable it is, change is necessary.

The connections and referral services provided by the Bronx Reentry Working Group and other providers was key to their success stories. Mario Rodriguez recognized that had it not been for the positive circle surrounding him and kicking his drug addiction, he would not have been able to change his life. He has been able to reintegrate into society and is now a conductor for the MTA. Rodney was able to assist the Mt. Vernon Mayor during his campaign and in honor of his community service and advocacy, he was granted a program to be able to help young people avoid the streets and prison. Selina was able to use grants and services to receive her BA from the College of New Rochelle while working at a men’s shelter after returning to society. She is now pursuing her PhD.

Health of Returning Citizens
Providers such as HealthPeople, led by Chris Norwood and her part time staff, created a Peer Reentry Task Force. This task force assists returning citizens that were released who lack medical insurance attain Medicaid cards and health services that are greatly needed. It is reported that 58% of returning citizens have chronic health issues. 26% are women who are being discharged with no HIV status. Many have substance abuse issues or a history of mental illness.

Providers such as Fordham Tremont Community Mental HealthCenter have gone so far as to assessing prisoners at Riker’s Island prior to their discharge. Shirley Rodriguez, the division director at Fordham Tremont’s Discharge Planning Department helps soon-to-be-released inmates who have mental health and/or substance abuse issues gain access to safe, temporary housing, open HRA cases and make connections with family members. They also accompany each client to their interviews and help them find permanent housing. The connections with family members is what she finds to be an important factor because that support is what is key in the most successful reintegrations. “Social workers come and go, but family is forever. So I encourage that family work with PO’s and the courts before the returning citizens’ discharge.”
Monica Morales and Richard Medina from the OsborneAssociation also offer services for those with mental health and substance abuse problems. Ms. Morales works with La Fuente Women’s Services that offers help to women who have suffered trauma from physical, emotional, mental and sexual abuse. With unstable housing and few opportunities for a better life, most of these women are former sex workers. Whether it is by smuggling drugs or selling sex, these are women in need of hope. And that is what La Fuente gives them. They are taught that aspiring to develop their gifts and talents will break through the barriers of incarceration. They will develop skills to become more independent, to discover who they are and who they can be.

Mr. Medina works for a Transition clinic at Montefiore Medical Center. Through his work, workers go to prisons to ensure that soon-to-be-discharged inmates have mental health services and housing upon their release. Studies prove that people being discharged form prison are twelve times more likely to land in the emergency room or discover a major medical condition less than twelve weeks after their release. The Montefiore-Osborne Transition Program has more than eleven locations through out the United States. These services are targeted during discharge because it is not only the individual that suffers, but also their families. And when a family suffers, the community suffers.  

Employment Opportunities
Many returning citizens are under the impression that it is impossible to find employment. But there are organizations such as Fedcap Employment Works Center, which work with returning citizens and help them gain access to gainful employment. Warwick Williams, coordinator at Fedcap assists returning citizen clients through the employment application phase. He argues that what hinders employment is the last phrase, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” When you lie, it closes doors. Or simply not being able to present your situation during the interview process impedes employment further. 74% of the clients at Employment Works have been hired after disclosing their prior criminal history. Mr. Williams goes on to say that how clients represent themselves is the key to success. Fedcap Employment Works Center assists each client with the creation of professional resumes and cover letters, also offering soft skills workshops for the interview process. Also offered are skills training, career counseling, job placement and post-employment support. Warwick describes returning citizens as having “a poverty of imagination. Give them concrete examples to show them its possible.”

Housing Opportunities
Housing is always an issue for returning citizens and there is a way to apply for safe and permanent housing. This does not apply to all but will work best for those most in need. Kim Simmons of NARCO Freedom explains HRA’s 2010e; can it work? Yes and No. It is the most helpful to those with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. People can have unrealistic expectations but caseworkers at programs such as NARCO Freedom and many other providers can help paint a different picture. To some, returning citizens are viewed as a threat to society and to their property, but being passionate about who they are now is what will open doors and bring them closer to safe and permanent housing. There are still some barriers to housing but they can be overcome with enough drive and expertise.

Hope for the Future
In order to reduce recidivism, the needs of returning citizens must be met. And this is being done by Bronx Reentry Working Group. Comprised of a large team helping those recently released, the key needs are housing, employment, health services and documentation assistance. Christopher McLaughlin, Reentry Coordinator at Bronx County Reentry Task Force and staff assist returning citizens with transitioning back to the outside. Collaborating with organizational partners, they are able to mentor discharged inmates and create successful returning citizens. Whether it is simply helping clients attain copies of their birth certificate or social security card, or accompanying them to parole meetings, CRTF is assuring that success stories are works in the making. As in other groups, signed consent is usually attained before discharge. By doing this, CRTF refer clients to partners that will be able to lead them along the right path and ensure they become success stories.   

CRTF, along with the Bronx Reentry Working Group and Project Urbanista will be lending a helping hand to reopen a Fulton Correctional under the administration of the Osbourne Association. Starting this fall, John Alvarez and Project Urbanista will be holding forums inviting groups such as CRTF, Employment Works and the local residents to build a strong reentry center at the old correctional facility. The bars and barbed wire will be removed and Fulton will become a place of hope and healing for those returning citizens and a support system for the community by creating jobs for reintegrating citizens and local residents.

Next year’s forum hopes to bring in more providers and more returning citizens. Together we can continue to strengthen and revitalize the Bronx.
- Carmen Alcantara, Bronx Community Solutions Intern

Maria Almonte-Weston, BCS Project Director and Ramon Semorile