Out for Good: An Overview of Reentry Efforts in Tompkins County

Every year, close to 700,000 people are released from jails and prisons in the United States. More than 700 of them are released from the jail right here in Tompkins County.

Those individuals are “reentering citizens,” and, as criminal justice reform moves into the national spotlight, reentry is just one aspect of reform that is gaining steam locally. Reentering citizens can face an array of challenges, including finding a job when they have a criminal record, securing housing without any savings, and transportation to meeting parole and probation requirements.

José Peliot of Civic Ensemble

Ten years ago, there was relatively little to speak of in the way of reentry efforts in Tompkins County. Now there’s a smattering of local groups dedicating resources to everything from college preparation to acting, all in the name of reentry.

Reentry Subcommittee

One big player in local reentry efforts could be the county government. In its current iteration the 2016 budget includes $100,000 in target contingency funds to support a reentry program, the specifics of which will be worked out as the year progresses. The decision to fund reentry support was based on recommendations from the Criminal Justice and Alternatives to Incarceration Board’s Reentry Subcommittee.

The county’s current interest in looking at reentry grew out of the jail expansion. In addition to prompting the creation of the Jail Alternatives Task Force, the decision to install seven more jail beds eventually led to the creation of the Reentry Subcommittee in early 2015.

The group was charged with the tasks of developing recommendations for a reentry program, identifying funding sources to implement those recommendations, and developing tools to track recidivism and program efficacy.

“Why are we talking about reentry? I think everyone’s pretty aware that there’s a revolving door syndrome,” Patricia Buechel, subcommittee co-chair and county probation director, told the county legislature during an Oct. 6 presentation on the group’s recommendations.

To understand who exactly is part of the reentering population, Buechel—along with co-chair Deborah Dietrich and CJATI Chair Suzi Cook—offered up some data from the county jail.

In 2014 the jail had a total of 794 inmates, 68 percent of whom were unsentenced. The jail population is relatively young—64 percent were under 33 years old—and 80 percent male.

Although the jail population is mostly white—72 percent—African Americans are significantly over-represented. While 23 percent of the jail population is black, according to the Tompkins County Health Department’s most recent county health assessment, only 4 percent of the county population is black.

Since 2008 the jail has had a limited reentry program in place. It began as a pilot project, but it doesn’t actually get any specific funding.

Teheran Forest of Civic Ensemble

In a nutshell, the reentry program helps inmates complete Department of Social Services (DSS) applications, offers transport to DSS for an intake appointment, and provides assessments for other needs. However, the current program is only available to a small fraction of the jail population.

To be eligible, inmates must be sentenced and have at least 45 days left to serve. They can’t be on parole or probation after their release, they can’t have participated in the reentry program previously, and they must be planning to stay in Tompkins County.

As a result of those restrictions, only 14 percent of sentenced inmates—143 people—have gone through the program since it was created seven years ago.

Despite its limited scope, there are some indications the reentry program may be working. The most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study in 2005 found that more than 50 percent of state prisoners recidivate. Though there isn’t recidivism data for the county jail overall, reentry participants are reincarcerated about 35 percent of the time, according to the subcommittee report. However, that number only measures returns to the Tompkins County Jail and thus commitments to other county jails aren’t included.

Although the subcommittee expressed optimism about the program’s low recidivism rate, it’s hard to make significant conclusions from such limited data.

To improve and expand the program’s outcome, the subcommittee offered a number of recommendations (including better data collection). Some highlights of the 16-page report include:

Hire two full-time reentry coordinators to create discharge plans, identify needs pre-release, and provide follow-up in the community.

Create transitional housing in the city, staffed by a resident advisor. About 50 percent of inmates said they were unsure of their housing upon release. Transitional housing, the subcommittee notes in its report, “would provide a supportive atmosphere for those high risk inmates leaving the jail who have no or inappropriate housing.”

Implement more jail programming, possibly at off-site locations. Educational opportunities, college orientation programs, money management, and addiction treatment programs were all identified as options that could help provide inmates with better tools for the real world after their release.

Consider “Ban the Box” legislation at both the county and city level, in order to reduce barriers to employment by removing questions about criminal background from job applications.

Create a van service to help reentering citizens in rural areas get to appointments and jobs.

Create a mentoring program. The report notes, “Lack of emotional support upon release from incarceration is an identified issue for those leaving both the prison system and the Tompkins County Jail.”

Improve the process for getting identification post-release. Some reentering citizens struggle with finding the necessary documentation to get state ID. The report notes that the Department of Motor Vehicles has agreed to accept enhanced sheriff’s ID cards—which could be given to reentry program inmates—for points toward proving identity for a license.

The legislature, at the urging of Legislator Martha Robertson (D-Dryden), began by tackling the first of those suggestions in this year’s budget, but there are other groups already in place and working to address some of the remaining recommendations.

Mary Bogan College Initiative

“The thing about reentry is it’s a cloth, and every single person who offers support is a thread in that cloth,” said Benay Rubenstein.

Rubenstein, an energetic woman with decades of experience working in prison college programs, wants to add another thread to Tompkins County’s cloth.

That’s why she created the Mary Bogan College Initiative (MCBI). Funded by private donations, MCBI is intended to “provide a bridge-to-college program for the entire reentry community here in Tompkins County.” Basically, that means helping current and former inmates figure out how to navigate the college application and preparation process.

Starting in October, Rubenstein and volunteer academic counselor Laura Komor began meeting with groups inside and outside the jail to provide academic counseling services.

Rubenstein said that Ray Bunce, the jail captain, has offered eager support.

Benay Rubenstein of the Mary Bogan College Initiative

“Number one, he’s going to be posting our information in the dormitories in the jail, and we’re asking that anyone who’s interested in having a meeting with an academic counselor put in a request to meet for one-on-one appointments,” she said. “Then when they come home we can take the next step, which would be college prep courses or remedial work. Or, if a person is ready to apply, it could be assistance with applications, financial aid, dealing with outstanding loans, and dealing with the special application process for people with felonies.”

The program is named after a long-time New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision employee who passed away in 2011.

MCBI’s seed funding came from one of Bogan’s close friends, Park Foundation Board of Trustees President Adelaide Gomer. Rubenstein hopes to find other sources to grow that seed funding into a tree.

“At the moment the MBCI project is running on a shoestring budget, although I’m giving it my all in the hopes that more funding will follow,” she said.

Rubenstein said that once there are additional funds in line, there is a possibility that the program could expand to other counties. Eventually, it could lead to more jobs for reentering citizens.

“My plan is to hire formerly incarcerated people to staff this program as soon as possible,” she added. “Also, volunteers are welcome. There is much to do, including outreach, academic instruction and tutoring, building a website, and on and on.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension

It’s not just community groups and the county government that have become involved in reentry efforts—the Big Red behemoth up the hill has stepped on board too.

Cornell is already home to the Cornell Prison Education Program, which seeks to provide a college education for state prisoners, but now the university is expanding its efforts, as the Cornell Cooperative Extension is housing a part-time reentry specialist position.

Lisa Ellin—who has also been involved in Civic Ensemble’s project (see below)—is currently filling that position. While many of the other reentry efforts underway focus on life after jail, Ellin is focusing on life in prison.

Right now, she’s running parenting classes at state prisons in order to help men learn how to maintain and rebuild family relationships upon their release.

“The research shows that family connections and family involvement in reentry is critical,” Ellin said. “What I’m doing is helping to develop tools and skills with these men so they can play a powerful role in their child[ren]’s lives.”

Ellin said she also works on alternatives to violence programs and hopes to expand offerings to other facilities, possibly including the county jail.

Civic Ensemble

“What the arts can do is give a glimpse of another way,” said Sarah Chalmers, Civic Ensemble’s director of civic engagement. “In theatre there’s no wrong answer.”

There are right answers, though, and last spring Civic Ensemble embarked on a project to help former inmates find them. The eight-week playwriting class culminated with a series of plays—all penned by reentering citizens—offered up to the community for free.

After a successful set of performances and positive community feedback, Civic Ensemble has decided to do it again. In early 2016 they’ll be offering a second theatre reentry playwriting class.

As they did last spring, Civic Ensemble will offer a stipend to anyone who completes the class and transportation will be available to anyone who needs it. The class meets twice a week, and Chalmers said—in addition to providing positive growth experience and resume material—the class can create a sense of place that reentering citizens often need.

“Someone who’s been told you can’t or you’re not good enough or you’re not a full member of our community, they now have a place where they are valued without question,” she said. “With this program, people have someplace to go, where they’re expected to be. They’re getting paid, they have community and people who are excited to see them and care about them. They work together, and by the end of the eight weeks they’re helping each other finish their plays.”

Ultimate Reentry Opportunity

The idea for the URO came about in late 2013, according to one of the organization’s founders, Schelley Nunn.

“The reason why this all came about,” Nunn said, “is because there were some serious issues around reentry. A lot of what we know is anecdotal information; it’s been a little difficult getting statistical data.

“We know of people who are opting to go back to jail because it’s just so difficult to be out here,” she said.

In addition to Nunn, Audrey Cooper and Fabina Colon are at the helm of the grant-funded project, which is affiliated with the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). One of the key aspects of URO’s problem-solving approach is the “collective impact model.”

“It’s really an approach that is used to solve large-scale social issues,” Nunn said. “It goes a step further than collaboration; it brings key organizations and individuals together so they can work outside of the silos that exist when we operate in our own vacuums. It’s a model that has been used internationally with great success.”

So far, the group has begun their work by holding meetings with stakeholders involved in all aspects of a reentering citizen’s life. That has included representatives from fields including mental health, education, probation, and more.

Also, URO plans to start a mentoring program for newly released members of the community.

Colon said that within the next year, they expect to hire one position to coordinate the volunteer mentoring program and another two positions to facilitate working groups for reentry stakeholders.

“There are definitely gaps here in Tompkins County and Ithaca that are pretty serious,” Colon said. “I think that we have a lot of work to do.”

This piece originally appeared in the Ithaca Times. 

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Ban the Box: When Do You Admit That You’re a Felon

There are around 70 million Americans with an arrest history or a criminal record. For that portion of the population—one in three adults, according to the National Employment Law Project—getting a job can be tough.

In some cases, private employers, such as Target, Home Depot, and Walmart, have chosen to make it a bit easier by not asking questions about criminal background on their applications. In some cases, cities, counties, and states have actually passed legislation prohibiting such questions. These so-called “Ban the Box” laws don’t mandate that employers must hire felons. They simply require that criminal background inquiries occur later in the hiring process, typically after an in-person interview or conditional offer of employment.Ban the Box

Among the county’s major employers, Ithaca College, Borg Warner, and Cayuga Medical Center all either declined to comment or failed to respond to questions about their policies regarding the hire of individuals with criminal backgrounds. Cornell University, Tompkins County, and the City of Ithaca all said that they do inquire about criminal background, but that it is not an automatic bar to employment.

Although neither Tompkins County nor any of its included municipalities has banned the box yet, nearby Syracuse has. Alan Rosenthal, an attorney with the Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse, helped see that law through. However, the Syracuse law does not apply to all employers, but only to the city and its contractors. He said, “As we’ve seen [Ban the Box] implemented around the country there have been basically three versions. The first is the one that is the most narrow, the one in which the governmental entity—city, county, or state—bans the box for government employees only. The second is the one which applies to government entities and any business that contracts with government entities. Then the third, the one that is the broadest and gives the best of protections, takes the two that I’ve already mentioned and adds to it any private business within the locality.”

While none of the Tompkins County businesses interviewed for this article were willing to comment on Ban the Box, in some areas business interests have vocally opposed it. In an article for Cleveland.com, Director of Labor and Human Resources Policy for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce Sean Chichelli wrote, “Businesses ask candidates about their criminal histories on job applications in order to reduce liability and costs. Preventing them from doing so at the point of application only delays the necessary information they need right away.” Typically, Ban the Box advocates argue that delaying those questions allows applicants to be judged on their skills and experience rather than being summarily rejected for their pasts.

Rosenthal said that those with criminal backgrounds are not the only ones to benefit from the passage of Ban the Box legislation: “The benefits that flow from that are that if a person [with a criminal background] gets a job they now are a taxpayer, so there’s a benefit to the municipal entity in which they live. Now they’re paying taxes, they’re no longer in need of public assistance. There is the additional benefit that employment reduces the recidivism rate.” He added, “The Koch brothers have banned the box. Liberals shouldn’t be running away from this.”

Mayor Svante Myrick said that the city has talked about Ban the Box legislation in the past, but the matter never came to a vote. However, he voiced his support for the concept, saying, “If we deny people meaningful employment, we’re all but guaranteeing that they’ll go back to prison.”

One group of Cornell students, the Prison Reform and Education Project (PREP), has been actively raising awareness on the issue in recent months and one of the group’s leaders, Garrison Lovely, said that PREP has plans to address the Common Council about it during their regular May meeting. Lovely said, “We believe if you are sentenced and serve your time, you should not be punished repeatedly. It contributes to high recidivism.”

Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne (D-Ithaca) said that, like the city, the county has briefly talked about Ban the Box legislation, but she did not recall where the conversation ended.

Legislator Dan Klein (D-Danby) said, “I think we should give serious consideration to this idea. The number of people in prison, and how they integrate back into society when they are out, is an issue that affects everyone. Ban the Box legislation could help with this problem without causing any difficulties for employers or restricting their rights.”

On the other side of the aisle, Legislator Dave McKenna (R-Newfield) said, “I’m not totally in favor of it, but I don’t know enough yet.”

Paula Ioanide, an Ithaca College professor who has been active regarding issues of incarceration and race, urged action on the issue. She said, “I keep wanting to hold Tompkins County accountable to their supposed promise to be at the forefront of alternatives to incarceration, and I think this county’s openness to reentry into formal labor markets would be a huge gesture in that direction. Less talk, more action.”

This article was originally published on ithaca.com. Photo and story by Keri Blakinger.

Civic Ensemble’s New Theater Reentry Program

“If we want to keep people from committing crimes they need a job and therefore you need to hire people have convictions on their record,” said Lisa Ellin. To help make that happen, Ellin, a community activist, has teamed up with Civic Ensemble to teach a reentry playwriting class with the ultimate aim of presenting personal plays to potential employers.

The 9-person class, which includes former state and county inmates from Tompkins and Cortland counties, has been meeting twice a week for eight weeks in preparation for a final performance at Hangar Theatre at 6:30 p.m., on Wednesday, April 22.

Sarah Chalmers

Sarah Chalmers, Civic Ensemble’s director of civic engagement, explained that the goal of the class is to present formerly incarcerated potential employees to local employers in a more personal setting that will allow employers to know these men and women for more than the box they check on a job applications. She said, “It’s an opportunity for everyone in the community to sort of open our minds a little bit to the humanity of each individual. There’s a stigma around having been incarcerated that doesn’t allow for differentiation.” She added, “The more employers get the chance to meet people who were incarcerated outside the interview, the better.”

Although she’s not actually a member of Civic Ensemble, the class was originally Ellin’s idea. Previously, Ellin had worked with the acting troupe during last year’s play about community and police relations. Now, when she had an idea for a reentry program, she brought it right to Civic Ensemble. Chalmers said, “She came to us and said, ‘I want this to happen. I’m passionate about criminal justice and theatre and I want to do this.’” So, along with Civic Ensemble’s Artistic Director Godfrey Simmons, Jr., Chalmers and Ellin got together and started a class.

Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources helped spread the word and find applicants, all of whom were accepted. A number of local companies and charities as well as individual donors helped provide the funding to make the class a reality and as a result, the class not only includes transportation but also a $200 stipend upon completion.

“The class is really delving into the nuts and bolts of playwriting,” said Chalmers. Ellin explained that meant beginning with reading and analyzing other monologues and eventually moving on to have the students write their own pieces individually or in pairs. The final performance will be a collection of these short monologues and dialogues.

Jose Pellot, one of the class participants said, “The drama class is blowing my mind.” He’s working on a play about a man who gets out of jail and tries to go straight, but ends up getting framed for something he didn’t do.

Jose Pellot

Briana Forest, who is taking the class alongside her husband, said that her play is not about her own struggles with the justice system, but about the effect of her husband’s struggles on the rest of the family. She said, “I’m going to write about how my husband’s been wrongly accused of things in the past and been incarcerated for it and he’s been in jail while I’ve been at home being a single parent for my first child. So I have struggled to care of all of us on my own, so that’s kind of what I’m writing about.”

Echoing Forest’s concerns, Ellin said, “There are families who are suffering because the father or mother isn’t working. We need to expand the work force and we have people who come out of prison with some great skills. How can we say we’re a community when we’re continuing to exclude a certain group of people? That’s not what Ithaca’s about.”

Teheran Forest

The show is free to attend, but interested individuals are encouraged to sign up online in advance athttp://bit.ly/ReEntryTickets.

The article, by Keri Blakinger, originally appeared on ithaca.com.