Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Hope-Filled Program That’s Keeping One-Time Criminals from Becoming Serial Offenders

July 21, 2016
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The Hope-Filled Program That’s Keeping One-Time Criminals from Becoming Serial Offenders
A participant in Fortune Society's Alternatives to Incarceration program receives his GED. Courtesy of Fortune Society
This New York City-based organization is an alternative to incarceration that builds up people, not prisons.

In the summer of 2015, Anthony was in a downward spiral, soaked in booze and clouded in a haze of marijuana smoke. “I saw no way out of my addiction,” the 56-year-old from Jamaica, Queens, says. He had stayed on the right side of the law since 2002, but he slipped up one day last July and found himself in handcuffs, booked on a felony charge of grand larceny. Advocates from The Fortune Society, a New York City nonprofit that provides court-approved rehabilitation, interceded on Anthony’s behalf and convinced a judge to let him try their program as an alternative to a three-year prison sentence.

The Fortune Society’s Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) is one of New York City’s most prominent pretrial release programs. With it, judges offer second chances in the courtroom and accused felons are voluntarily diverted into treatment. Enrollees remain under strict supervision — they must check in at Fortune’s offices daily — and spend their time working with a case manager to obtain stable housing, take classes to prep for the high-school equivalency test or job certifications and attend group sessions on anger management, decision-making and 12-steps to sobriety (these days, often for addictions to prescription painkillers). Those that fail to show up are remanded to court and their trial begins immediately, with little leeway from the judge; those that complete the requirements, are released without any time in lock-up. (Some receive probation or community service.) Of the 341 people who are assigned to Fortune’s ATI annually, roughly three out of every four successfully complete their court mandate, which usually means they have no new contact with law enforcement.

Counting down the days until the end of his court-ordered year in the program (which concluded on July 19), Anthony hopes to be included in that statistic. It isn’t that he is eager to leave Fortune behind; rather, he wants the external validation of the progress he’s made in 12 short months. Over a plate of ginger-poached chicken (part of the free lunch served daily) at Fortune’s headquarters in Long Island City on a recent afternoon, he spotted a journalist talking to two young guys and approached him.

Anthony located two free chairs, set his ID on the table and started talking. He credits his time in the program with transforming his criminal past into something good. “I really can’t overstate the positive difference [Fortune] had on my life,” he says. For starters, he got sober. Every one of his urine tests came back clean, and his attendance marks were high, he reported. He completed several job trainings and applied to LaGuardia Community College for next fall. He’s fully aware that employers are reluctant to hire a someone only a decade away from retirement — let alone a person that age with a criminal record — but Anthony is determined to be a nurse, a job that pays “a decent dollar.” He expected the judge would release him the following week.

“We, I think, have some of the most amazing folks walking our halls, who, because of poverty, because of race, because of lack of opportunity, are here. It’s such a criminal offense, I believe, to have somebody in our intake unit that dropped out of school in eleventh grade but tests in reading at a third grade level,” says Peggy Arroyo, ATI’s director. “That almost guarantees there is going to be a population that needs these services,” she says, adding that she “will gladly flip burgers at McDonalds” on the day when mass incarceration ends.

The quick turnaround in Anthony’s life would be an impressive accomplishment for anyone, but it’s particularly striking in comparison to the average results from New York’s correctional system. Those awaiting trial on Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail, struggle to maintain their sanity against the threats from fellow inmates and the barked orders or beatings from guards. (Last year, press attention focused on Kalief Browder, who was held on Rikers without trial for three years, much of it in solitary confinement. He committed suicide at his parent’s home in the Bronx in June. But there were also the lesser-known stories of Fabian Cruz, an inmate who killed himself on New Year’s Day, and Kenan Davis, an 18-year-old who hung himself in his cell while waiting for a psychiatrist.)

“I think if you’re arrested, you have PTSD. The mere act of somebody putting handcuffs on you: you have no control, you’re told what to do and maybe not why. I’ve never been incarcerated” — Arroyo knocks on her desk — “so I don’t know firsthand, but it seems that, for the young people who come through our program, there’s just this cloud of confusion and pain, like ‘What am I doing here?’”

A typical day starts with GED prep or vocational skill classes.Courtesy of Fortune Society

But getting through New York City’s jails might be the easy part. The difficulties of obtaining an apartment or a job — all the things people need to do to “survive in this insane city,” as Arroyo puts it — can be overwhelming for someone who’s just traded in his orange jumpsuit. Committing another crime might seem like the only fix. That’s likely why close to one-third of probationers — 32.4 percent — are re-arrested within three years, according to the most recent data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).

It’s stats like those that explain why there’s been a national push to curb mass incarceration in state and federal prisons. New York City has long been ahead of the curve, offering the country’s first pretrial release program in 1961 and witnessing significant drops in prison population without any major legislative mandates from the state capital. Most of the change can be attributed to a small core of nonprofits: among them, Fortune Society, the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, the Osborne Association, the Women’s Prison Association and the Center for Court Innovation. Their alternatives to incarceration were designed to rehabilitate and reintegrate one-time criminals.

With the same clients cycling through courtrooms, diversion programs save money, encouraging prosecutors and judges to get on aboard, says Peggy Arroyo, ATI’s director. “It’s much less expensive to put somebody in Alternatives to Incarceration, and we believe it’s much more effective,” she explains. (DCJS is currently analyzing Fortune’s three-year recidivism rates; no data is publicly available yet.) “The higher the charge, the more of a sentence you would be facing. That’s more time we displace from prisons, and there’s a dollar figure attached to that,” she explains. Last year, ATI saved the state $2.95 million, Arroyo adds.

Among the select group of nonprofits, Fortune’s staff members say its size distinguishes their organization from others, allowing it to offer wraparound services to clients. “We’re very fortunate to be a one-stop shop,” Arroyo says. “We have everything: we have housing, mental health, substance abuse, employment services, education. We have it all.” The average day begins with educational classes — whether GED prep or vocational skills like cooking, construction and asbestos removal — from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., then several hours are spent in group therapy. Three evidence-based therapies make up those sessions: Moral Re-cognition Therapy focuses on how to make decisions that lead to a virtuous life, recognizing the errors in their previous thinking, making amends and reformulating a new process; Seeking Strength instructs how to led a healthy life, as it relates to safe sex, smoking pot and other choices; anger management classes teach participants how to defuse tense situations. Additional seminars — on parenting skills, relationships, relapse prevention — are also offered.

A storyboard created by students from Fortune’s Education program in collaboration with The Animation Project.Courtesy of Fortune Society

Those classes form the core of ATI’s programming, changing mindsets first so that men in the program choose to take advantage of Fortune’s other opportunities. They come to understand, not that they should be punished for breaking a law, but that the action they took hurt someone, the people around them and themselves. Fortune Society builds up the person, rather than the prisons, Arroyo says.

Josh, one of the boys in the lunchroom, says he never knew how to control his temper. When somebody would step on his foot on the subway or lost interest in conversation and looked away, Josh would lash out, sometimes violently. “I used to like to fight,” the 21-year-old from the Bronx admits. Initially at Fortune, he remained closed off. It wasn’t until he was remanded in January and sent back to jail that he straightened up. He hadn’t really cared whether he was in or out of prison, but he noticed that the advocates from Fortune fought for him to be released back to the program. “They went to bat for me harder than I did for myself,” he says. The judge gave him one more try. Josh stopped playing hooky, and listened more closely in the groups to older guys like Anthony, who, “have been through what I’ve seen.” Josh came to understand that he wasn’t a bad person, he “just didn’t go about it in the right way.” “I’m not innocent,” he cautions, but one day, he could be.

Arroyo says ATI helps these men realize their own potential and seize it. “By the end of the program, they realize things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. Now they have the opportunity to change that,” she explains. “We can’t undo what was done, but I hope for each individual to say, ‘No more. Not for me.’”

Fortune Society participants may not be able to change their past, but they can certainly modify the course for their future.

MORE: Who’s Responsible for Mass Incarceration? Van Jones Weighs In

 

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