On a gray morning earlier this year, former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey was talking with Omari Atiba, a convicted felon, in Newark when they were interrupted by Atiba’s phone. As the recently released prisoner’s cell blasted the ’70s disco staple “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” McGreevey couldn’t help but nod along, full white-man-overbite style.
Few could blame the former politician for feeling upbeat. For the past three years, McGreevey — no stranger himself to controversy, having resigned his governorship in 2004 — has been working to remove the obstacles that face ex-inmates once they’re released. On the morning they met, Atiba was just two days out of a New Jersey state prison, where he served 30 years for murder.
Transforming ex-convicts like Atiba into responsible, engaged civilians is a project that has earned McGreevey the support of Chris Christie and four other former Garden State governors. It also led him to John Koufos, a former criminal defense lawyer whose own fall from grace after a drunken hit-and-run accident in 2012 resulted in disbarment and 16 months in prison. Today, Koufos is second-in-command at New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), the nonprofit founded by McGreevey in 2014.
NJRC has five outposts in the state, including Jersey City, Kearney, Newark, Paterson and Toms River. Its mission is to overhaul onetime prisoners’ lives by overseeing their sobriety, and training and placing them in meaningful jobs. The ambitious project carries an annual price tag of $3 million, which is funded largely by the state.
With a roster of around 1,600 clients, NJRC’s success rate has been praised by the Manhattan Institute as among the best of the New York City–area reentry prison programs. According to a recent analysis by the think tank, U.S. prisons release approximately 650,000 inmates every year. Within the first 12 months, more than half are unable to secure identification and jobs that earn them enough legal income to survive.
But certain programs, like NJRC’s, are proving successful in preventing such scenarios. From January to July 2016, NJRC placed around 1,000 former prisoners in jobs spanning sales, transportation, food services, manufacturing and public works, many with on-ramps to more lucrative positions with building-trade unions.
That 62 percent job-placement rate likely helped NJRC achieve its low 19.7 percent recidivism. Though that figure is impressive, it spans just six months; the true measure of success will be where these former inmates are five years from now. As the most recent national survey by the Department of Justice found, an estimated three-quarters of ex-offenders are arrested for a new crime within five years of release.
Understanding McGreevey’s and Koufos’ backgrounds helps explain their strategy. McGreevey, as former governor, knows New Jersey influencers, like the chair of the state DMV, and has persuaded them to do things like untangle knotty driver’s records to clear a path toward regaining the right to drive, often essential to maintaining a job. And Koufos, who handled hundreds of pro bono cases for the NAACP before he went to prison, has recruited close to 70 young lawyers to clear up unresolved past infractions such as traffic tickets that can, and often do, return former inmates to their cells.
“It’s incredibly sad,” McGreevey said. “So many of our clients have a sense that catastrophe is right around the corner.”
Sadder still is that often they’re right. Koufos says missteps like missed child support payments can easily secure ex-offenders a return ticket to prison. “A lot of times folks don’t participate in family court” because they’re scared of the outcome, which may include fines. “When they have a lawyer holding their hand, they’re no longer afraid.”
Though they are both the heroes of their own second acts, Koufos and McGreevey are an odd couple. McGreevey studied to be a priest after resigning his Trenton post. Koufos’ wobbly relationship with religion surfaces only at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “More jobs, less Jesus,” Koufos often reminds McGreevey when they’re talking to clients. But ultimately McGreevey is less concerned with helping clients find God than with helping them find footing in a social landscape built to topple them.
He meets weekly with prisoners across New Jersey to explain NJRC’s mission as well as his own rocky road to redemption. He was the closeted gay governor who left in disgrace, he reminds prisoners. What if it had taken him until his deathbed to come to the realizations that have helped him move forward?
Both men see every day as a chance to stub out others’ doomsday narratives. Atiba, the convicted murderer, now weighs fish in the seafood department at Newark’s ShopRite.
And Patrick D’Aiuto, who once lived in the cell across from Koufos and was released from prison in 2013 after 18 years for armed robbery, is now a commercial roofer with a union. He makes in the high $20s per hour and recently bought a condo.
“I spent pretty much my whole adult life in prison, and I knew that a lot of these programs can be tongue-in-cheek. I always wondered, Why doesn’t the media go to these people who claim to run these great programs and say, ‘If you actually helped someone get a good job, produce that person.’ They’d never be able to produce anybody.”
NJRC, D’Aiuto says, is different: “They’re not just getting guys jobs at Burger King. They’re getting them jobs with benefits that will get them a middle-class existence, so they can lead a productive life.”
Not that they succeed every time. A healthy percentage of clients, most of whom are addicts being treated through NJRC’s recovery channels, relapse. If a client is using, he gets a warning. If there is a second infraction, he’s out. Koufos is generally the one who does the kicking out.
He doesn’t mind, though.
“I dedicated myself to a life of service because of the pain I caused when I was addicted,” Koufos says. “If we can help the next guy recover, we stop the next victim from happening.”
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