Children in Arkansas Are Getting a Storybook Moment Because of This Program for Incarcerated Parents

On bookshelves across the country, there are stories about mice and cookies, princesses with long hair and a very hungry caterpillar. 
But in Arkansas, thousands of children won’t curl up with a parent in bed and listen to a bedtime story. Instead, they’ll listen to a recording of a family member reading them a story. That’s because 16% of children in Arkansas currently or previously have had a parent or guardian incarcerated —  the highest percentage in the nation. 
“Families serve a shared sentence with their incarcerated loved ones, so we’re trying to ease, if not break, that cycle,” Denise Chai, the director of outreach for The Storybook Project of Arkansas, told NationSwell.
The Storybook Project of Arkansas saw a place to bridge the gap in both literacy and family connection for children with incarcerated family members. Four times a year, the nonprofit brings books, tape recorders and volunteers into five of Arkansas’ correctional facilities. 
There, individuals can record a message and read a book for their family members. Grandmothers will read stories to their grandchildren, fathers will read to their daughters and uncles have the chance to read to their nephews.
“It’s a little piece of the parent at home with them,” Chai said. 
In 2019, The Storybook Project of Arkansas reached 1,793 children. The children ranged from infants to high schoolers, and the readers have included aunts, grandmothers and older siblings. 
Keeping a connection with incarcerated family members can be a challenge. Prisons aren’t designed for children, and it can cost families time and money to visit facilities. Meanwhile, video conferences and phone calls can quickly become a financial burden on families. 
But with Storybook, the parents can partake in their children’s’ lives. 
“For the person who’s reading to their children, it’s an opportunity to parent their kids, to play a role in their children’s lives, to be present when they’re not really present,” Chai said. “As they are reading a book to their children, it’s an opportunity to be a good role model.”
Additionally, that continued connection can be one of the keys to success after prison. Studies show that when released individuals have family support, social integration is easier and they’re more likely to find a job and financial stability. A study published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography found that incarcerated individuals who remained in contact with their family throughout were less likely to reconvict. 

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Incarcerated parents are able to read their kids a bedtime story with this program.

Jan Schmittou is one volunteer behind the audio recorder. Schmittou, who has served as a volunteer for over a year, has watched fathers moved to tears and listened to mothers read their favorite fairytales to their children.
Schmittou’s first visit was to the Wrightsville Unit. Schmittou went through the metal detectors, heavy doors and walked through the cement facility. 
“Once you get past all of that, the reality is the people there aren’t too much different from you or I,” she told NationSwell. 
The nonprofit was launched 21 years ago by founder Pat Oplinger and a few volunteers. It worked with incarcerated individuals in two correctional facilities until 2019, when it expanded to three more. 
Chai said that expansion is part of an effort to deepen the work they’re doing. Beyond working in more facilities, the nonprofit has started motivating individuals to “do a little more emotional homework” by sharing more impactful lessons and words of encouragement with their children, Chai said. Most recently, they incorporated a bookmark program where family members can create a bookmark to send to their children. 
“We’re a really simple program but we’re always trying to do just a little bit more with what we do and have a little bit more impact,” she said. 
The Storybook Project of Arkansas isn’t the only organization to adopt this idea. Groups, like the Women’s Storybook Project of Texas and The Seattle Public Library’s Read to Me Program, have similar goals of keeping families connected. 
“It’s such a reassuring and loving message about how much they’re cared for and missed even though the person is physically absent from their lives,” Chai said. 
More: For Prisoners, Reading Is so Much More Than a Pastime — It’s a Way to Change Their Lives 

For Prisoners, Reading Is So Much More Than a Pastime — It’s a Way to Change Their Lives

Twice a week, volunteers climb down the steep steps to the basement of Brooklyn’s Freebird Books. Once inside, they’re greeted by hundreds of books, stacks of brown paper bags and piles of letters. Before long, each book will be in the hands of an inmate somewhere in the U.S.
The cramped bookstore basement serves as the headquarters of NYC Books Through Bars, a volunteer-run group that sends books to incarcerated people in 40 states (the remaining states are either covered by similar programs or barred from receiving packages). In any given week the organization, which has been around for 21 years, receives hundreds of book requests: a Scrabble dictionary, a beginner’s guide to playing the guitar, a science-fiction novel — the list goes on. Each year, they ship somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 volumes to federal and state prisons.
The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other developed country, with 10.6 million cycling in and out of the criminal justice system each year. Often, these prisons have libraries that are understocked and outdated. Others might not have a library at all, or at least not one that’s accessible to all inmates. New York’s infamous Rikers Island, for example, runs its library from a single cart. With roughly 8,000 inmates spread out among the complex’s 10 jails, getting your hands on even one book can feel like finding a treasure.
NYC Books Through Bars believes education is a fundamental right. It’s also one of the strongest tools to reduce recidivism — a 2013 study by the Rand Corporation found that educational intervention can lower a formerly incarcerated person’s chances of reoffending by about 40 percent.

A volunteer handles the mail. Besides fielding book requests, the organization also receives thank-you notes and hand-drawn cards.

But over the past decade prisons have cut back on educational programs, and inmates have been excluded from receiving Pell Grants, the financial-aid program for low-income college students, since the 1990s — all of which makes accessing educational support behind bars a challenge.
“In some instances, receiving a book is the beginning of an education,” says Daniel Schaffer, a collective member who’s been volunteering with NYC Books Through Bars for more than 16 years.
Instead of shipping donated books to a central prison library, the organization mails the titles directly to the inmates who request them, a novelty among programs offering similar services.
“Sending the books to the individuals adds to the strength of the project,” says Schaffer, adding that because some prisoners might not have families that visit, write or mail packages, NYC Books Through Bars might be the only contact they have with the outside world.
Schaffer stresses that a mailed book doesn’t reach just one person — inside a prison’s walls, books are passed around and shared.  
Prisoners learn about the organization largely through word of mouth. And when one person hears about the books program, it’s just a matter of time before letters start arriving, Schaffer says. Sometimes they ask that a specific title be sent; other people are happy to receive anything from a particular genre. Among the most requested are dictionaries.
Because the books and packing materials are donated by the community, and Freebird lets the organization use its basement space for free, the program costs very little to operate. There are no paid employees, either. The only expense is postage, which is collected mostly through fundraising events. Even then, the organization cuts down on shipping costs by bundling four books in a package, at a rate of between $2.75 and $4.31 to ship.
Every Sunday and Monday, 10 to 20 volunteers collect, wrap and ship off the books. By the end of a three-hour shift, hundreds of brown parcels are stacked, ready to make their way to correctional facilities across the country.
Volunteers come from a range of backgrounds — students, librarians, archivists and editors among them — and not all hold the same beliefs about the current state of the criminal justice system. Some consider themselves abolitionists, while others promote reform. Still, everyone shows up for the same reason: to have an immediate effect on people on the inside.
“The thing that links everyone together, ultimately, is that we think the people who are in prison at least deserve to be treated as [humans],” Schaffer says.
“If, in an evening, I can do 20 or 30 or 40 books then that’s the number of individuals who are directly impacted,” he adds.
As requests for titles flood in to NYC Books Through Bars, so do the thank-yous. Letters, pop-up cards, drawings and other artwork from inmates line the shelves of the Freebird Books basement and get posted on Facebook. For the volunteers, the handmade tokens are a friendly reminder of the work they do.
Says Schaffer, “It helps to keep in mind that what you’re doing actually does impact people.”

Samsung NEXT Innovation Challenge

It can be hard enough to start a business — but what if you also want that business to create positive change in the world? Samsung NEXT and NationSwell teamed up for the Samsung NEXT Innovation Challenge, to reward innovators focused on bridging the opportunity gap across education, workforce development, and economic empowerment.
The five finalists were comprised of a diverse group of entrepreneurs from all parts of the country, each building businesses geared toward achieving positive social impact. All five presented their innovations at an awards ceremony in New York City, where one company, Literator, was announced the winner.

Here’s a look at the issues these five young innovators chose to tackle, and how they hope to make a difference.

The winner, Michelle Ching, set out to solve a major problem in education: literacy. As a second-grade teacher, she saw that her students were struggling with learning to read — but it was hard to track their progress and identify where they were getting stuck. Her app, Literator, helps teachers track their students’ reading proficiency in real time across the school year, and lets them know what kind of help each student needs. “Literacy is one of the things that is the biggest blocker for student success, so for us, it was a no-brainer that literacy would be the big systems-change work that we wanted to tackle first,” says Ching. “But it’s turned into a bigger vision beyond that.”

Brian Hill, CEO and founder of Edovo, wants to create a new model of education in correctional facilities while also helping incarcerated people stay in touch with their loved ones. By providing incarcerated people with secure tablets, Edovo helps them gain access to education and also communicate with loved ones on the outside. These tools can provide the skills and support that allow people to integrate back into the community when they’re released, and that in turn can reduce recidivism, says Hill. “If we’re not helping people, if we’re just opening the door and saying ‘Go home,’ we run the risk of very rapidly destroying any gains we make in [criminal justice reform],” Hill says. “It’s about helping people learn and develop and make choices.”

Fonta Gilliam founded Sou Sou as a way to modernize the informal credit clubs adopted by many cultures around the world. In Ghana, a sou-sou is a practice in which a group pools their money, allowing one member to use the full amount each month. Gilliam said she became aware of this and similar practices while working as a diplomat in the foreign service across Africa and Asia. Gilliam built an app that allows people to easily track and organize their pooled funds, while also linking up with banks to earn credit on the money. “There are so many communities abroad, even immigrant communities in the U.S., that are using these informal lending circles to save money amongst themselves, rotate money and fund their goals,” says Gilliam. “So I thought to myself, this is a system that’s working, what if we modernized it with tech?”
Preston Silverman said he realized that many high school students “check out” of the college track early because they assume they will not be able to afford to go — even if they might be eligible for scholarships after graduating from high school. His startup, RaiseMe, helps high school students access financial aid before they apply to college. “We focus on the financial aid part of the equation because we see that’s the biggest barrier for students and families, but ultimately we want to help all students discover and realize their college ambitions,” says Silverman. With RaiseMe, students can “follow” colleges they’re interested in and earn “micro-scholarships” from those colleges for a variety of achievements throughout high school, such as getting good grades, participating in extracurricular activities and playing sports. If they end up matriculating, they can collect the scholarship.
Like Michelle Ching, Heejae Lim wants to use technology to improve education — but while Literator is a tool for teachers, Lim’s company TalkingPoints is intended to help immigrant parents better support their children in school. As a Korean immigrant, Lim noticed that students whose parents spoke English communicated easily with teachers and became involved in the education process, while those whose parents didn’t speak English struggled to be involved. Her app allows teachers to message parents directly and automatically translates messages in English into over 20 languages. When parents reply in their home language, their response is translated into English for the teacher. “Most of the resources right now are going to school environments and teachers, which is also really important,” Lim says. “But we can also unlock the power of parents and families to be able to improve student performance.”

Article produced in partnership with Samsung NEXT, Samsung’s innovation group that works with entrepreneurs to build, grow, and scale great ideas. NationSwell has partnered with Samsung NEXT to find and elevate some of the most promising innovators working to close the opportunity gap in America. Click here to meet the finalists.

Providence Restaurant Serves Up Second Chances

Jeff Bacon has worked in kitchens his entire life, but it was only after a brush with the law that he realized food could change lives. “I ended up mixed up with drugs and alcohol, running with a wild crowd, losing job after job … I was great at what I did, but I wasn’t a very good person,” Bacon says.
After serving two years in prison for drug possession and resisting arrest, Bacon says he experienced a spiritual awakening. “I firmly, firmly heard from God, ‘This is not what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. You need to do something more, and you need to give back the second chance that you got.’”
Bacon wanted to use his passion for food to give back to the community of Winston-Salem, N.C., where one in seven people struggles with hunger. After years of pitching the idea of a culinary training school, Bacon was finally able to launch Providence Culinary Training Program through a partnership with the Second Harvest Food Bank.
The program trains people in all aspects of food service, and students prepare meals for local community members in need. “It’s not the food scarcity and the food insecurity, though that is a crushing and urgent and acute problem… but it’s the root causes,” says Bacon. “[It’s] the root causes of poverty, the inequalities of our society — we’re not just ill-prepared to deal with them, we’re ill-prepared to even discuss them intelligently.”
Through the Providence program, students receive 12 weeks of culinary training, as well as connections in the food industry and opportunities for long-term internships and jobs. Many of the participants enter the program facing obstacles to stable employment, such as a criminal background or a lack of higher education. But after completing their training, 87 percent of graduates retain steady employment one year later.
Watch the video above to learn more about the Providence program and meet some of the people who have turned their lives around through it.
MORE: Would Your Opinion of Criminals Change If One Cooked and Served You Dinner?

Meet the Delaware Teen Fighting for the Rights of Former Juvenile Offenders

“I could have never imagined that something as severe as incarceration would happen to someone like me, until it did,” said Jane Lyons, recalling the path that led her neighbor to the local detention center.
Lyons, 18, grew up in an affluent Delaware suburb outside of Wilmington. A few miles down the road from her home sits Ferris School for Boys, a juvenile detention center she admits gave her an “eerie” feeling driving past.
It was only when her childhood neighbor was sent to Ferris on drug charges that the center became more than an abstract concept for Lyons. Her neighbor had come from the same affluent background as her, but after experiencing family problems became addicted to drugs and involved in a local gang.
Her neighbor’s incarceration was a wakeup call to Lyons about the difficulties facing former juvenile offenders as they try to rebuild their lives. “[Teens at Ferris] feel as if society is stacked against them,” she explained at a recent TEDxYouth event. “They simply think that our world is waiting for them to make a mistake.”
With this in mind, as a freshman in high school she teamed up with her brother Patrick to launch Youth Overcoming Obstacles, a nonprofit dedicated to lifting up formerly incarcerated youth. The organization started small — gathering donations of books, school supplies, clothes and other essentials to make sure teens’ basic needs were met as they exited the detention center. They eventually moved on to organizing larger fundraisers to send the young men to summer camp, vocational training, and even to provide a down payment on one family’s apartment.
“This started as an act of kindness and now has become a passion project to replace the recidivism cycle with a resilient path to a brighter future for teens who want to continue positive change,” Lyons told NationSwell.
Youth Overcoming Obstacles was so successful at raising funds and awareness to support formerly incarcerated youth that the Delaware Legislature adopted their re-entry fund after a year and a half. Now Lyons is working on a pilot program that offers financial training to these young people to help them transition into the workforce.
Teens have a vital role to play in improving their communities, says Lyons. “My advice to other young people is to follow your heart and have the courage to reach out to community leaders and public officials with your plan of action,” she told NationSwell.
“It may take some persistence, but they really do want to hear your ideas, and they will help if they can.”
Homepage photo via TEDx Talks.

A Vision of Healing, and Hope, for Formerly Incarcerated Women

Topeka K. Sam sits on a plush purple sofa in the living room of an immaculate row house in the Bronx, ordaining all of the ladies in the room. Sam, a founder of Hope House, a residence for previously incarcerated women, points to her cofounder, Vanee Sykes. “She’s a Lady of Hope,” Sam says, then swivels and points at another woman who has just entered the room. “That’s another Lady of Hope.” And, apparently, so too is this reporter. “The Ladies of Hope is you, and it’s all of us,” she adds. “If you are a resource to women who are coming here, then you are a Lady of Hope, you know? It’s about all women empowering other women and providing them hope and opportunity.”
Both Sam and Sykes know something about needing hope to thrive, having been formerly incarcerated themselves. Their experience with the difficulties most women face when trying to reintegrate into society led them to found Hope House, which officially opened its doors in October 2017.
The idea of Hope House, Sam says, is that women coming out of prison have the deck stacked against them. “You gotta start with basic needs,” Sam says. “I can’t advocate for myself or feel that I’m powerful enough to go get a job if I don’t have somewhere to live and I don’t have food in my stomach.”
In addition to food and shelter, Hope House provides another crucial ingredient: community. The house currently accommodates five women, all of whom sleep on the upstairs level. Signs featuring positive aphorisms, like “Love Life,” hang on the walls, and the beds — which the women are required to make every morning — are decorated with stylish coverlets. Downstairs is the kitchen and cozy living room, all walls painted a soothing shade of gray. It’s here that the women gather, cook, talk about their day, and allow themselves to grieve and to heal.

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One of the shared bedrooms at Hope House.

So many women who land in prison are victims of sexual abuse, Sykes says, and Hope House is a place where women can safely process their pain in order to move forward. “Any given night here, we’re hugging and we’re crying, [because] it’s a safe space,” Sykes adds, tearing up as she speaks. “And it’s not just a safe space where we can live, but it’s a safe space mentally. You know, where it’s OK for me to say that this has happened, and that there’s other women here who are not going to judge, but who are just going to say, ‘This is what worked for me’ or ‘This is how I got through this.’ And that’s what I love about being here.”
Sam and Sykes met in 2013 while at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, a low-security prison about 70 miles north of New York City, and the inspiration for the fictional “Litchfield” prison featured in the hit Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black.” Both did time for nonviolent offenses — Sykes for embezzling money, Sam for drug trafficking — and when they got out, they witnessed the insurmountable barriers that women with a rap sheet can face, the greatest of which is, arguably, finding a landlord who will rent to them. “It was in my heart to do a house [like Hope House] while I was in prison,” Sykes says.
But they were also lucky and had supportive families to come home to. Many women, especially poor women, are not so blessed.  “When I got home, I started going around, organizing with other women around women’s issues and incarceration,” Sam says. “And just seeing that it was the same issues happening: Women need housing, women need resources, women need all these things.” She threw herself into community activism and founded Ladies of Hope Ministries, an organization dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated women and girls re-enter society and out of which Hope House grew.
Along the way, Sam earned several grants and fellowships, including at Columbia University, where she was named a Beyond the Bars fellow in 2015 and a Justice-in-Education Initiative scholar in 2016. She also received funding and support from Unlocked Futures, a program backed in part by singer John Legend.
Sam modeled Hope House in part off of a California-based nonprofit called A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project, which helps women with housing and related services when they leave prison. The founder of that organization, Susan Burton, became instrumental in offering guidance and seed money to help Sam get Hope House off the ground. “We need to make investments to get people started in the struggle to reduce recidivism, strengthen our communities, and repair the harm done by mass incarceration,” says Burton, who wrote a memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton, about her own journey from prison to community activist. “And that’s what Hope House stands for.”
Not that Sam and Sykes didn’t hit some road bumps along the way. They scoured the city for months to find a place to set up shop before they found the cute, fully remodeled row house in the South Central Bronx neighborhood of Castle Hill, a stone’s throw from bucolic Pugsley Creek Park. The landlord loved the idea of the house, but neighbors kicked up a fuss. So Sam and Sykes took to social media and started a campaign they called Stand With Hope House. They did media interviews and went to community board meetings. Eventually their neighbors relented.
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A group of women shares a meal in the Hope House dining room.

“We stood up for ourselves and said that we’re not going anywhere,” Sykes says. “We have a right to live here, just [like] anyone else.”
Sam and Sykes used similar social media savvy when decorating the house, crowd-funding the project via funds donated from strangers around the world. “We put up the registry on social media, and people donated,” Sam says. “It was absolutely phenomenal.” They now have the funding to open another Hope House in New Jersey and after, that, in Brooklyn. Their hope is that others will step in to help them scale the project, possibly turning Hope House into a franchise.
“Ultimately our goal is to have a Hope House in every single state in our country and abroad,” says Sam.
In 2017, Sam won a Soros Justice Fellowship to work on a project around probation and parole accountability. “It came from my experience on probation and parole, [witnessing] the arbitrariness and counterproductiveness that was happening,” she says. “And I knew if this was happening to me, it had to be happening to many other people. I found out that 4.7 million people are on operational parole in this country.”
The majority of people sitting in prisons are there because of technical violations, Sam says. They need support, to be given access to resources and to opportunity — not to be dumped in a federal halfway house and then shackled with an ankle bracelet for six months, adds Sykes, speaking from personal experience. Burton’s own success speaks to this: Since 1998, she has helped over 1,000 women and children with her re-entry homes, and in 2017, she had a 100% success rate in keeping her residents from being reincarcerated.
The stakes are even higher for people of color: Black women are more than three times as likely as white women to be incarcerated in prison or jail, and Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely to be institutionalized. In addition, black children are almost nine times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison; and Hispanic children are four times more likely to have a parent behind bars.
The impact on their families can last generations. Sykes had three children when she was incarcerated — her oldest then a senior at Howard University, she says with pride — but her spouse died before she was released. And Sykes considers herself lucky: She comes from a stable upper-middle-class family, and so she saw her children, who were then living with her parents, quite frequently. Many women are not so lucky. “The hardest part of incarceration is not being with your children,” she says.  
Jessie Jones (not her real name) has been living at the Hope House since last December. Jones, 64, had been out of prison for a decade — after having spent 23 years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for a drug-fueled robbery gone awry — but her housing situation had become untenable. Her last apartment was cheap, she says, because it was illegal and basically falling apart. The landlord started making passes at her, which she allowed once before trying, and failing, to make him stop. Desperate to avoid moving into a shelter, Jones stumbled upon Hope House. Like all residents, Jones had to apply to live in the house, and she pays 30% of her wages as a cook for a nonprofit as rent. (Residents are required to either have a job or be in school when they apply. Students are exempt from paying rent.)
“It’s a beautiful house, and Vanee and Topeka are the best people, the vision of healing,” Jones says. She still has her bad days, but living at Hope House with people who genuinely love and care about her is helping build her confidence back up.
“Hope House is exactly what it is,” she says. “It gives you hope.”

How to Build a Better Jail

Rikers Island, the infamous and isolated jail complex located off the coastline of New York City, is officially being shut down. And in its place is the possibility of new community jails that are designed, specifically, for better treatment of inmates.
Improving the city’s jails, and especially Rikers — which critics have long charged is inhumane, unsafe and dysfunctional — has been a top-line agenda for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Since taking office, his administration has focused on curbing the jail population; reducing the use of solitary confinement; and easing the transition back to society for the formerly incarcerated.
In conjunction with closing Riker’s 10 jails, an independent commission last year recommended the city open smaller facilities — called “justice hubs” — that would be located next to local courts and integrated into existing neighborhoods. The vision for this modern system of jails includes built-in amenities that would be shared with local residents (think exercise facilities, community gardens and art studios).
“Our understanding about design and incarceration has evolved significantly since the jails on Rikers Island were built,” says Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “Light, sound and the arrangement of space are important in creating a safer, calmer environment for the people residing and working there.”
There’s evidence prisoners’ surroundings can affect their outcomes. In upstate New York, for example, camplike facilities that are embedded among pristine lakes and trees, and where inmates sleep in barracks, not cells, have seen markedly low recidivism rates.
The idea of using design and architecture to influence behavior is not a new one for New York City. In August of last year, officials partnered with the Center for Court Innovation and the social-impact design firm Zago to overhaul the interior spaces of Manhattan Criminal Court. Changes included installing new, visitor-friendly signage and erecting a defendants’ bill of rights.
“Manhattan Criminal Court is a pretty foreboding and intimidating place, especially for those who are there for the first time,” says Emily LaGratta, director of procedural justice initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation. She notes that many courts across the country evoke similar negative feelings. “Courthouses were built years ago, when the justice system was addressing a different scope of problems. That, plus new innovation, has imposed additional needs on these spaces. So a lobby that was built to be grand and open is now accommodating security lines and magnetometers.”
Just as the needs of courthouses have changed, so too have the needs of New York’s jails. The city has announced a plan to reduce incarceration numbers to 5,000 in 10 years, and officials are exploring the possibility of eliminating the cash-bail system.
But incorporating the proposed justice hubs — and the prisoners within them — into residential neighborhoods might be a hard sell for the city.
Still, officials are pushing for jails that could address community needs, similar to a public library’s social outreach programs, that would help reduce the stigma of incarceration while building stronger, healthier communities.

To replace Rikers Island, city officials have recommended smaller “justice hubs” that seamlessly integrate into communities while helping to reduce the stigma of incarceration.

Initially, the effort seemed purely physical — move inmates to jails that are closer to their lawyers, courthouses and neighborhood resources. But it also got city officials thinking: Can correctional facilities be designed in a way that’s safer for inmates and guards, while also engaging the communities in which they’d be built?
“Over the past few decades we have learned, and commonsense informs, that when those who are incarcerated have regular contact with their families and lawyers, it improves both the atmosphere inside, the relationships with officers and staff, and the transition back to neighborhoods,” Glazer says. “This is especially important in jails where most people stay for a short period of time.”
The city issued requests for proposals last year on designs for the new jails and in January chose the firm Perkins Eastman, which was awarded $7.5 million and given 10 months to finalize a blueprint.
“Buildings are not static things … they work with or against the people that are intended to be within them, and there is no better example than a prison,” says Michael Murphy, co-founder and executive director of MASS Designs in Boston. “Even in the most well intentioned prisons, they are intended to separate or to torture people who are incarcerated and restrict access to freedoms.
“There’s almost an intentional lack of design,” he adds.
In reimagining what tomorrow’s prisons will look like, firms like Murphy’s are turning to the past, when other historical institutions left their aesthetic imprint.
“A great example are public libraries,” says Murphy. “You have the Carnegie libraries largely built with foundation dollars from the Carnegie family, which are these beautiful, opulent temples to books.”
Compare that to the “Lindsay boxes” of the 1970s, when New York Mayor John Lindsay had pushed for a library branch in every neighborhood. The results were quickly constructed, one-story buildings made of cinder block.
“It’s a stark difference in imagination,” Murphy continues. “We’ve lowered our expectations of what we deserve. That’s what prisons identify.”
And what we know about design with the greater good in mind is that it works, says Brad Samuels of SITU, an architectural research and design firm in New York.
“These [kinds of designs] are already happening; they’re not speculative,” Samuels says, adding that his firm has worked with low-wage immigrant communities to build housing in Queens, where families are often stuffed into cramped quarters. “We found the best way to build is through community groups and organizations who understand what their needs are.”

This Nonprofit Has Hit on the Way to Keep Ex-Offenders Out of Prison

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.

Omari Atiba (right), pictured here with former Gov. Jim McGreevey, worked with the New Jersey Reentry Corporation to find employment after being released from prison.

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.”
Continue reading “This Nonprofit Has Hit on the Way to Keep Ex-Offenders Out of Prison”

This Small Token Shows Love to Those Affected by Incarceration

Every Friday, during a weekly book hour at a public middle school in Bergen County, N.J., a little girl picked out the same Scholastic pamphlet about Alcatraz Island. Delores Connors, the class’s reading instructor, couldn’t figure out why. What was so captivating about a defunct federal penitentiary?

When Connors asked the kids to share what they were reading, the girl’s arm shot into the air. “I really like this book,” she announced, showing her classmates a picture of a cell. “Now I know what it looks like where my dad sleeps.” Connors tensed. She didn’t want the girl to disclose too much. As the daughter of a convict (Connors’s mother was incarcerated while pregnant with her), she wanted the girl to feel dignified talking about her dad, the way other children are.

“From that moment, I began to think, ‘How many other kids don’t share?’” Connors wondered.

She teamed up with her colleague Mary Joyce Laqui to ease communication about loved ones who are locked up, launching the greeting card line Write to Matter. Inscribed with Hallmark-style messages, the notes cut past stereotypes about the incarcerated as dangerous criminals to express affection for people who’ve made a mistake. While the enterprise is still in its infancy, it could eventually provide an invaluable service to those dealing with the corrections industry, including an estimated 44 percent of black women with a family member behind bars.

“Our greeting card line came out of that need, people who need to be able to communicate with their loved ones,” Connors says. “Because when your family member or the person you love gets in trouble, you still have to show up at work. Your church member knows your son got arrested; they don’t want to mention it, but they want to say something. The cards give us access to do that.”

The schoolteachers initially stamped the cards’ front cover with their own artwork. But after meeting an artist through Fortune Society, they’re pairing with inmates (current or former) who provide photos and drawings that adorn the outsides.

At first, Connors and Laqui set up Write to Matter as a social enterprise, selling cards at a profit that could be reinvested in the company’s operations. But something felt wrong about charging a fee. Now in the process of applying for nonprofit status, the teachers send cards to whomever emails them. They’re also planning to distribute them at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal to families heading to prisons upstate and right outside Rikers Island, New York City’s troubled jail, to those about to enter the visiting room.

Despite their distance, each inmate still matters to his relations on the outside; Write to Matter’s words are making it just a little easier to say so.

Homepage photo by iStock.

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

The Impressive Top-to-Bottom Makeover of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System

Teenagers make mistakes. They sneak out past curfew to drink at a house party, shoplift clothes, graffiti their names in bathroom stalls, talk back to authorities and throw punches in heated moments. Our juvenile justice system views some of these violations as youthful folly; others are deemed criminal offenses. Unjustly, skin color or socioeconomic status might determine how the behavior is categorized. Suburban white youth are tsk-tsked, while urban black children are handcuffed and jailed.
Massachusetts created the nation’s first juvenile correctional system around 1846, and it also led the first reforms by shutting down Dickensian “training schools.” But during the high-crime spike of the 1990s, the punitive model common to most states made a resurgence. However, while laws passed making it easier to try kids as adults, a group of fed-up employees teamed up to reform youth courts, juvenile detention facilities and probation offices from within. While much of the country continues to arrest more than 1.02 million children every year, Massachusetts reduced the number in custody down to a daily average of about 190 youth, or 2,240 admissions annually. These state workers also dramatically slashed the number of children under age 14 placed in secure facilities from roughly 500 to just a handful.
What changed? The state wised up to normal teenage behavior and its institutions’ role in either furthering or freezing maturity. Reformers implemented what they call “positive youth development” as the main priority. Under this philosophy, which draws much of its insight from developmental psychology, the Massachusetts juvenile justice system stopped focusing on the bad things kids shouldn’t do and started promoting positive outcomes. When a child makes a mistake, the state steps in as the de facto parent, teacher, mentor and neighbor. Recognizing that youth need to grasp a sense of their own future in order to avoid a life of crime, college graduation and job placement replace recidivism as measures of success.
“For example, the kid who comes into court for fighting at school will ordinarily be put on probation, where he’s told, ‘Don’t fight, follow all the rules, keep a curfew.’ But if this is an 8th grade boy who’s old enough to be in high school and reading at a 2nd grade level, he’ll never succeed on probation. It’s never enough to order children to behave better. We need to look at their life circumstances and ask, ‘What resources, opportunities, services or supports are they going to need in order to be able to behave better?’ asks Joshua Dohan, head of the state public defenders’ juvenile unit. “As adults, we need to do something kids are not good at, which is taking the long view. What do we need to invest in over the long run so that we can nurture a healthy adult, as opposed to punishing a kid because he missed school one day?”
A little over a decade ago, Dohan, a public defender representing youth in Boston reached out to one of the men in charge of the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Dohan wanted to know if the official (who regularly locked up plenty of teenagers) wanted to join him at an upcoming conference on juvenile defense. “Ignorant” of the role good defense attorneys played in a child’s case, Edward Dolan, then deputy commissioner of Massachusetts’s Department of Youth Services, accepted. In an unexpected turning point, Massachusetts’s entire juvenile justice system started to flip. As the top leadership started collaborating, a punitive model slowly lost out to a restorative one.
For too long, each separate agency in the criminal justice system — from the lawyers in court, to guards in detention facilities, to officers in probation — had been caught up in its own institutional inertia, carrying out policies because that’s how they had always been done. There’d been some dissenting voices, most prominently Ned Loughran, a former priest who had agitated against harsh retribution for juveniles as head of DYS from 1985–1993. But on the whole, the agencies remained trapped within their respective silos. At the conference, focused on the entire juvenile justice system, Dohan and Dolan had their first chance to look outside their own roles, question the underlying rules and realign the system in kids’ best interests.
“Even though I’m in the business, it was the first time I was seeing the world through [the public defenders’] eyes. I put myself in their position, looking from a kid’s perspective and a…mother’s perspective at some of the things we did as an agency. We were like a machine,” Dolan says. “[Juvenile detention] was a pretty troubled agency at the time, overwhelmed and overcrowded. Even for the big leadership in the organization, we didn’t feel good about the way we were doing things. We were looking for a better pathway forward.”
Starting with that one conference where defense attorneys and a juvenile jailor found common ground, the agencies initiated a conversation about their overlapping roles in helping youth. Side by side, they could no longer blame other parts of the system for the dysfunction. From there, a group of bureaucrats started to rewrite the system together, unified under the banner of an approach that made more sense for children.
“Positive youth development” generally defines the field of academics applying insights from neuroscience and knowledge of human development to criminal justice. As practitioners, attorneys and officers usually don’t have time to get an advanced degree in social work, says Dohan. “The people who apply it have taken it on as their task to sort through and operationalize [the research] for youth workers, teachers, lawyers and probation officers to give us guidance about what works and what doesn’t and why.”
At the height of the War on Drugs, policymakers generally split along partisan lines about how to respond to criminal acts by youth. The right wing saw unchangeable “super-predators” who needed to be incarcerated to restore law and order, while leftists saw victims of poverty who needed counseling and therapy, says Dr. Jeffrey Butts, director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Research & Evaluation Center.
Both of these viewpoints are “incredibly biased in terms of class and race,” adds Butts, best known as one of the field’s founders, because they assume teens from high-crime communities are inherently more criminal than their peers elsewhere. The developmental approach, in contrast, doesn’t take a child’s actions as indicative of their character. Butts’s theory holds that the best way to stop crime is to encourage youth to acquire skills. Unlike the other two models, “the fact that a 17-year-old stole a bike doesn’t mean he’s destined to be an adult criminal,” Butts says.
Positive youth development maintains that five assets enable teens to mature into law-abiding citizens: strong bonds with adults and prosocial peers, a safe home, a healthy lifestyle, opportunities for civic engagement and an effective education and success in the labor market. Possessing these resources will make youth naturally begin to see that belonging to conventional society is more valuable, says Butts, than the short-term advantage one might accrue from committing a crime. If a young person feels connected to his community, “there’s more to lose by being caught stealing someone’s phone than by saving the few hundred dollars to buy a new one,” he adds.
“We have to be at least as good as criminal street gangs. They know exactly how to bring a 10-year-old into a group, how to increase their sense of purpose until they become very loyal,” Butts adds. “We need to be at least that good in attaching young people to our community.”
Positive development takes place at every step of the Massachusetts juvenile justice system — from when a public defender meets a client in lockup to the last appointment with a probation officer. For them, it’s not about creating a “feel-good” system, so much as designing systems that will reduce recidivism and lead to positive outcomes. Unlike most other states, Massachusetts offers a network of highly specialized public defenders for juveniles — a benchmark few under-resourced legal aid societies across the country have met. “What makes juvenile defense such a critical area of specialized practice is that in order to be effective, you need to have all the skills of an effective criminal defense lawyer and all the knowledge of adolescent development,” says Mary Ann Scali, head of the National Juvenile Defender Center. “In places like Massachusetts…, we know that we can provide constitutionally mandated access to counsel and effective counsel all the time.”
In Massachusetts, Dohan built the Committee for Public Counsel Services’s Youth Advocacy Department into a premier league of 36 staff attorneys and over 500 private attorneys who receive regular trainings on juvenile-specific topics. That’s a big feat considering these lawyers sign up for an unforgiving job. “The pay is terrible. Juvenile is the hardest place to make a living because there’s no private clients,” Dohan explains. (Still, you won’t hear him brag about what he’s developed; when NationSwell reached out to profile him for this story, the humble attorney sent back a list of 18 other sources to interview.)
Even when these experienced defense lawyers can’t argue their client’s innocence, the child is still in good hands in the Department of Youth Services, which leverages every connection it has to ensure kids receive the services they need. DYS tries to offer “all those things that you’d want for your own 17-year-old teenager,” says Peter Forbes, DYS commissioner. Indeed, kids seem to grasp the value, because half continue to go back to DYS for services (like tutoring, job training, coaching and counseling) for up to three years after they’re released. Most return for about six months on average, Forbes reports — something that would be unheard of at a jail like New York’s Rikers Island or a prison like San Quentin in California.
And finally, once a child is put on probation, her public defender will argue for a reasonable plan that’s created to advance her best interests. It’s a stark contrast with the old model — “trail ‘em and nail ‘em,” as Dohan calls it. The new system’s main goal is to ensure conditions are achievable. Much of this advocacy centers on education. As Dohan’s seen from experience, an 8th grader reading at a 2nd grade level feels like they’re being “tortured.” Bored, frustrated or humiliated, these students are prone to acting out. To help a child catch up, the lawyers are trained to involve the school system. “It’s not enough not to be expelled. We also get them into a program in which they can succeed,” Dohan describes. Kids won’t march themselves into a principal’s office to request this fix, but their lawyers in Massachusetts will. “Our job is not just to make the kid look good in the courtroom,” he adds. “Our job is to litigate but then put them in a much better position to succeed when the case is over.”
In implementing this program, the Massachusetts reformers, at first, fought an uphill battle to win funding from legislators. “In fairness to legislators, you are asking them to make an investment of the public’s money. They should expect a return on that investment,” Dolan says. They quickly saw a payback, in the form of reduced recidivism, and legislators soon allowed money saved from reduced caseloads to be reinvested into other initiatives. (Where that funding didn’t suffice, agencies turned to nonprofits outside the state system to supplement their work, assistance they still rely on today.) As evidence accrues, it’s getting easier to sell the developmental approach.
Even as this model gains traction, it still presents problems to be solved. Up next? The reformers are trying to confront racial and ethnic discrimination that’s endemic to the system by rigorously studying the data to locate what Dolan calls “unintentional but undeniable” disparities in treatment, offering classes on implicit bias and working with partners outside corrections to generate awareness. If they get it right, there’s much that can be used in correctional systems — both juvenile and adult — nationwide. Dohan, Dolan and Forbes started out with the intention of helping kids see their future; in the process, they’ve defined what’s next for a justice system in sore need of a new direction.
MORE: When Traditional Disciplinary Actions Don’t Work, Restorative Justice Can Bring About the Healing Process