When CUMAC receives a surplus of fresh fruits and vegetables and we know we can’t give them out fast enough through our pantry, we often set some under the train trestle next to our building so the public can take as much home as they know they can use or distribute to friends and family. This has become a popular tradition in our community and many people stop by every few days to grab fresh produce in addition to the monthly allocation of food they receive from CUMAC.
This past June, one of our Pathways to Work participants, Ron, was struggling to organize boxes of produce under the trestle when a young man named Jesse jumped out of the waiting crowd to help. Jesse was unique both in being so friendly and willing to pitch in while others waited by the sidelines, but also in the fact that he wasn’t wearing a shirt despite the dark skies, cold rain and rapidly dropping temperatures. After Jesse had assembled his own little box of fruits, Ron got a chance to ask if he needed a shirt and got the answer he had expected: “yes, big time. I would really appreciate a shirt.”
As Jesse picked out some clothing in our Community Closet, he shared some of his story. He had recently been released from prison with nothing to his name and nowhere to go. He didn’t have family around and no one to go to for help. This meant that in the pouring rain and cold wind the day he came to CUMAC, he didn’t even have a shirt to protect his bare back from the storm. That day we were able to share a hot cup of coffee, clothing, shoes, food and a sympathetic ear. In an unlucky turn of events, by the time Ron and Jesse got back outside, the little box of fruit he had picked for himself was gone, but still he jumped in without hesitate to help clean up discarded boxes and bits of littered fruits and vegetables.
It was a pleasure to make a new friend in Jesse. He is a kind man, funny, grateful and willing to lend a hand when he sees help is needed. It’s difficult to think how deeply the odds are stacked against him as he works to reenter society and rebuild his life. A man so willing to jump in and do what’s needed will likely have to jump through impossible hoops to get his life back on track.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics an average of 590,400 inmates are released annually from state and federal prisons. Of the nearly 70,000 adults and 8,000 juveniles expected to leave New Jersey correctional facilities over the next few years, it is estimated that two-thirds will be re-arrested within three years. The vast majority of ex-offenders reentering society face insurmountable barriers and without other options many turn back to petty crime and reincarceration.
In most states, individuals are released from prison without a state-issued (widely required) ID card, such as a driver’s or non-driver’s license. Without proof of identity, people with criminal records are often unable to apply for jobs, secure housing, or sign up for the public benefits that might help them survive their first few months. Even if a person without identification is fortunate enough to find work, the lack of a state ID can make it extremely difficult to cash paychecks or open a bank account. Leaving prison without money, job prospects or a support network –usually without even a cell phone- leaves people scrambling to make ends meet. Fulfilling basic needs for food, shelter and clothing become nearly impossible and many who would prefer a steady job and stable life turn back to criminal activities out of desperation.
Thankfully, more is being done in recent years to help ex-offenders reenter their communities with the support and opportunities needed to thrive. In 2011, the Department of Justice established the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which now includes more than 20 federal departments and agencies, and has developed significant policies and initiatives to not only reduce recidivism, but to also improve public health, child welfare, employment, education, housing and other key elements of reintegration. Major efforts to support and strengthen reentry programs and resources at the Bureau of Prisoners (BOP) will help those who have paid their debt to society prepare for opportunities outside of prison by promoting family unity and economic contribution. Recent efforts to promote reentry work at BOP also include hiring the first-ever Second Chance Fellow, a formerly incarcerated individual with deep expertise in the reentry field to assist in developing reentry policy initiatives. A new Reentry Services Division is working to better equip inmates with the tools needed for success outside of prison, including expanded mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and improved work and educational opportunities.
At the same time, states are doing more to help ex-offenders procure IDs that are universally accepted and can be used to find employment, apply for benefits and open bank accounts. Many states, New Jersey included, are making it easier for ex-offenders to apply for housing benefits, SNAP (formerly food stamps), and other forms of support that are critical to bolstering the transition into society. Here in Paterson, many programs exist to help ex-offenders navigate the challenges they face after release. These programs help newly released individuals procure state identification, find appropriate social services, train for employment and look for work. CUMAC is fortunate to partner with many of these agencies to provide a source of food while program participants work to get their lives on track. Thanks to our friends and supporters, CUMAC can help all who come to us, whatever the circumstance, to ensure they have the support they need as they move toward brighter futures.