New York, N.Y. At a June fundraising breakfast on Park Avenue, over 600 prominent New Yorkers heard stories from people who were once locked up – far from the comforts of the Upper East Side. The audience also heard from family members who were left behind when their loved one was incarcerated. Recently our foundation‘s team and I attended the Osborne Association‘s tenth annual Lighting the Way Breakfast on Park Avenue, following our spring trip with Osborne to their program graduation in Sing Sing.
This important breakfast is covered in The Huffington Post piece entitled NYS Prisons: Scrapheaps or Repair Shops? (LINK) The speakers shared how their lives were then, and how they are now – which are worlds apart – due in part to the myriad services offered by the host of the event, the Osborne Association.
Osborne Association’s associate executive director John Valverde underscored this theme by relating his own experience with the criminal justice system:
I believe that none of us want to be defined by the worst thing we have ever done. Perhaps some of you can understand what it is to be alone in a world that judges you and rejects you. The women, men, children and families we serve, face this every day.
We at Osborne stand with them. For our mission at Osborne is bigger than the formerly incarcerated. It is about creating a world in which our default is not revenge, punishment and judgment that excludes classes of people and their families.
It is about the healing of all individuals and communities impacted by trauma and crime, so that all people can see a future for themselves full of hope, dignity and freedom – and live into that future.
John Valverde, the first person to take the LSAT at Sing Sing and be accepted to law school while still in prison, shared with the audience his personal story of redemption:
When I was 20 years old, my girlfriend was raped. In my anger and anguish over what happened to her, I confronted the man who raped her and I took his life. I served 16 years in prison for my crime. From the first moment, I knew that what I did was wrong, but it was a much longer process to come to terms with it and accept full responsibility for my actions. Osborne was a big part of that journey.
Within months of my incarceration at Sing Sing, I met Liz Gaynes and was introduced to the Osborne Association. We say at Osborne that reentry to society needs to begin the first day a person is incarcerated.
Back in 1992, I learned that first-hand and graduating from Osborne’s FamilyWorks Parenting program made me a part of the Osborne family, and set me on a path to responsibility, remorse and redemption.
Brian Fischer, the recently retired Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision that oversees sixty correctional facilities across the state, received the Thomas Mott Osborne Medal for his vision and compassion during his 44-year career.
The medal is named for the Osborne Association’s founder, an industrialist, former Upstate mayor – and friend of then-governor Teddy Roosevelt. Along with his achievements in business and politics, Thomas Mott Osborne went on to serve as a progressive warden of Sing Sing and is now considered the “pioneer and prophet of prison reform.”
“Selecting Mr. Fischer as this year’s award recipient is fitting for many reasons,” said Liz Gaynes, “including the fact that our founder served as warden of Sing Sing Prison 90 years before Brian Fischer served as its Superintendent.” I was able to chat with him after the event – an exceptional human being.
At the first-ever New York Summit on Children of Incarcerated Parents organized by the Osborne Association in 2010, Brian relayed his compassion for incarcerated parents and their children by stating:
Good parent-child relationships are critical to helping incarcerated parents cope with incarceration and prepare for their return to society, thereby reducing recidivism and benefitting everyone, while helping the children better understand and come to terms with a father or mother in prison.
The greater the understanding of the issue we can generate, the greater the benefit for the children and the stronger the family reintegration.
In his comments, Commissioner Brian Fischer said:
I think that when I first walked around Sing Sing 13 years ago, I must have thought the same thoughts as Thomas Mott Osborne did when he entered the prison. Prisons should be places where men and women can learn new skills and realize what they can accomplish with a little help.
My role, both as a superintendent and then as a commissioner, was to get staff to see the individual, not the prisoner. One to one personal interaction is far more productive than rules and policies. Too often the criminal justice system sets off dealing with individuals and the crimes them commit, but then designates them as part of a group, ignoring their individuality.
When you see the individual, you also see that he or she is a parent, a husband, wife, son or daughter. In other words, they’re part of a family. I am proud that I supported programs developed by the Osborne Association like parenting, children’s’ centers and video visiting. When on person goes to prison, a whole family is impacted.
Each of us is often called upon to do something to help others. I’d like to think that is a small way I answered that call, much like Thomas Mott Osborne did. His work, and my own, is not complete. There is always more to do.
Francis A., a 24-year old in Queens, remembers vividly when his mother was arrested:
I was sitting in class at the College of New Rochelle when my phone started to ring. It was from my mom’s line but I figured I’d just call her back after class so I ignored it. I turned the ringer off and tried to put it aside. But it kept buzzing. Finally, I walked out of my classroom and answered the phone.
Instead of my mom, it was a family friend. He said he was coming to get me. That something terrible had happened and I needed to come home. He told me the news on the long drive back to Forest Hills. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to make of it. Surely it was a mistake or misunderstanding that we could explain. Something we could fix to get mom home. But mistake or not, it was not something we could fix, and mom could not come home.
I didn’t know the day I walked out of class in New Rochelle would be my last day there. I am now a full time parent to my 7 year old brother, 10 year old sister and 19 year old sister who suffers with Down Syndrome.
As hard as our situation is, I know there are thousands of children like us but without Osborne in their lives. I’m grateful for the opportunities Osborne has made possible for us, and for my mom, Osborne gives us hope and the encouragement we need to keep going.
My whole life I have wanted to be able to help humanity. Finding the best ways to do so has been challenging. But through our foundation and our Global Advisers, we can identify though leaders and global citizens such as Liz Gaynes, and organizations that are truly exception such as The Osborne Association. We have visited them in the Bronx, on Rikers’ Island, and at Sing Sing. No other group does what the Osborne team does and we could not be more proud to support them and their clients.
The Osborne Association | 809 Westchester Avenue, Bronx, N.Y. 10455
See Stories & Albums by Jim Luce on:
The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org) supporting young global leadership is affiliated with Orphans International Worldwide (OIWW), raising global citizens. If supporting youth is important to you, subscribe to J. Luce Foundation updates here.