Prison Reform Advocate on Reflection, Remorse, Responsibility

Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Gaynes, director of an organization creating opportunities for people affected by the criminal justice system to further develop their strengths and lead lives of responsibility and contribution known as the Osborne Association, spoke recently at their tenth annual Lighting the Way Breakfast on Park Avenue.  The speech was so impressive, with phrases such as “a country that savors punishment and depends on prisons economically,” that I asked her to condense it for this column.

New York, N.Y.   One hundred years ago Thomas Mott Osborne walked into Auburn Prison and voluntarily spent a week among men he came to call his brothers. He did not romanticize them but neither did he demonize them, and that was his gift. Later as warden of Sing Sing prison he asked the question that still haunts us: “Shall our prisons be scrap heaps or human repair shops?”

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Osborne Association executive director Elizabeth Gaynes spoke her mind at the breakfast.
Photo: Colin Bernatzky for Osborne Association.

Out of Osborne’s vision, the Osborne Association grew to twenty programs in three counties, twenty prisons and five city jails, reaching over 8,000 people each year: employment, education, family, and treatment services. In essence, there are twnety different doors, all opening on to our commitment to reduce the number of people we send to prison, and the length of time we keep them there, often years, even decades, beyond serving any purpose but vengeance.

We are at a pivotal moment. The crime rate and the prison population continue to fall in New York, at least to some degree because of organizations like ours and people like Brian Fischer. The nation’s drug czar now avoids the term “war on drugs” and says addiction is best dealt with by treatment.

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Rev. Dr. Alfonso Wyatt and Brian Fischer and his wife Rhoda Fischer. Photo: Todd Patton, M.D.

Folks in D.C. are considering sequestering our growing federal prison system to save money (including barring people with criminal histories from getting food stamps). There is a new House task force on “over-criminalization.” (Damn, I wish I had come up with that word!)

Some people believe that the pressure on state budgets and a greater focus on treatment will bring about a lasting reduction in incarceration. But slowing down is not the same as changing direction! Systems don’t shift from retribution to reconciliation because they run out of money any more than the stone age ended because they ran out of stones. You need look no farther than Guantanamo to see what Americans are willing to tolerate.

Sitting in this room with you, quite possibly at your table, is a staff member or colleague of the Osborne Association who has served 10, 20 or 30+ years in prison, for a crime that was very serious and that has led to more self-reflection, regret and remorse, and a greater sense of responsibility than most of us will ever know. And to be clear: no one can make you responsible, nor can you impose it on another. It is a grace you give yourself, an empowering context that leaves you with a say in the matter of your own life.

And there are many more just like them, transformed, responsible. He may be your neighbor. You may run into her at the movies. And then there are the ones you cannot see, still in prison long past the time when anyone would consider them a threat. Last month the parole board turned down release for a man I have known for more than 20 years, who is 85, legally blind and in a wheelchair, and has been incarcerated 33 years for attempted murder. Some years back he asked me to read his court papers to him so he could remember what he did when the parole board asked him about it. 80 grand a year to keep someone locked up and medicated who can’t even remember his crime? And you’re all right with that?

Fat cats and families of those incarcerated listened. Photo: Colin Bernatzky for Osborne Association.

I’m not, and it isn’t because we are not concerned about victims. It’s because we are. All too often we justify incarceration by invoking victims whose rights ought to be more broad and more robust than sentencing the person who caused them harm to jail. To me, the most important right is the right to heal. In this world of trauma and torture, of Newtown and Boston, it is a precious right that should be guaranteed to all of us  — and which I think could be comfortably substituted for the Second Amendment.

One target population for us are the young people who exemplify the observation known in trauma treatment that ‘Hurt People Hurt People.’ And we are hard on our kids, particularly our black and brown kids who are the nearly exclusive occupants of the beds in our adult and juvenile jails.

Unfortunately, the teenage years are not years of discernment, judgment or responsibility. And that’s not just me saying it, it’s neuroscience. And for adolescents who have experienced the trauma associated with exposure to violence, loss, and poverty, those neurons light up like Christmas trees when they are confronted by perceived threats.

That’s probably why just about every state in the country except New York keeps juveniles in the juvenile justice system! And which is why all our so-called evidence- based individual solutions to fix individuals will only go so far without community level responses and responsibility for the conditions that drive violence, loss and poverty.

Over 800 attended the Park Avenue power breakfast. Photo: Colin Bernatzky for Osborne Association.

But working with the NYC Department of Correction, we’re engaged in the next best thing, which is to provide to 16-18 year olds on Rikers Island the Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience (ABLE), which teaches adolescents to think, grow, and change through cognitive behavioral therapy. What makes this program unique—beside the fact that is the first program in the U.S. to be funded through a social impact bond—is the scope and the hope of it.

Fortunately, we have awesome partners—the NYC Department of Correction, the Mayor’s office, Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg Philanthropies, MDRC, and Friends of Island Academy; without all of them this project would simply not be possible. If we bring down the staggering recidivism rate by 10- 20%, our investors stand to profit. But shareholder value is not what gets us or any of our partners up in the morning and over the bridge to the world’s largest penal colony. Unless we see that we are all shareholders in these young lives.

What drives us is the fundamental premise that drives all of our work: people live their lives consistent with the future they see for themselves. The choices you and I make are perfectly aligned with where we’re headed. Every time. Your child takes an AP course in high school because it will come in handy in the future when he goes to college.

One of our young people told me that when he was twelve-years old he spent time practicing spitting razor blades out of his mouth, because he thought that would come in handy when he landed on Rikers Island. Not if he went to Rikers.  In that context, their lives make sense. Today, though, he would run smack into one of the able staff, who know from research and experience that if you change your thinking, you change your future. And they change their future, they change the world.

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When people who have experienced incarceration speak, prison reform becomes
a whole lot more real. Photo: Colin Bernatzky for Osborne Association.

The children of the incarcerated, numbering over two million nationally yet largely invisible, are also a focal point of our work. From them we have learned two things that are now incontrovertible. (1) For children, nothing can replace their relationship with a parent, even if a parent is incarcerated. (2) People who are incarcerated have the right, the responsibility and the capability to provide the love, support, and encouragement that make a real difference in the lives of their children. If they have the opportunity to do so, they do better both in prison and when they come out.

Some of you have seen it when you have accompanied children as they fly to Albion, New York’s largest women’s prison, to visit their mothers. Our committed volunteers at St. James Church and Congregation Beth Elohim make these visits possible. But Albion is 400 miles away, so we cannot do it often. But between live visits, we now offer “tele-visits.”

Encouraged by Brian Fischer, and using video-conferencing equipment provided by Corrections and Cisco, children come to our office and there they see and talk with their mothers and fathers. The potential of this project, when it supplements and does not replace contact visits, is powerful. Supporting families as they make, mend and maintain their relationships is enormously valuable – both for the children and the parents. But more than that, it tells the truth about people who are incarcerated—that they are people who are loved by their children, and who love their children in return.

Osborne_Assoc_Breakfast_6-136Many people spoke on how Osborne had transformed their lives.
Photo: Colin Bernatzky for Osborne Association.

I mentioned earlier that we are turning scrap heaps into repair shops. I wonder if Thomas Mott Osborne ever imagined it could literally happen, that his vision could carry us that far? But indeed it has. The former Fulton Correctional Facility, now closed, is going to be given to Osborne by the State of New York to turn into a community reentry center. We are deeply grateful to all who made this happen.

Without the support of virtually every elected official in the Bronx, starting with Senators Gustavo Rivera and Ruth Hassell Thompson, and Assemblyman Jeff Aubry — who is really from Queens but probably wishes he was from the Bronx — and ending with Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. along with the Community Board and of course the Governor, this would never have happened.

The future Fulton Economic Development and Reentry Center will remove the bars and put out a welcome mat for people returning from prison. It will provide services they need all in one place and will invite our colleagues to join in the effort that nurtures and houses people, that incubates quadruple-bottom-line businesses — People, Planet, Profit, and Purpose — that hire people coming home from prison, and provide jobs and opportunities that keep people from going to prison in the first place.

In a country that savors punishment and depends on prisons economically, it’s a big deal to actually close a prison. Brian Fischer knows that better than anyone. But it is an even bigger deal to repurpose it for reentry, to beat swords into ploughshares. Now I know that like me, you are asking: so what really is a plowshare? Through in-depth research (okay it was Wikipedia) I learned that the plowshare is the cutting edge of the plow, such that turning swords into plowshares could actually be done! Like turning a prison into a reentry center is something that can actually be done. And with support, we will do it.

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The opulent setting was ideal for raising badly needed funding for Osborne’s programs in
the Bronx and across New York State. Photo: Colin Bernatzky for Osborne Association.

I need to say one more thing: My mother got a not entirely welcome glimpse of my future at my graduation from law school 40+ years ago, when I was already volunteering in the defense of the Attica Brothers, and was quoting Ho Chi Minh’s prison diary: “people who come out of prison can build up the country; when the prison door is opened, the real dragon will fly out.”

As a graduation gift, she framed a New Yorker cartoon showing the jury standing to deliver the verdict: “We’re all guilty.” But over time, as our entire family became engulfed in a life marked by prison visits and collect calls, we came to understand it a little differently. We’re all responsible.

She and my father threw themselves into helping me raise my children who were two and six when their father went to prison. She held them through the disappointment of ten parole denials, she talked them through the stigma of growing up with a father in prison, she stared down the people in her small village who gossiped about her family, and she welcomed him home when he was released after 25 years. She always thought I was better off without him, but she never said our children were better off without him. Neither did Brian and Rhoda Fischer.

Originally published in The Daily Kos, June 20, 2013.

Elizabeth Gaynes is Executive Director of the Osborne Association, a 75-year-oldnonprofit organization based in New York City that provides a wide range of educational, employment, treatment and family services to individuals affected by incarceration. Gaynes is a nationally recognized expert on prisoner reentry and the impact of incarceration on children and families.

See: The White House’s Champions of Change profile.

The Osborne Association | 809 Westchester Avenue, Bronx, N.Y. 10455

NYS Prisons: Scrapheaps or Repair Shops (HuffPo)

Osborne Association’s Lighting the Way Breakfast Comments (Stewardship Report)

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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce ( writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (, he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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