Riveting Speech on Prison Reform from Experience

New York, N.Y.  I was fortunate to be invited to The Osborne Association’s 2012 Annual Lighting the Way Breakfast recently where I heard attorney Elizabeth Gaynes present the following speech.  Liz is the executive director of the Osborne Association, an 80-year-old nonprofit that has pioneered programs that empower individuals with current or previous involvement in the criminal justice system to lead positive, healthy and productive lives, and to deepen connections to their families and communities.  Liz has served with Osborne for the past 27 years and is a nationally-recognized expert on criminal justice policy.

The Osborne Associations’ director Elizabeth Gaynes gave an inspired present. Photo: Stewardship Report.

I was so moved by Liz Gaynes’ deeply personal and stirring remarks, I agreed to publish them verbatim in The Stewardship Report.  She told those assembled on Park Avenue, some 700 prominent New Yorkers, the following:

Our founder, Thomas Mott Osborne, believed that everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect and everyone deserves another chance.  And that what happens in our prisons matters, for the guilty and innocent, for the keeper and the kept, for the incarcerated and their loved ones.  He believed that all of us have the right, the obligation, the capacity and the privilege to change our lives, to take responsibility, to make amends, and to contribute to our families and communities.  But in 1914 when TMO became warden of Sing Sing, there were fewer than 6000 people locked up in New York.  Sometime between then and now, America embarked on a prison frenzy, leading to the largest separation of children from their families since slavery.

New York has been walking it back, with the lowest crime rate and prison and jail population in 25 years, and a Governor who closed 11 prisons and youth facilities in the last year.  But as states go after prison budgets to close deficits, we have to be sure that means actually sending folks home, not eliminating the programs that led to less crime, fewer prisons, and safer communities.

Unfortunately, in New York some budget cuts have been painful for families struggling to maintain their relationships.  For example, New York Corrections provided free transportation to its prisons since 1973, so families could visit loved ones in distant places that are virtually inaccessible by public transportation.  The cutback for budget reasons precludes thousands of people from visiting and Osborne has been a leading voice in a campaign to bring back the buses, and to place parents in prisons closer to their children.  We do not just serve families, we advocate for policies that serve them.

Photo: Daniel Santana for the Stewardship Report.

We also take as many kids as we can on visits to their parents in prison, knowing that those who receive visits from families are much less likely to return to prison after release, and because children have a right to a relationship with parents who love them, even if those parents are locked up.

Some of you have accompanied our children as they fly to Albion, 400 miles from here, to visit their mothers.  For more than five years, St. James Church  and its parishioners have supported our visiting program, and offered monthly activities for our youth.  More recently, Congregation Beth Elohim has added their voice and their people to help families stay connected.

But still our numbers (and our frequent flyer miles) are few and the need is huge, with tens of thousands of New York children unable to see their parents in prison.  With support from city and state corrections department, Osborne has partnered with Cisco Systems,  who donated state of the art “tele-visiting” equipment for our Brooklyn Bronx and Poughkeepsie offices, and for our partner in Manhattan at the Ethical Culture Society, so children can call and see their parents.  Although we never want these virtual visits to replace the touch that only a real visit can provide, we believe they offer concrete support to families struggling to stay connected.

Programs like Osborne’s – drug treatment, job training, family reintegration – have a great return on investment at 10 percent of the cost of a year of incarceration.  What we do doesn’t just save dollars, it saves families: Prison is already the most expensive and least effective response to crime, supersizing it with long and life sentences justifies nothing.  Keeping people in prison for years beyond their minimum sentences, long after they have transformed their lives, is just not fair.

Photo: Daniel Santana for the Stewardship Report.

We did take a step forward in the fairness department this week, as the Governor – with the support of our Mayor and Police Chief and DA’s, proposed to turn down the dial on marijuana arrests.  This could not come at a better time, after a study found that nearly 30% of young adults in this country have been arrested for a crime by the time they are 23 years old.  In New York last year, that included New York’s 50,000 low level marijuana arrests that saddle people with lifetime criminal records.

And of course, the burden of these records, like our justice system generally, falls disproportionately on young people of color.  We call this eating your seed corn.

What brought me to Osborne was what I saw in Attica 40 years ago, but what keeps me here is what I see at home.  Year after year, 6-700,000 return home from prison, 25,000 from New York prisons, most returning to our Metropolitan area, Park Avenue not so much.  I used to be less focused on reentry.  During the years that my children’s father was in prison in Virginia, I was deeply aware of the impact of his incarceration on them and our family.  – the sadness, the stigma, and the unfairness of ten parole denials when he had long since met all the requirements of parole.

But then all of a sudden, it seemed, 3 years ago he came home.  67 years old, having never used a cell phone, never having surfed the Internet, his dreams of working and farming deferred.  Our children were then full grown.  For the 25 years we visited him in prison, he came into the visiting room looking strong and tall, well over 6 feet tall, respected by prisoners and wardens alike.  But when he came home he suddenly seemed small and fragile.  He wanted to work, to take care of the family that had taken care of him, but of course he couldn’t get a regular job.  He manages his small farm and his organic chickens, and he is grateful for the eggs, for his freedom, and especially for our 2 year old grandchild who doesn’t hold his past against him.

Photo: Daniel Santana for the Stewardship Report.

But he just isn’t the same person.  His reactions seem like a strange brew of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and communication gaps that I can only describe as post-prison autism.  I actually looked these things up in a medical dictionary, but the most relevant definition was that of HEALING.  “process whereby the cells in the body regenerate and repair to reduce the size of the damaged area.” In our case, the damaged area was my family, and even for us the effort to regenerate and repair at times seems overwhelming

Now it is rather humbling to be known as an expert in reentry while not knowing how to heal my own family.  I kind of got a glimpse of what we needed in the Milwaukee airport.  After taking off my shoes, my jacket, removing my laptop, taking out my liquids and gels, throwing away my water, and going through the machine, and then shuffling shoeless to the three bins where all my stuff was piled and gathering it up to try to put it all back together, I saw this sign RECOMBOBULATION AREA.

That’s what my family needed to put it back together, and that’s what all our prison families need, and what I want for them.

One of the closed prisons is Fulton Correctional Facility, located halfway between our Bronx headquarters and the Bronx Zoo.  A 7 story building that began as a church house in 1906, and then a synagogue and YMHA as the neighborhood changed in the 1920’s when my mother lived on Fulton Avenue, later a nursing home and then a drug treatment program.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project which uses ground-breaking
DNA technology to overturn wrongful convictions. Photo: Osborne Association.

Its re-use as a prison 35 years ago also reflected changing neighborhoods as the South Bronx began to send more of its sons and daughters to prison.  Although we are still in the poorest congressional district in the country, with the highest rates of asthma, HIV/AIDS, and unemployment, the Bronx is coming back and our sons and daughters coming back home.  We saw this closed prison as an opportunity and encouraged by our colleagues in the nonprofit and business sectors, and Bronx elected officials, led by Borough President Ruben Diaz JR, and Senator Gustavo Rivera, Osborne asked that Fulton be converted once again to serve the needs of  returning citizens.  We expect that by the time you return to next year’s breakfast, we will be able to show you what happens when we take the barbed wire down, and Fulton returns to  a place of faith, hope and healing, where businesses get off the ground, and people in prison come to land.  A ‘recombobulation area.’

Well, we can’t really call it that, but someone did suggest naming it the Malachi Center.

Now my knowledge of the Bible is limited (my parents informed me of the basic biblical mandates: pursue justice, seek peace, produce grandchildren) so I checked the scripture and found Malachi 3:3 in which the Lord sits as a refiner and purifier of silver.  I asked a friend who is actually a silversmith to find out what it means to be a refiner of silver.  And he says, “You place the silver in a fire.  It is very hot; it will destroy almost anything that comes into contact with it.  In the fire, the silver refines and purifies itself.

“But you cannot leave the silver too long in the fire.  You have to know when to take it out.”

So, I asked how do you know when to take it out? And he told me, “When I can see my own face in it.”

We are the refiners and purifiers of those in prison and jail.  We have to see our face, and our children’s face, in the people who are being held in the fire of prison.  The fire is hot, and they will be destroyed, not purified, if we leave them in too long.  But our addiction to punishment, our reliance on incarceration, will not let them come out until you can see your own reflection in their faces.

Locking people in small cages or forcing lethal drugs into their veins will look barbaric to our great grandchildren.  Become partners with us  in steering a course that fosters resilience, relationships and responsibilities, that heals families and communities, and charts a future in which people in prison are, well, PEOPLE, of great value to a society that in its own moral and economic interest will give them every possible chance to get it right.

Photo: Daniel Santana for the Stewardship Report.

Attorney Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director of the Osborne Association for the past 27 years, is a nationally-recognized expert on criminal justice policy.  In 2004, she along with her daughter Emani Davis, was the first American nominated for the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child, for their work defending the rights of children with parents in prison.

The author with guests at table of Victor Germack (r.). Photo: Stewardship Report.

I thank Victor Germack for having introduced me to the Osborne Association.  I remember my friend three decades ago – Rev. Bill Weber at New York Theological Institute – explaining to me why working in our prisons was vital to his calling.  Thirty years later I understand what he told me that much better.  Don’t let it take thirty years for it to sink in with you.  Thanks to The Osborne Association and its dedicated staff and volunteers, families connected to our prison system have a better chance of moving up and on with their lives.

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Attorney Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director of the Osborne Association for the past 27 years, is a nationally-recognized expert on criminal justice policy.  In 2004 she, along with her daughter Emani Davis, was the first American nominated for the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child, for their work defending the rights of children with parents in prison.

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Originally published in The Daily Kos, June 27, 2012.

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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) 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 (www.oiww.org), 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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