What must happen for systemic change in the prison system, from people who have been there

Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series, “Reentry in New Jersey,” which explores how former inmates navigate life after prison.

While efforts are being made to help former New Jersey inmates avoid returning to prison after they are released, re-acclimating to society afterward is not something that happens overnight. And although there are a variety of government-funded programs and grassroots organizations to help people along the way, there’s always room for improvement.

But what more can be done to ensure that there is systemic change?

Ashley Nellis, co-director of research at The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center seeking to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, said that to start there should be reform of the “poorly thought-out policies” under which people are told they are going to spend life in prison and then end up resentenced and left to fend for themselves after decades inside. 

Rashawn Lane wears a suit he designed during a fashion show at the Double Tree Hotel in Newark on Saturday, May, 20, 2023. Lane was released from Northern State Prison earlier this year after serving 28 years. He has struggled to get his Family First card, an electronic card used to access benefits like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), as well as his health insurance.

“If prison has been a trauma, which it has for many of them, they need a lot of support,” Nellis said. 

She added that people being released after enduring long sentences tend to have “extremely low recidivism” rates, so that should not be the “primary concern.” 

Alice Marie Johnson is a criminal justice reform advocate from Tennessee. She served decades in prison and was granted clemency in 2018. 

She said that in addition to community support, the “mental health aspect” of returning to life outside of prison has to be addressed.  

“They really need that mental health support coming out because they get sent in as a child and come out as an adult,” Johnson said. “I really think that there needs to be a strong infrastructure in place that helps with the mental health aspect of it.” 

Johnson went on to say that giving people a chance to “get their freedom legs” goes beyond just providing services like job training. 

Former inmates, now advocates, seek to inspire

Some people who have served time think their success can be used to inspire others.  

Edwin “Chino” Ortiz founded the Returning Citizens Support Group, an Essex County-based group that works to fill gaps in resources being left by state-funded programs. He thinks those gaps exist because the people running the programs have not themselves been incarcerated. 

(Left) Edwin

“I believe people like me who are system-impacted should be leading these movements, because in order for you to understand my struggles, my trauma, you’d have to have been able to walk in my shoes,” Ortiz said, adding that they “can’t relate to the individual. I can, because I know the trauma. I experienced and I witnessed vicariously through other individuals.” 

His group is also working to create a workforce development program to provide “real employment opportunities for returning citizens.”  

That sentiment was echoed by Yuro Takuma, who was released in February after serving nearly 40 years.  

Takuma said the lived experience “plays a very important role, because when you go through certain experiences and everything, no one can describe it and express it and explain it how you are experiencing it and went through it yourself.”  

He noted that professionals with degrees in social work are qualified but will never understand the trauma the same way that people affected by the justice system do.

How to pay it forward?

Wanting to pay it forward is what inspired Laura Tista to study social work during her time in prison. She wants to help other women learn from her mistakes.  

“I think the main thing is they need more people who have been through the system or can relate to the inmates, because without that you have all these people that have never had anyone incarcerated or know what it’s been like to go through that,” she said. “You can have people who went to school for mental health, that know what that’s like, but to actually be there and go through yourself and working in the field, it’s a totally different thing.”

Tista also noted that during her time in the halfway house she encountered only one employee who was formerly incarcerated, the maintenance man. She went on to say the other employees she came across at the halfway house were “just there to get a paycheck.”

After more than 28 years on the inside, Rashawn Lane said individuals being released after long sentences, as he was, are “ready to be part of the solution” and are “trying to change the culture” but aren’t being given the opportunity.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for the guys coming home, and they can help a lot. They’re educated,” he said. “There need to be more of us going back in there talking about positive things.”  

Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, a national criminal justice public policy think tank based in Massachusetts, noted that the desire to work on reentering society with someone who has been in the justice system might be because they “tend to be more focused on the potential of the individual and their future, rather than shaming that person for what they did.” 

“That can be a very powerful experience, because you can connect with that person and that person is going understand things that you’re going to through and things that you’ve been through,” she said. “It’s about celebrating that person and caring for them and allowing them to actually have faith in themselves and to be inspired to do something new with their life.” 

Katie Sobko covers the New Jersey Statehouse. Email: sobko@northjersey.com

Michael Karas is a visual journalist. Email: karasm@northjersey.com


Sign up to receive the latest local, national & international Criminal Justice News in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Sign up today to receive the latest local, national & international Criminal Justice News in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

This post was originally published on this site be sure to check out more of their content.