The third Community Conversation took place on October 12 at the Yonkers Riverfront Library.
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- “We spend much more time disciplining and locking people up, while offering [comparatively] little time helping them before or after prison; we pay the consequences for that imbalance” Brian Fischer
- “If you don’t like the system…look in the mirror. Criminal justice is not about the criminal but about the society. We voted for this system. The longer we ignore our responsibility , the farther away will be the possibility for change.” Brian Fischer
- In response to a question about what we can to “undo” this system: “Inform yourselves. Be honest about what is taking place. Employ where you can. Open our doors and our hearts.” Karen Vockins
A few take-aways from the session:
Brian Fischer, former Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correction: Reflecting on his tenure at Sing Sing, Mr. Fischer described the facility as unique and progressive, in part due to its proximity to NYC and the large numbers of volunteers who serve the population. He described it as a place that offers the opportunity for change; as a result, “the person leaving the system is not the same person that entered the system.”
Mr. Fischer noted the importance of dealing with each person entering the system as an individual, otherwise “you don’t see them” and have less ability to connect them to the tools that can support the needed change.
Mr. Fischer described his involvement in a program that diverts people who are mentally ill from serving time in prison. He notes that most correctional agencies will tell you they run the largest mental hospitals. 24% of those in Sing Sing have a mental illness. Would they and society be better served if these individuals were in a secure mental health institution? The situation faced by the mentally ill is again exacerbated by the lack of service provided before, during, and after a term of incarceration.
In responding to a question about re-entry, Mr. Fischer described re-entry as the “weakest piece of correctional services”, saying that “…people think that corrections should be getting them ready for reentry…we don’t”. He goes on to say that it is believed that it is “corrections job to correct…the reality is that we as a society don’t do enough.”
In a discussion of recidivism, Mr. Fischer noted that length of time in prison has no impact on recidivism. He contends that we could release 25% of the people who are in prison now and it would have no impact on crime.
Kathryn Vockins, Rehabilitation Through the Arts: Ms. Vockins described RTA’s programs, which include theater, dance, writing, poetry, and music. Participants in RTA’s programs have a less than 7% recidivism rate. She said she is often asked to clarify – they are not attempting to turn out actors, but are “…teaching life skills that can be used inside the walls to better yourself as a human being, and outside the walls to become a tax paying citizen”. The experiential learning that RTA offers is a proven catalyst for learning.”
In describing the re-entry experience, Ms. Vockins noted the importance of groups like Hour Children, which focuses on serving women. She said that women often have a harder experience because they lose their partner when they go to prison, which has repercussions during and after incarceration.
In a discussion of how to fix the current system, Ms. Vockins spoke about a need to shift our system from punishment to rehabilitation. She cited Canada and Rawanda as examples. She wondered what it would take to make the case that would otherwise seem so evident. Can we prove, economically, that we’d be better off with a focus on rehabilitation? (Mr. Fischer noted that some reports show we save $55,000-$65,000 per person for every year that person stays out of prison. But the money saved isn’t the point; isn’t the greater economic impact had if every returning inmate gets a job?)
Charles Moore, Rehabilitation Through the Arts: Mr. Moore, an RTA graduate now serves as an alumni coordinator. He shared his experience, noting that he came in to prison at age of 34, as an addict without a high school diploma or GED. He then “took responsibility” for his actions. He received a GED in his 1st year at Sing Sing. He sought a college degree, but found there was a long waiting list for the HudsonLink program. In that time he was able to enroll in the RTA program, which he said helped him to restore his humanity. He said the program helped him to learn how to take direction, both from authority and from peers, and to be okay with that experience.
Mr. Moore described the transition home a as “a shocker”, especially in terms of knowing how to use current technologies to apply for a job. He took advantage of all the reentry programs available. He cited an internship at Exodus as important to his learning how to complete applications and cover letters.
RTA now has more alumni outside of prison than they are serving inside the prison.
(See the trailer for the documentary Dramatic Escape, which gives a sense of the RTA program operations within Sing Sing.. It is linked on this page.)