Remarks by Commissioner Brian Fischer
New York State Minorities In Criminal Justice Inc. Reentry Workshop
New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus
Annual Legislative Conference Weekend
Empire Plaza Concourse
February 14, 2009

Re-entry has come to mean many things to many people, both inside and outside the prison environment. I believe we need to view the concept of re-entry in a broadly encompassing manner.

There are many meaningful programs already in place that deal with re-entry and many more ideas and proposals that have yet to be implemented. Some might not seem related to re-entry but are when we accept that re-entry really means assisting any offender to be better prepared to meet the challenges of making it in the community.

No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, we all have a stake in offenders’ success upon release; it means the difference between the offender respecting the law, working, paying taxes and contributing to public safety vs. reverting to crime, returning to prison, consuming taxes and making our neighborhoods unsafe.

Re-entry needs to be seen as more than a transition from prison to the community. That’s a momentary event. Re-entry should mean providing assistance and programs that help individuals before they come to prison, while in prison, upon their release and for as long as the person needs assistance after release. Re-entry must be a holistic concept.

And key to the success of any re-entry effort is the contribution from the offenders themselves, from learning responsibility and a work ethic, as well as developing respect for rules and for others, to having a say, and thus a stake, in re-entry plans – particularly after release.

When an individual is arrested and incarcerated, the impact on his or her family is often ignored, yet we all know that family support is critical for any offender’s ability to deal effectively both with incarceration and life after prison. Providing assistance to both the offender and family goes a long way to better preparing each for the offender’s eventual return home. This is even more important when the offender is separated from family for months and even years. That is why we offer programs in prison that deal with family dynamics. Likewise, programs such as Family Reunion, family visiting and special family event days are, I believe, critical elements of re-entry.

Programs like education and vocational training are as important to re-entry as helping an offender get his or her social security card or birth certificate. Equally important to re-entry is providing medical, dental, mental health, drug counseling and even sex offender treatment for any offender requiring such services. There’s little likelihood an offender will be successful upon release if he or she still cannot read, hasn’t dealt with drug addiction or has physical or mental health conditions that have not been properly addressed.

None of these programs or services should be the sole responsibility of the State. Community and legislative support are essential to build upon the work already being done. Obstacles ex-offenders face in securing housing, employment and even education and training will only be removed through statutory changes and with pressure from the communities.

Let me tell you of some of the statewide initiatives we have begun or are developing, designed around the broader concept of re-entry.

We’re changing the type of clothing we issue to offenders upon release so that they’re suitable for job searching, and we’re allowing families to send in personal clothing that the offender can wear home.

Efforts are under way to provide an Internet literacy program to ensure offenders preparing to leave know how to access the Internet upon their return. In addition, we’re looking to see if we can provide offenders with bank cards rather than checks or cash upon their release. This would allow them to access their money through ATM’s or stores, rather than pay unreasonable check cashing fees.

Perhaps even more important is a pilot program the Department has entered into with the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance that provides an avenue for offenders in prison to deal with court-ordered child support requirements so they do not leave prison owing amounts that often place an unreasonable financial burden upon them while they seek employment.

Many of our facilities have begun a program called Thinking For a Change, which offers help in improving social skills and morale development - often referred to as “soft skills.”

All our Transitional Service programs now ensure that every offender is aware of the recently enacted Employer Education Act and Correction Law Article 23A, which clarify and enhance offenders’ rights concerning licensing and employment.

By working with other agencies such as the Division of Parole, the Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, we are moving beyond the Orleans Re-Entry Unit and will be duplicating our efforts in the Albany area at Hudson Correctional Facility and for women returning home to New York City at Bayview Correctional Facility.

Our collaboration with the Division of Parole also resulted in an agreement to move Parole Board hearings back four months prior to an offender’s earliest possible release date, rather than two months as had been the case, allowing the Department to transfer the offender into a re-entry program like Orleans with enough time to more fully assist him in getting ready for his return home. In addition, the Division of Parole and the Department jointly created the Edgecombe Residential Treatment Facility, where Parolees having difficulty in the community, primarily with drug abuse, are provided short-term intervention treatment and returned to their home rather than be sent to an upstate prison. While we call this program part of a graduated sanction initiative, it is really all about assisting in the successful re-entry of offenders.

Lastly, the Department fully supports many of the recommendations put forward by community advocates and our State legislators. Proposals such as an offender’s right to vote upon release, dropping a non-sex offender from our website after some period of time or court resolution, requiring local social service agencies to assist with timely Medicaid assistance and access to TAP funding for prison college courses are all critical to the success of everyone – both the offenders and the community alike - in re-entry.