Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Commissioner Brian Fischer
New York State Department of Correctional Services
New York State Council of Catholic Charities
Albany, New York
March 7, 2011

The focus of my remarks touch on three related issues that concern participants in today's conference; the Governor's recommendation to merge the Division of Parole with the Department of Correctional Services, the challenges that face the agency, and how we can all work together to improve the delivery of services to those we serve.

At the core of the merger proposal is the belief that by combining the two agencies a more effective approach to preparing an offender for his or her successful return to the community can be accomplished. This is based on the accepted and researched based understanding that reentry begins when a person enters the criminal justice system, continues through treatment while in custody, and is enhanced supportive assistance upon their release.

All this is possible since because over the past few years there has been a positive recognition of the concepts of re-entry and transitional services on the part of the public, community service providers and the religious communities.

The impact on these concepts has led to a greater acceptance of helping people coming out of prison make positive adjustments when reconnecting with family, friends and others. This recognition has also pointed out that a greater degree of responsibility has been put upon many of us here today. In our own way each of us are service providers.

From a corrections point of view we no longer talk in terms of unproductive incarceration. We speak about an individual's treatment needs in an effort to make the offender smarter and healthier, and with a better understanding of self. It is why we encourage family visiting and programs dealing with family dynamics. It is why we have special programs for the mentally ill and medically infirmed. It is why we support religious services, pastoral counseling and many self-help groups.

The goal is clear, assist the offender in developing personal skills that he or she needs to make it in the community upon their return.

For many, that assistance comes in the form of education, vocational training, substance abuse treatment and many other areas that focus on what brought them to prison. In many respects, the goal is offering a way for the offender to find faith in himself, faith that change can take place, that they can succeed. I have heard many offenders reach a point where they can say to a parent or loved one, "I'm becoming the person you always wanted me to be, but I wasn't ready."

All this relates to the theme of this conference, working together on behalf of those who need our help, be they an ex-offender, a homeless person or any other person having difficulty making it on their own.

I believe that one of the greatest threats to an individual's personal growth is the feeling that they are alone in the world, that no one cares about them, that they don't know where to go for help, and don't know who to trust. Too often these feelings are unfortunately reinforced by insensitive and underfunded bureaucratic systems, laws that seem to deny them access to work, needed assistance from service providers, and cultural stereotyping by those they turn to for help.

Each year the New York prison system releases well over 20,000 offenders back to their communities. All of them, regardless of where they came from, are confronted with the same basic issues; reconnecting with their families, finding employment, finding a place to live and putting their past behind them. It is not an easy task, and failure in these areas often leads to re-incarceration. That is why re-entry or transitional services is really about all of us working together.

I have spoken many times to faith-based organizations, churches and synagogues about what we can do together to help the ex-offender. I ask that they look within, who makes up their group. Is there a doctor, lawyer, social worker or some other professional in their mist? I then ask why each could not consider using their skills to assist just one person who may need their help. If the ex-offender has a legal problem, could not the lawyer assist him? Could not a doctor or social worker help if the person needed to understand his medical condition or understand the changes that his children have undergone while he was away. Mentoring is an excellent goal that many talk about, but an individual's basic needs must come first. If a person cannot find a job, or has a legal issue he must resolve immediately, addressing those matters become critical to success. Assistance brings resolution to problems, while fostering a greater trust in people.

I raise these concerns because while I work to provide services to the incarcerated, the real work of helping starts when they leave prison. What is important, especially in these times of fiscal crisis, is that we all spend what we have on those things that will have the greatest impact on those we seek our help. Money, however, is not the only issue. A helping hand and a willingness to listen is often more valuable than we may think. It is in these areas where organizations such as Catholic Charities, all the people here today, and our various state agencies can come together and work in partnership.