USA: Formerly imprisoned deserve second chances, say faithful

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“Work is so important to a person’s soul,” Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R., Archbishop of Newark, said as a panelist during the New Jersey Reentry Corporation’s annual conference, Training for the Dignity of Work, held in early April. 

The panelists, who included the faithful, state and local officials, attorneys, a judge, and former inmates, discussed how the reentry program gives formerly incarcerated men a second chance, allowing them to put prison behind them. 

New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC) provides participants with the tools necessary to succeed when they return from prison, jail, addiction treatment, or combat. At the centers, located in Kearny, Jersey City, Hackensack, Newark, and Paterson, participants are supported by professional teams that implement short and long-term career plans. Participants are offered training in 16 areas, from construction and culinary arts to phlebotomy and plumbing. Participants receive industry-recognized credentials to reenter the workforce. 

Cardinal Tobin has held a soft spot for the program for years. In October 2020, during the pandemic, the cardinal and other faith leaders from throughout New Jersey gathered at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark to help NJRC launch a collection drive for pandemic emergency survival kits for the formerly incarcerated. At the time, Cardinal Tobin said he was happy to support a project that deals with the “dignity of human beings in a very delicate stage of transition.” 

Gov. Phil Murphy, in an introductory filmed speech shown at the conference, said NJRC benefits not only the recipient but also the family and community.  

“Employment gives a sense of purpose and dignity,” Murphy said, adding that 4,000 people have received training since its startup. 

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, NJRC chairman, said the program gives participants back a “sense of agency” after being told what to do, when to eat, and when to sleep for so long. 

The current national average for reentry job placement is just 37%, while the success rate is 92% at NJRC, he said. 

But to the men who have gone through the training to receive licensing credentials, they got more than a job, — they got a career through the training program.  

Candido Ortiz went from serving 28 years in a federal prison to a taxpayer and employer. After going through the program, he now owns a restaurant in Jersey City.  

He says he feels “blessed” and that without the help NJRP offers, former inmates might end up back in prison.  

Anthony DiFrisco, who served 33 years in prison, said finding work after he was released was not easy. But after going through the program and landing a job, he says that job means freedom to him. 

“If we are not going to be serious about helping individuals reenter society to have dignity, have purpose, have a job, then we are going to be in this never-ending cycle of recidivism,” panelist Senator Mike Testa (D-1) said. 

McGreevey asked how to appeal to people of faith “to convert hearts to this cause.” 

The Rev. LaKeesha Walrond, Ph.D., president of the New York Theological Seminary in New York City, said many of the people that are idealized and even worshiped were part of the system. Moses and David were murderers, and even Jesus was convicted and sentenced to death by crucifixion, she said. 

“We can have our hearts soften a bit to recognize none of us is perfect, people deserve a second chance,” the Rev. Walrond said. “First step, stop the judgement. Sometimes the only difference between us and them is that we didn’t get caught.” 

Each year, up to 15 students who are currently incarcerated in New York State enroll in the New York Theological Seminary accredited Master of Professional Studies (MPS) degree offered inside the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. The Rev. Walrond said the program has graduated 532 men with a less than recidivism rate of 5% over the last decade. The program has expanded this year to include women from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y., she said. 

Cardinal Tobin said that systems can take away peoples’ faces and reduce them to statistics or worse — stereotypes or caricatures.  

“What I think works best is one-on-one contact or small group contact. You see them as human beings, you hear their stories, and you recognize the humanity of that person,” Cardinal Tobin said. “In this country, there’s a constant effort to take away people’s faces. It’s up to us to restore them.” 

Ron Slaughter, pastor at Saint James A.M.E. Church in Newark, said,: “Dignity is restored when the person has the opportunity to provide for his family. It is the mission of the Church to help those who can’t help themselves.” 

For more information on the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, visit www.njreentry.org. 

(jerseycatholic.org)

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