How to make sure they don’t go back: New York State is failing at prisoner reentry

By LUCY LANG

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS |

OCT 27, 2019

My friend Emmanuel died this summer. It was an unorthodox friendship, formed in 2018 when I was a prosecutor and he was incarcerated in Queensboro Correctional Facility. We met in a class I teach called Inside Criminal Justice, which brings prosecutors and incarcerated students together to find ways to change the legal system in our city.

Eight months after Emmanuel was released, I was in a funeral home in Queens, his brother’s young children holding hands in the row in front of me.

During our first class together in prison, Emmanuel told us, “I am an addict. But I’m never coming back here.” Nearing the end of his prison sentence for a serious assault, he was smart and gregarious. He asked my fellow prosecutors hard questions, like how we could in good conscience do a job that required sending people like him to a place like where we sat, surrounded by cinderblock walls with a guard at the door.

At the concluding class ceremony, Emmanuel’s group presented their idea for change: legislation that would permit sentenced people to earn time off their sentences by taking college classes and engaging in other pro-social programming.

I met his sister and his mother that day, and we wept as Emmanuel read aloud a poem written for his mom that ended: “I love you until the day I take my last breath, always and forever.”

Like most of my incarcerated students, Emmanuel had a difficult reentry transition. He got a job delivering packages at Christmas, but it ended after the holiday rush. He was denied a job at JFK because he had a felony conviction.

He interviewed for a position seeking someone with direct experience in the system. It went to a candidate who had completed their college degree, while Emmanuel was still credits shy.

He finally found work a plumber, but was unable to secure housing because of his violent conviction. He reported regularly to parole and lived in a shelter as he rebuilt family relationships that years of addiction had strained. He met up with his loving mother and siblings three times a week to plan for the future.

His family doesn’t know precisely when his frustration turned to despair, and his despair turned to heroin. I do know, though, that the web of systems re-entering New Yorkers rely on failed Emmanuel as they fail countless others every day because they do not work together to effectively care for people.

What if Emmanuel hadn’t been afraid of being punished for turning back to drugs, the support mechanism he’d turned to his whole adult life? What if he reported to parole, or the shelter, or the police department that he was suffering?

What if, before he was released from prison, recognizing that Emmanuel’s brain had been rewired to hunger for drugs after so many years of use, prison doctors had prescribed him methadone or buprenorphine, medication that helps people successfully manage addiction?

What if the temporary housing he found in the shelter system had not been brimming with temptation? What if he had been educated about administering Narcan, the safe and legal overdose antidote?

Every year, more than 20,000 people come home from prison across New York State, the majority to New York City. The overdose rates for these New Yorkers are unconscionable. A new paper from the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution urges that district attorneys take these challenges into consideration when deciding whether and what crimes to charge.

In addition, we must not just understand but act on the knowledge that many of the behaviors we now criminalize are public health problems, and the agencies designed to serve the public should coordinate to treat them as such. Such change will require unprecedented collaboration between the many separate arms of law enforcement, public housing, and public health systems to name a few.

I see now that Emmanuel was right on both counts on that first day we met: He was suffering from addiction, and that he was never going back to prison.

Lang is the executive cirector of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Link to article: https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-how-to-make-sure-they-dont-go-back-20191027-jkrgorrcqraxfd4pdyhb7o5lvy-story.html