NEW YORK —The head of a prominent New York City nonprofit is guiding a team of the Big Apple’s most engaged community leaders to redo the way they prevent and address incarceration.
The group that includes faith leaders, criminal justice experts and academics asserts a connection between race, poverty and incarceration and says there is a direct line between being poor and going to prison. The group, called the Ending the Poverty to Prison Pipeline Task Force, has just released a report that advocates that city and nonprofit organizations work better together to make sure that people in New York’s poorest neighborhoods get what they need to avoid prison and live better lives.
Jennifer Jones Austin
“If we support them and do a better job of understanding higher rates and incidences, we can begin to cut this off at its root and not just wait until people are coming out of prison,” Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO and executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, told Diverse in a telephone interview.
The 47-page report, Ending the Poverty to Prison Pipeline, closely examines the intersection of race, poverty and prison “that nobody’s talking about,” said Jones Austin, also a member of New York City’s Board of Corrections.
“We’re bringing the three together and saying, ‘We see what’s going on here. Why not go into these communities and figure out how do we shore up the services to connect the dots?’” she said
The report notes, for instance, that poor neighborhoods are more heavily policed, impoverished people are more likely to be disconnected from family and justice system fees and fines have a greater impact on the poor, the study found.
The report also notes that incarceration rates are highest in neighborhoods with high unemployment, psychiatric hospitalizations and school absences.
The group wants to put reforms in place as stopgaps to these trends.
The group and report were the ideas of Jones Austin, who was appointed to the Board of Corrections coming from a background of municipal and nonprofit administration. As the former senior vice president of United Way NYC and cochair of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s transition team, she educated herself on corrections issues, saw a connection between race, poverty and prison and proposed a formal study.
The task force that put together the report over several months includes President Dale Irvin of New York Theological Seminary, Stanley Richards, executive director of The Fortune Society – a nonprofit that supports the formerly incarcerated — and Michael Lindsey, executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at the New York University Silver School of Social Work.
“It’s important to implement training and services throughout the city that address trauma that is experienced by people due to poverty or contact with the criminal justice system,” Lindsey told Diverse in an email. “This is crucial to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and justice-involvement that holds too many New Yorkers in its grip.
Lindsey added, “This can be done in partnership with community-based health and human service providers, community members, academic institutions such as our own (NYU), and managed care companies.”
The report advocates that the city, organizations and local leaders:
On the ground, the innovations would include taking a look at how New York City contracts with community organization and consider bringing in more people with criminal justice experience to help with changes, Jones Austin said.
Changes would also replicate something that New York’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, has been pushing and that is to recognize the strong impact that mental health has on people’s lives and boost services available for people coming out of prison and their families.
Having an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated parent is a struggle for children and “keeps them from engaging in work, in school,” Jones Austin said. “They experience social exclusion, they become distracted and disengaged. We believe that human service agencies can do more.”
Right now, children of incarcerated parents are offered two or three counseling sessions typically, although their experiences affect them for years, according to Jones Austin.
The next step for the task force would be to work with city leaders and community leaders to reengineer how reforms would look, Jones Austin said. Unlike what happens with other reports offered up into the public space, this one seems to already have buy in from local leaders.
“We are committed to working with the coalition and with providers to drive towards improvements that better coordinate our work, continue to strengthen health and mental health services, and strengthen educational opportunities in a manner that acknowledges the context of justice involvement and related trauma, and the reality of the shadows these challenges cast on our communities,” New York First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan said in a statement.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. said in a statement that he is “proud to support FPWA on this forward-thinking endeavor.”
One of the next steps for the group is to communicate with state-level leaders because the changes will involve legislation. Lindsey, an expert in mental health, said he is encouraged that the city is demonstrating the same support for mental health as demonstrated by McCray’s ThriveNYC mental health initiative.
“The report was created to galvanize action on a local level,” Lindsey said. “The city has already demonstrated a desire to strengthen mental health services for low-income and justice-involved individuals through Thrive NYC, among other programs. I hope for continued progress on this front, as well as in education, workforce development and efforts to destigmatize poverty.”
One change Jones Austin is advocating on the federal level that can affect inmates throughout the state is the reinstitution of Pell Grants for people behind bars. This would allow the incarcerated to take part in higher education classes from behind bars. The benefit was done away with in 1994.
When the task force began meeting, state entities asked Jones Austin why they weren’t part of the talks, she said. As a result, she will reach out to New York State Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Carl Heastie, both Democrats from the greater New York City area. This step makes sense, she said, because legislation would likely be part of the innovations going forward.
“We’re going in saying all parties need to come to the table,” Jones Austin said.