When Andre Morris was released from prison more than 20 years ago, he thought he had everything under control.
A substance abuser with a history of arrests, he had been in and out of jail multiple times. Changing his ways wasn’t something he’d actively considered.
“I was a legend in my own mind. I thought I had everything together, and I knew exactly what I was doing,” he recalled.
It wasn’t until he accepted help that he realized he was wrong.
“I had people looking at my background and assessing it and had me look at some things. That was really difficult for me,” he said.
But it helped. The guidance he received from mentors and therapists helped Morris to understand he was a citizen.
“The word ‘citizenship’ empowered me to do most of the things citizens do — go to school, get a job, maintain my presence in the home, become a father to my sons, become a positive role model, do some of my civic duty,” he explained.
Returning to society in a positive, productive way can be a tough hurdle for anyone recently released from prison, especially those locked up for long periods. Issues like those Morris faced are often compounded by the fact that the world changes considerably during the years someone spends behind bars.
The Schenectady County Re-entry Task Force was formed in 2009 to help ease the transition for recently released inmates at greatest risk for winding up back in prison. Funded by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, overseen by the state Office of Probation and Correctional Alternatives and run by The Center for Community Justice, the task force is one of 19 in the state.
“Our goal with every single individual is that there will be no new crime and that each individual that comes back into the county has the opportunity to become a contributing member of their community once again,” explained Connie Neal, co-chair of the task force.
Every year, on average, about 380 people return to Schenectady County from prison, Neal estimated. The task force is charged with guiding the transition of about 150 of them.
Wendy Brown, the task force’s re-entry coordinator, has helped many former prisoners address the challenges involved with returning to civilian life.
“They may not know that cellphones are the new craze or that everything is based on the Internet and computers in job applications, so there’s a big technology gap for many people,” she said. “Maybe family has kind of disappeared over the last 10 years while they were incarcerated, so they don’t have that social support when they come home, either.”
The first 90 days outside prison walls can be the most challenging, so that’s the time period during which the task force offers the majority of its assistance. Schenectady County residents are referred to the task force by the correctional facility they will be leaving, but participation is voluntary.
“We’re looking at people who are high-risk offenders, so people who may be more likely to recidivate — be more likely to go back to prison — given past history or past violations of parole, so we try to address any of their needs, whether it be with substance abuse, mental health, housing issues, and coordinate those planned services appointments before release so it makes that transition a little bit more smooth upon entering back into the community,” explained Brown.
The task force also helps former prisoners obtain identification, reinstate Social Security benefits, get involved in a GED program, if necessary, and look for a job.
The group works with more than 40 member agencies, including nonprofit groups, faith-based organizations, government agencies and a host of human service providers, which all serve as a county-wide safety net.
Morris is the president of Roots, an Albany-based mentoring organization. Roots provides group re-entry sessions for prisoners and those who have been recently released, and also offers youth programs to help keep kids out of the criminal justice system.
All of the group facilitators at Roots have been through incarceration, their jail stays ranging from a few months to 25 years.
“We understand the cognitive and the behavior component of these individuals coming out for re-entry,” Morris said.
Before a soon-to-be-released prisoner is referred to an agency like Roots, a case committee comprised of a mental health professional, a substance abuse expert, two individuals from the parole department and a domestic violence specialist meets to personalize a plan for the individual.
“We’re keeping in perspective that the people coming out may be offenders. They also may have victims or they may be victims themselves,” Brown noted.
Data on the Schenectady County Re-entry Task Force’s success rate has only been collected by the state since January, so there are no statistics available yet, but if the task force does prove successful, it could save taxpayers a lot of money.
It costs about $800 for an individual to partake in re-entry services, while to incarcerate a repeat offender for a year, the tab is around $70,000, Neal estimated.
When Morris left prison, there was no official task force to help. He said the new addition to the system is phenomenal.
“This is evolution happening, where you see local providers, where you see local government getting together and law enforcement getting together, saying, ‘We don’t want you to go back.’ That’s unheard of,” he said. “Re-entry is so important to have and to keep because it changes one’s perspective.
“When I see men coming in for the first time to these mentoring sessions and they keep coming back, it’s like, whoa, this is real. This is real stuff.”