KINGSTON >> Imagine returning to the streets of Kingston, Ellenville or maybe Saugerties after spending 10, 15, 20 or 25 years behind bars – and, upon your return, being expected to make it on $40 and the kindness of friends, family and strangers.
Even finding a job can be next to impossible, says Imogene Simmons-Kelly who has organized volunteers for a program she hopes will support former prisoners as they launch new lives. Simmons-Kelly, a graduate student, knows first-hand. She once served a stint in a Florida jail.
For ex-cons – some of whom prefer to be called “returning citizens” – the transition from prison to freedom can be difficult to navigate.
When Ulster County’s Volunteer Re-entry Coaching Program gets underway, Simmons-Kelly hopes it’ll make a tremendous difference in the lives of those returning citizens. The program is administered by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision “to address a wide range of issues pertaining to successful re-entry, including housing, employment, healthcare, education, behavior change and veteran’s services,” according to press release from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who introduced the Council on Community Re-Entry and Reintegration last July.
In June, 10 Ulster County volunteers completed a four-day, 16-hour training program and were awaiting final approval from the Department of Corrections.
Once the mentorship program is up and running, Ulster’s volunteers will be provided with the names of prisoners scheduled for release in 90 days. At that point, volunteers will be asked to contact their perspective mentees and begin working with them on a weekly basis until their release.
Simmons-Kelly and her son, Kortnee Simmons, both of Kingston, and volunteers Liz Jennings of Eddyville and Barbara Stemke of Kingston, gathered recently at the New Progressive Baptist Church on Hone Street in Kingston discuss what they learned in training and how they hope to implement their newfound knowledge. They were joined by Wayne Oates of Kingston, a former county jail inmate, who was invited by Simmons-Kelly because of his understanding of some of the needs of former prisoners, she said. Oates is a convicted felon who is currently on parole and said he is running an “unofficial recovery house” for former prisoners on Abeel Street in Kingston.
The meeting space is donated by the church as home base for training volunteers.
“One of the huge things for a person who’s been in 25 years is when you release them out the door they don’t even know where to begin, they don’t know what to do,” Simmons-Kelly said. “You’ve had somebody control your life for the last 25 years. … They have people to tell you when to brush your teeth. … These people are not going to have a clue. I’m not saying all of them, but for the most part, it’s scary because you have no structure (outside of prison).”
That’s where the mentors, or coaches, come in. “Hopefully, when they get out, their mentor is going to be right there with them,” she said.
“We can ask them how they’re structuring their day to see how, in reality, they are,” Stemke said.
Even before the inmates get out, mentors will establish a relationship with them. Mentors are required to visit with prisoners and initiate a relationship during their last 90 days behind bars.
After the inmates are released, mentors will be expected to spend 2 hours a week with themin “neutral” safe public places. Men will be paired with men and women with women. All parties – mentors and mentees – will have signed agreements to participate in the program.
People helping people
In the days, weeks and months following the prisoners’ release, their mentors will serve as resources helping their mentees find jobs.
“Employers don’t want to hire felons,” Simmons-Kelly said, “But with mentors in the mix, hopefully you’re going to establish the relationship and a mentor has some influence in some arena where she may be, or he may be, able to help them to get a job. … These people, if they (complete) a job application, they’re not going to get (the job). But if I build a relationship, they know me. I can say, I’m working with this mentee and I know him, give him a chance. … That’s really the goal of it, with the objective to reduce recidivism.”
And, Jennings said, depending on how long people were imprisoned, “there are things they don’t know how to do,” like using a cell phone or operating a computer.
In cases of that nature, Simmons said, mentors could help connect returning citizens with training resources in the community as well as thrift shops and other sources of affordable household goods and clothing.
Now, until the applications are reviewed and background checks are completed by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Ulster County’s 10 trained mentors must wait to begin their work. Eventually, mentees will be assigned to those mentors and the work will begin.
“When it does happen,” Simmons-Kelly said, “We want to have people trained and certified.”
She’s hoping to train more volunteers in the coming months.
To learn more about the program or to become a mentor, contact Simmons-Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.