Raising Voices After Prison

Some individuals who have been released from jail or prison recently are identified only by their first names in order to honor the safe sharing environment that Circles of Support offers participants.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

NEW YORK – When Eddie sums up his personal history, he confronts disturbing truths from his hard-knock boyhood before incarceration at Rikers Island, New York’s notorious jail complex. By age 14, he was already a drug addict, alcoholic and seventh-grade dropout careening toward a life of crime, stints behind bars and shame.

“I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to tell my story or not,” Eddie said one recent November night at Church of the Heavenly Rest on New York’s Upper East Side. “But people here have confidence in me… and in me telling my story.”

And tell it he did. A thin-framed, middle-aged man with dark-rimmed glasses, Eddie stood before a confidence-building crowd of about 30, all seated at round tables in the undercroft. Half were people like himself: men and women who’d done time and were now mustering courage to say aloud what they might share one day with a target audience, such as runaways or youth in detention. The rest were volunteer storyteller coaches from the 1,000-member congregation, which caps the number of weeks anyone can volunteer in this program because so many are lined up for the opportunity.

In his vulnerable narrative, Eddie nudged listeners to stop feeling worthless and recognize their true value. After his talk, he said communicating biographically is already helping him be effective in his job as a peer navigator. Being forthright and specific helps him build trust among clients who need help with various problems from substance abuse to mental health crises.

“I tell them a little bit about myself, and I can relate to most of the people I talk to,” Eddie said. “I find it absolutely necessary to let them know: I’m with you. I’m with you. Whatever you want to do, I’m with you. Let’s get it done.”

Eddie spoke in the context of Raising My Voice, a five-year-old program that helps the formerly incarcerated make sense of their pasts and articulate anew who they have become. It’s run by Circles of Support, a nonprofit that serves formerly incarcerated persons re-entering society and their loved ones. Funding comes from the J.C. Flowers Foundation, where private equity investor and Episcopalian James Christopher Flowers serves as benefactor and CEO.

The 10-week, Raising My Voice training program has been offered nine times. A similar RVM Kin program for family members of the formerly incarcerated has met over five weeks at Church of the Epiphany on East 72nd Street to St. Paul’s Church in the Village of Flatbush in Brooklyn. RMV continues to expand: Trinity Wall Street has done it, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine will launch its first session in January. Where it’s been offered, laypeople have reportedly relished the experience.

“We’ve had to kind of negotiate pastoral issues with people who are disappointed that they couldn’t volunteer more,” said the Rev. Anne Marie Witchger, assistant rector at Church of the Heavenly Rest.

The program is gaining traction as New York carries out a giant systemic shift to end mass incarceration. The New York City Council voted in October to shutter the complex of 11 corrections facilities on Rikers Island by 2026. That move will further shrink the metropolitan area’s average daily inmate population from 8,300 in 2018 to a projected 3,300 by 2026. That’s down from about 22,000 in the mid-1990s.

Change on this scale is requiring neighborhoods to reintegrate the formerly incarcerated and help them become productive, crime-free citizens. Some 75,000 men and women return to New York streets each year after serving time in jail or prison, according to a March 2019 report from the Manhattan District Attorney, citing data from the New York City Department of Corrections. That means plenty of work for faith-based organizations who can help not only with meeting basic survival needs but also rebuilding broken souls.

Challenges of re-entry are myriad, in part because those leaving prison often lack essential life skills. Circles of Support Program Manager and RMV founder Linda Steele gives the example of a 22-year-old man who wasn’t showing up for his parole-mandated drug treatment.

“He said, ‘I get confused. This is so confusing’,” Steele said. “We came to find out: he didn’t know how to set up a calendar and didn’t know how to work it… The judge came off the bench, sat and showed him on his phone. The kid never had a problem after that.”

Prison and re-entry ministries have become staples of mission for more than three dozen Episcopal congregations in the New York area. From writing letters to prisoners to offering cooking lessons for the newly released, the mission-minded are finding ways to take part.

Circles of Support facilitates some of this work. For example, the group arranges casual events where the formerly incarcerated can reconnect with loved ones in a welcoming, low-key environment. It also convenes Talk 2 Me, a support group for women with a loved one who is or once was incarcerated. Talk 2 Me met this fall at All Souls Church in Harlem.

Such multipronged efforts are bridging worlds that tend to be far apart. Volunteers and the formerly incarcerated are leaving their respective zip codes and comfort zones with help from Episcopal networks that link uptown Manhattan’s poorest and richest neighborhoods.

Broad desire for criminal justice reform is helping smooth the way. It’s become a rare issue to enjoy bipartisan support in these politically polarized times, observed the Rev. Chloe Breyer, an associate priest at St. Philip’s Church in Harlem and executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York. She noted how church-based advocates have been part of recent major successes in the New York Legislature, including bail reform and “Raise the Age,” which removes 16- and 17-year-olds from New York’s adult criminal justice system.

“It really feels like this has been a moment in time in which the connection between lives and how people are affected and the ability to change policy has been somewhat amazing,” Breyer said at a November gathering at St. Philip’s, where about 20 Episcopal re-entry ministers from across the city and beyond discussed their work.

In this transformative period, ministry narratives are also being remade. Those returning from incarceration don’t just hear the Good News preached to them; they’re recognized as embodying it in their personal experiences and stories. And they don’t just need forgiveness either.

“It’s about: how do you welcome people back so that they can contribute,” Breyer said. “It’s not just so that they can be accepted. It’s about what do people have to give to a community that desperately needs them.”

RMV has gained particular traction by striking a chord both among those re-entering society and among parishioners keen to assist. Coming forward are people like Richard Buonomo, a wholesale gem dealer who co-chairs the prison and re-entry ministry at Church of the Heavenly Rest.

He explained how RMV coaches are trained to provide meaningful input in a supportive manner. They begin with nothing but affirmation for stories told by those returning home from prison; every story is met with “wow!” or “good!” After one or two sessions, they begin suggesting ways to make it “even stronger” by, say, rearranging the presentation order for greater impact.

For Buonomo, the ministry provides a chance to help men and women turn disordered thoughts into an orderly presentation, which he regards as transferable training for how they’ll need to manage their lives going forward.

“In prison, you behave because of severe punishment,” Buonomo said. “In prison, lunch is over when a big buzzer screams. You get out of bed because the lights are flashed on. So, for a lot of the men and women re-entering society, life feels like chaos because they’re supposed to get places on time on their own.”

Those who receive RMV training have incentives to show up. They get $30 per session, payable after they’ve attended five weeks in a row. They also receive a hot meal and a Metro card so that transportation to the training is free for them.

In the sessions, they get a chance to be heard, sometimes for the first time. Darrell told how he’d been raped as a child by his brother. Involvement with guns and drugs eventually landed him behind bars. At Rikers, he said, he was part of a group that was forced to watch a guard sexually exploit a young inmate, who promptly returned to his cell and slit his wrists in an act of suicide. Darrell had kept all his trauma hidden for years, afraid he’d be labeled or targeted if anyone ever found out.

“I never knew who to tell or how to tell what happened to me,” he said at the podium. Afterwards, he said RMV allowed him to speak for once “without being judged.”

Some have learned to positively frame what they now have to offer, including what they learned from crime. For instance, when 60-year-old Thomas Edwards drives around East Harlem in an Uber van, he chuckles about how he used to show his dislike for drug dealers across this section of Harlem: he robbed them. He didn’t care much for banks either.

“I could walk down 2nd and 3rd Avenues sometime and I would actually pass banks that I actually robbed,” Edwards said. “Some of them are no longer in business. A friend of mine says I put one of them out of business because I robbed the bank twice.”

But Edwards hasn’t let his past diminish his prospects. What changed his outlook and way of life, he said, was hearing stories – particularly those of his victims, who told in court how his actions took a personal toll on them.

“I was robbing banks, and I never thought I was hurting people until I went on trial for it,” Edwards said. “Some of the people were so traumatized by the robbery that it really blew my mind. I had never heard that.”

Now he works as Special Project Manager for Circles of Support. His job puts him in position to help others like himself reinterpret who they are, what they’ve done and what they have to offer upon re-entering mainstream society. Raising My Voice helped him learn how to put it all together for an audience.

“I don’t think I changed a lot,” Edwards said. “I changed the way I did things. No longer would I do crime.” He used to manage complex criminal projects, he said. Now he manages legal ones that can make a positive difference in the world.

Edwards’ work also lets him see how others who’ve been incarcerated are rebuilding their lives, too, with a new storyline. He finds them on 3rd Avenue at East 124th Street in East Harlem. It’s the faith-based nonprofit Exodus Transitional Community, where two floors buzz with activity on a weekday afternoon as staffers help clients build resumes, get job training, apply for work and sign up for Medicaid.

Inside Edwards greets his friend Eddie Cuadrado, who works with adolescents and young adults. They find plenty of hope in Cuadrado’s story. He earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree while serving a 23-year sentence for homicide in a robbery that went wrong one day when he was a young man.

Soon after his release six years ago, RMV taught Cuadrado how to speak publicly, which he’s done several times in local churches. RMV in effect gave him a platform for a ministry of encouraging congregations to reach out to the incarcerated.

“In order to live a better life, one needs to follow certain precepts and have something to look forward to,” Cuadrado said. “Whether it’s to follow the Ten Commandments or adhere to Buddhist teachings, people need spirituality in the sense that there is something more… Then, more than anything else, come home and serve others.”

Back at Church of the Heavenly Rest, Raising My Voice wrapped up its last session before the fall graduation ceremony. The group elected Eddie as speaker at the following week’s graduation, where family and friends would be on hand to show support. Before adjourning, participants were asked what they’d gained from the experience. More confidence, acceptance and hope were among the takeaways they identified. And they weren’t the only ones who felt they’d had a brush with grace.

“After six cycles of Raising My Voice here at the church, somehow the almost sacred power of storytelling finally crystallized for me,” Buonomo told the RMV participants. “Maybe because we struggled a bit to get from lecturing, listing things and instructing to telling a tale that leads the listener to their own conclusions. I just have new respect for the power of story. And if you can do that for me, you can do that for audiences for the rest of your careers.”


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