Program helps guide transition from jail to freedom

HUDSON–Individuals leaving incarceration can get guidance from ReEntry Columbia, a non-profit agency that helps them and their families navigate through the wide variety of resources available, identify the ones most suited to their individual needs, obtain services and pursue opportunities. The group’s brochure defines it as “providing support and services for anyone impacted by the criminal justice system in Columbia County.”

ReEntry collaborates with several other service organizations and offices. “We’re careful not to duplicate what others do,” said Executive Director Laurie Scott in an interview June 5. “We do referrals. We raise issues.”

Program Director Carolyn Polikarpus says the program wants the people it serves to feel like “productive, connected members of the community. We want them to find skills or return to skills,” said.

Ms. Polikarpus and Ms. Scott are ReEntry’s only two staff. Their office is in Hudson’s First Reformed Church building, 52 Green Street. The phone is 518 828-1604. They report to the county Department of Social Services and get funding from the County Board of Supervisors.

ReEntry has existed four years, with Ms. Polikarpus there from the start. Ms. Scott started last year. Ms. Polikarpus, a retired computer professional, participated in Alternatives to Violence for 21 years and ran prison workshops. Ms. Scott, retired from the Department of Corrections, is a mental health substance abuse counselor.

ReEntry’s outreach can begin a few months before an inmate’s release, when it gives inmates a packet it created with a checklist of things to consider when anticipating freedom. It provides pre-release planning for those who want it or whose families do. The program also runs workshops in the jail, not only on job skills, parenting and health, but also in “expressive arts.” In April it started a Janitorial Training Program—arranging for EA Morse & Co. to come to the jail and teach inmates how to use various cleaning materials. Those who complete the program get a certificate.

The most common problems faced by people transitioning from incarceration to freedom are housing, employment, transportation and attitude, said Ms. Scott. Government offices and various service organizations can help in many of these matters, but their application processes sometimes overwhelm potential beneficiaries. In addition, “some people fall through the cracks.” ReEntry expedites the applications and refers people to housing, education and jobs. Sometimes it gives clients a “hygiene bag” of soap, toiletries and maybe even shirts. “There’s a tremendous commitment in this county to a holistic—rather than a splintered—approach,” said Ms. Scott.

Many parolees see the world as an unkind and unfair place, said Ms. Polikarpus. “And so they’re pleasantly surprised when we help them with no strings attached,” said Ms. Scott.

Re Entry Columbia’s total clientele is “fluid,” said Ms. Scott. She estimated that the program sees about a third of its clients only once or twice and the rest five to ten times. “Long-term” clients number about 30.

In Columbia County about 300 people are presently on probation, either after a jail sentence or instead of one. If necessary, ReEntry continues to see some people even after their parole or probation officially ends. The program doesn’t have a way to track which of its clients remain law-abiding participating in ReEntry, Ms. Polikarpus said. “The point is to get them stable and not constantly coming in,” she said.

Most clients’ crimes involved property, drugs or both. Many have been incarcerated more than once.

Many people assume that formerly-incarcerated individuals relapse once they stop going to help sessions, but Ms. Scott said ReEntry finds that most formerly-incarcerated individuals “struggle mightily with being restructured, with being poor, with being sober. It’s surprising to someone new to this field how many factors work together in a downward spiral.”

Many people’s first task out of incarceration is to report to 10 North Russell Road in Albany for parole processing. Failure to do so within 24 hours of release is a violation of parole. But officials give new parolees neither the money nor the means to get to that address and back. Hitchhiking is also a violation of parole.

Many parolees are not welcome at–or forbidden to return to–their former homes. The homeless ones go to hotels paid for by the county.

Ms. Scott approaches the challenge of recidivism by trying to help former prisoners change internally and stop wanting to break the law. She calls it “desistance”: ending old habits and beliefs.

“One of the big things we encourage is avoiding negatives like drugs and the old neighborhood,” said Ms. Scott. And some people need to learn some basic skills like learning “to think about the consequences of their actions.”

She and Ms/ Polikarpus believe people can change but they know it is difficult.

“The hardest part of this job is to see people consistently making the same mistake,” said Ms. Scott. Major factors in favor of someone staying law-abiding include avoiding drugs and having a steady job.

ReEntry Columbia emerged from a conversation in August 2012 between Ms. Polikarpus and social worker Lynn Rothenberg about the need for its type of service. They approached county for funding and found Supervisor Bill Hughes (D-Hudson, 4th Ward) helpful in obtaining county support.”

Since the program began in 2013, Ms. Polikarpus perceives “more involvement of the community, stakeholders and service providers.”

Ms. Scott agreed, saying that now, “the county is more supportive of people who want help.”

There’s lots to be done. “Criminal justice has become the dumping grounds for mental illness,” she said. But she also sees a trend “to look at substance abuse as a medical issue rather than a criminal justice issue. Locking people up isn’t helping. Now with white kids using heroin, people are stopping to think of addicts as lowlifes, the scum of the earth.”

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