New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to give a temporary job to every inmate leaving city jails after serving a sentence of a year or less. It's his new "Jails to Jobs" initiative, and the plan is to have it in place by the end of the year.
The $10 million program is part of a broader effort to reduce recidivism and cut back on the inmate population, so the city can build smaller jails to replace its huge Rikers Island.
Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with one of the plan's supporters, Stanley Richards (@Stan_Fortune), executive vice president of The Fortune Society, and one of its critics, Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association.
On making a case for the program
Stanley Richards: "So, here's what we know, right? We spend $2.4 billion each year, New York City taxpayers, to create the machine called Rikers Island. What the mayor is proposing to do is to say, 'Wait a minute. Let's do smart investments. We know what doesn't work. We know mass incarceration doesn't work. We know isolation doesn't work. We know being punished, punishing people for their entire life doesn't work. Let's try investing in people.' And what we know at The Fortune Society is if you invest in people, people build back, they build into their communities, their communities are safer, and we know it works. So, the mayor's proposing a pretty bold plan that's consistent with the Lippman report that we came out with that says we need to close Rikers and reduce our footprint with regard to incarceration, and the Jails to Jobs program is one program that will do that."
On the counterargument that people should not be rewarded for going to jail
SR: "This isn't about rewarding people for being incarcerated. This is about being smart: building healthier and safer communities, investing in how people come home. If someone who is looking for a job, who doesn't have an employment, and needs employment, they can walk into any Workforce 1 Center right now in New York City and get access to jobs and don't deal with the barriers people with criminal records deal with."
"This isn't about rewarding people for being incarcerated. This is about being smart: building healthier and safer communities, investing in how people come home."Stanley Richards
On how a job helped Stanley Richards after his release from jail
SR: "I mean, I was cycling in and out of prison all my life. And I thought prison was the way my life was gonna be. It wasn't until my last incarceration that I went to school, I got my GED, I went to college, I graduated college and I started to begin to believe that my life could be different if I only believed in myself. And I started to believe in myself, and I came home and I applied for jobs and I was rejected. And I knew as long as I never gave up on myself, that things in my life could be different. And I was hired as a counselor at Fortune Society in 1991, and, today, I'm able to give back. I'm able to say to people, 'Incarceration doesn't have to be your life choice. You have other options. There are people out here who are willing to support you to help you build back your life."
On working with employers
SR: "Fortune Society runs a transitional work program. We have great results. And part of what we do is we say, 'Hey, put your stereotypes to the side and work with our people. Let them show you who they are in terms of how they show up.' And you get to see they're good employees, you will make the investment. And so what we've seen, and what this program will do is give an opportunity for employers — low risk to the employer because the only thing they're offering is an opportunity for them to work at their business. The financial piece of it will be paid for by the city. And what we hope and what we've seen at Fortune is that after the exposure, they end up hiring the individual."
On pushback against the program
Elias Husamudeen: "I mean anything that's going to improve the quality of life in New York City, I'm a fan of. The problem that I have is why is the mayor not proactive? The program they're discussing affects approximately about 1,300 inmates. And, these people, some of them are doing 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, and the problem is, why not offer them this job training program before they go to jail? Most of them are unemployed. They don't have any type of certificates or degrees or diplomas, and to me this is like saying, 'We know you're out there, and you may be trying to do the right thing, but we prefer that you get in trouble, that you get arrested and that you get sentenced before we offer you the type of assistance that we, as the mayor, should be offering you.
"There's no knock to The Fortune Society, they do a lot of work. But at the end of the day, I think they're being disingenuous, because there are a lot of inmates in our system who, before they got involved and got trapped in the system, were out there trying to get assisted. You think that someone who actually had this available to them is gonna say, 'You know what? I don't want that. Let me get locked up and then let me go and get what it was I was trying to get before I got locked up?' At the end of the day, if that was the case, we wouldn't have as many of these people."
"We have a mayor who's putting more emphasis on these types of programs than he is on keeping the jails themselves safe."Elias Husamudeen
On the plausibility of shutting down Rikers and other issues with the prison system in New York
EH: "There is a safety issue in the jail system. And the reality is, is that even with talking about shutting down Rikers and shutting down the jails, I have one jail on Rikers Island that sits on 40 acres of land and holds 3,300 inmates. You would have to open three separate, individual jails in the boroughs to cover that one jail on Rikers Island. So that dream and thing of closing and shutting down Rikers and keeping the inmate population down below 5,000 — I don't know. That's like some type of Jedi mind trick. I don't even know who came up with that. Let's just say allow the governor — the governor of New York is responsible for prisons. He's responsible for rehabilitation and offering programs and ensuring that these people, when they come back into the community, that they're better prepared than they were when they left."
"Listen, I live in New York, so it is within our interest to have these people, whether they're coming out of jails or whether they're coming out of prisons, to be a more productive citizen. So, that's not something that we're fighting. But we're saying that we have a mayor who's putting more emphasis on these types of programs than he is on keeping the jails themselves safe. Our question is: What are you doing to keep them safe? 'Cause they're not even going to be able to be involved in these programs because they're gonna end up in the hospital or they're gonna end up with scars across their faces and their heads and their arms because the jails are not safe. And that's our position."
This article was originally published on May 24, 2017.
This segment aired on May 24, 2017.