Bronx Reentry: Life after prison, from the grassroots up

Each day, people like you have ideas about how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put them into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling social entrepreneurs tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.

The idea

Pamela Valera grew up in South Los Angeles, where she witnessed friends, family members, and neighbors face tremendous difficulties after they had served time in prison and attempted to reintegrate with their home communities.

Ramon Semorile grew up in the Bronx in the 1970s and knows firsthand the barriers returning citizens come up against when they leave incarceration and try to get back on their feet.

photo(1)

Long story, but Ramon and Pamela were cool enough to try on
some of our wigs when they visited the Idealist office.

The two met in New York a few years ago through professional connections and quickly learned they were both interested in tackling the same question: how can we help people who’ve been pummeled by the correctional system come back to society feeling hopeful and whole, especially when they come up against a slew of external hurdles as soon as they’re released?

“Returning from incarceration is a nationwide issue,” says Pamela, who is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University. “We currently have 700,000 people coming home annually nationwide. In the Bronx alone, thousands of people are coming home from jail and state prisons. The implications of reentry are many, and they impact everyone. If we don’t do something to make this scenario better now, future generations are going to pay for it.”

For the past three years, Ramon and Pamela—with many other colleagues and volunteers—have been growing the Bronx Reentry Working Group (BRWG), a grassroots coalition that helps returning citizens of the Bronx get social support, find jobs, stay out of jail, and work to overcome the societal stigmas associated with involvement in the criminal justice system.

“We help one person at a time,” says Ramon, who is now a Crew Supervisor at Bronx Community Solutions, an initiative of the Center for Court Innovation. “When you come home [from prison], you don’t feel secure; you’re afraid of going back. You don’t even want to cross the street, you don’t want to talk to anyone. The BRWG wants to give people confidence that they can make it. That if they commit themselves to change, they can hold their heads up. That it’s a long process, but it will happen.”

Obstacles

Though they describe their journey so far as mostly an “upward climb,” Pamela and Ramon have of course faced challenges.

Obstacle: Identity crisis

Since it’s founding, the coalition has won state funding for a Bronx County Reentry Task Force; hosted large community forums and support groups; and offered returning citizens services to help with basic needs, from education and employment to physical health, food, and housing. It all seems essential, but Ramon and Pamela wonder how they can better focus the BRWG.

  • Solution: Agree on what you can

“We’re all volunteers—none of us work full time on this—and it can be difficult to reach consensus on our direction,” Pamela says. “But we do know we want to work more with individuals—to help more people write their resumes, help them talk about their incarceration with those on the outside. We know we want more people who have benefited from our services to come back and help others. And we know we want to spread the word—to profile successful returning citizens in the media so others know it’s possible.”

Obstacle: Lack of funding

“We’re a grassroots community group, not a nonprofit,” Pamela explains. “We don’t get any financial support besides what we ourselves put in. So that limits us in a way—limits the speed at which we can work.”

  • Solution: There is an upside—focus on it

“Lots of wonderful projects have collapsed when their funding is depleted,” she says. “But we’re not tied to any external funding, so we’re not always stopping to look for more. Our people are doing this because they want to. We can’t move as fast as some other organizations, but we’re free to do what we want; we’re sustainable.”

Obstacle: Societal biases

“Not everyone who’s killed someone did it because they like to kill people,” says Ramon. “There are all kinds of circumstances. You never know what will happen. There are so many reasons and ways—truly, anybody can wind up in jail. But a lot of people who have no experience with incarceration think all ex-cons are bad. The biggest problem we face is the stigma.”

  • Solution: Education

“We have to educate people so they know that helping returning citizens helps everyone,” Ramon says. “People do want to change, they don’t want to go back to prison,” says Pamela. “But there are systems in place that tell them they’re still criminals. We have to change that so people are given a true chance to change. If you’re a ‘model inmate’ inside, you should be given a chance to become a ‘model citizen’ outside.”

Their best advice: stick with it

Despite the challenges of shifting focuses, money issues, and stigmas, Ramon and Pamela say they’re in it for the long haul.

“You don’t have to have a college degree to bring people together—you just have to have a passion for the work,” says Ramon. “You have to be committed for the long term. We’ve been able to really help some people. We know they’re not going back to prison. We know it. And that helps me sleep at night.”

If you’d like to volunteer with the Bronx Reentry Working Group, or have a question for Ramon and Pamela about their experience, get in touch with them through Idealist or email info@bronxreentry.org.

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Comments (3)


  1. Liz writes:
    October 18, 2013 at 11:51 am

    thank you Idealist for putting the spotlight on all things prison. And thank you Ramon and Pamela for the work you’re doing. As an appellate public defender, most of my clients are in prison, and I see how much they struggle to re-integrate into society. This work is so very important.

    “We must remember always that the doors of prisons swing both ways.” Mary Belle Harris (first female federal prison warden in the U.S.)


  2. Art Nicol writes:
    October 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    I believe that Prof. Pamela and Mr. Ramon are on the track of the most promising approach to helping men and women recover from being scapegoated by our society and incarcerated as a result of failing to compete successfully for the hero’s role as defined by the ego. Under the auspices of the ego, modern society has adopted survival of the fittest as it main theme and then complains when people object to being cast as unfit or losers in a winner-takes-all game. The folks we toss away early in life sometimes turn to crime (and/or drugs, alcohol or other mood-altering activities like professional sports, violent video games and other ways to participate in violence for the adrenalin rush and “proof” of power) because they refuse to accept being losers and strive to find some field of competence even with society’s foot on their neck. So, they do what they can to survive against the odds.

    We’re actually throwing some of our most valuable, creative thinkers and competent problem-solvers into prison and then refusing to welcome them back into society when they survive prison. Why do we do that? For the same reason we fail to value people in the first place. We lack wisdom and have succumbed to the pressures to conform to a mechanistic and materialistic society that dehumanizes us all. Ego is the ultimate dehumanization of the human race because it’s a false construct that imprisons our hearts, minds and souls.

    Prof. Pamela and Mr. Ramon are proposing that it takes a village’s emotionally nurturing respect, appreciation and aid to raise a man or woman up from prison just as it took a village’s emotionally draining disrespect, depreciation and repudiation to put him or her there in the first place. Few “winners” in the ego’s climb up the ladder of success want to be associated with “losers.” So early on we segregate ourselves by reason of supposed winner’s qualities and loser’s qualities. Yet the criteria are mostly shallow and based on success in the economy or other arena of competition. We don’t do what Martin Luther King Jr. said we must learn to do, namely judge ourselves and others by the content of our character. And we even go so far as to tear down children to the point of causing them to cease to believe in themselves and then fault them for their conclusions. What is the character of a nation does that to its children? For example, in teaching children to conform on standardized tests so that the teachers can be paid higher salaries and the “winners” among the children will be honored while those who don’t happen to learn by standardized methods “fail” is to sacrifice our children on the altar of our ignorance and our arrogant determination to remain ignorant.

    My hat’s off to Prof. Pamela and Mr. Ramon. We do need all of us to volunteer to stop beating each other down and start lifting each other up. If anyone is interested in reading more about my contribution to the pursuit of wisdom and understanding about wholeness, emotional and relational health and recovering from ego-imposed suffering, he or she is welcome to visit this page of my web site to read my Heartbook of Healing Wisdom: http://freedomwise.com/heartbook-of-healing-wisdom/.

    We all need to band together to heal our wounded hearts, stop living as if we are egos and instead rise up to be true to ourselves as mutually caring, nurturing and compassionate human beings. That’s what wholeness is as it is expressed in oneness or solidarity with our neighbors near and far. Ego is a false and fragmented construct of who we really are. We need to unmask the ego and start caring about what’s happening to all of us in this global village.

    If the village called the USA can master the art of recovering from the damaging effects of ego, we’ll lead the world out of bondage to violence and perpetuated suffering into a world shared among people of peace and goodwill from all corners of the globe. Which do we who have gathered on this continent from all corners of the globe throughout the history of humanity want to sustain? Violence or peace? We have the opportunity in our nation to cease to be the people who incarcerate our members most frequently and become the people who set our members free most generously.


  3. April Greene writes:
    October 22, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Hear, hear, Liz and Art! Thank you both for your words.


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