By Mary Alice Miller
One recent evening clergy, elected officials and concerned community activists flocked to Brownsville. Their mission: brainstorm ways to decrease gun violence and crime and heal the community. The event was hosted by the Jericho Task Force, the faith-based arm of the Center for NuLeadership. Rev. Dr. Divine Pryor, executive director of the Center for NuLeadership, announced the task force’s first initiative – a televisitation program to be located in community faith-based institutions where the families of those incarcerated can go to their church and visit their loved one via televisiting.
“We want to connect fathers with sons and mothers with daughters. We want to preserve families. And we understand the challenges that many people in the community have with maintaining frequent regular contact with their loved ones,” said Dr. Pryor. “The televisiting project is going to supplement face-to-face visits.”
Dr. Pryor knows the importance of inmate connection with family from personal experience. For the first 10 years of his incarceration, Dr. Pryor didn’t have visitation with anybody. He saw other inmates who were in the same situation.
Describing the impact of no visitation on an inmate’s development Dr. Pryor said, “It adds to the dehumanization. The isolation and separation impacts the person’s emotional and psychological state. It creates loneliness and despair. It makes that person’s experience in prison that much more difficult.” He added, “It erodes the connection between that person and their family and leads to family dysfunction and possibly breakup.”
Formerly incarcerated persons face a myriad of issues once they return to their communities.
According to Dr. Pryor, one of the biggest challenges is the restoration of citizenship rights. “Criminal convictions – felony convictions in particular – leads to the loss of citizenship rights. It’s called collateral consequences connected to convictions,” said Dr. Pryor. “In its practical application, the person loses their rights as a citizen.”
Dr. Pryor said voting rights are curtailed temporarily or permanently depending on parole status. But that’s not all. “You can’t serve on a jury. You can’t adopt a child. Any licenses that you had, you’ve lost those licenses,” he said.
The Center for NuLeadership has a contract with the NYS Department of Criminal Justice Services to assist persons applying for their Certificate of Good Conduct (CGC). What the CGC does is restore an individual’s ability to vote and removes barriers to licensing for persons with criminal convictions. NuLeadership is authorized to assist with applying for that certificate.
There are barriers to even obtaining a Certificate of Good Conduct. “An individual cannot apply for a CGC until 3 or 5 years removed from incarceration depending on the severity of their conviction. If it is an A or B felony, the person can’t apply for 5 years,” said Dr. Pryor. And during those 5 years any contact with law enforcement can have a negative impact on the possibility of getting the CGC.
Formerly incarcerated individuals also must produce 3 years of financial activity, including welfare, part-time or full-time jobs, or disability payments.
In addition, in order to get a CGC the individual must first have to have their “rap sheet” cleaned up. “We are authorized to do that as well. They come in and let us fingerprint them,” said Dr. Pryor. “When the prints come back we look to see if there are any outstanding warrants, any dispositions that have not been closed, and make sure there are no errors.”
There is a cost involved — $60 for the prints and 2-$3 per document that may need to be notarized. For a person on a fixed or low income, that presents a barrier. However, there are ways the Center for NuLeadership can get a waiver… for instance, if the person is on welfare.
No matter what the barrier is Dr. Pryor said the Center for NuLeadership, through years of research and advocacy, has discovered remedies.
“When we submit the application, there is a 98% chance the person will be awarded the certificate,” he said.
But there is a third obstacle: a major backlog in Albany on these certificates. “We have heard stories where the person waited 6 months, 8 months, a year, 18 months to actually get the certificate in their hand,” Dr. Pryor said.
Employment discrimination is another major challenge. “We have found that institutions of higher learning – SUNY, for example – are actually discriminating against people with criminal convictions. They are literally asking a person (students and prospective employees) to bring in their rap sheets, which is illegal.”
Dr. Pryor gave the common example of someone who is arrested and gets out two days later. If the judge dismisses the charges and they walk, when they report to their parole officer, the parole officer can, and many times does, arrest them and puts them back in prison. “It is a parole violation for you not to report within 24 hours any contact with law enforcement, even if it results in a dismissal. It is not a violation of parole to get arrested while on parole, it is a violation for you not to inform your parole officer within 24 hours that you got arrested,” Dr. Pryor said. “Folk don’t have any sensitivity to these issues.”
He added that “when elected officials get ready to deal with these issues they won’t come to the Center for NuLeadership. They go to the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.”
Dr. Pryor stressed that it is in the best interest of the public to ensure that every person that returns home from prison has access to stable housing, health care, employment and faith-based communities. “The more resources and services they have at their disposal, the less likely it is they will go back to prison and the more likely they will become contributing, law-abiding residents, making our communities safer places to live,” said Dr. Pryor. “Denying, restricting and putting limitations on individuals even after they have paid their debt in full creates an unsafe environment.”
The Center for NuLeadership is promoting a concept called Human Justice: Human Rights plus Human Development equals Human Justice. “We can’t get to justice if our starting point is criminal,” said Dr. Pryor. “Our starting point has to be human.”