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A Fresh Start For Men Serving Time On Rikers Island

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Rikers Island, Bronx

Nationwide, the unemployment rate for all formerly incarcerated individuals is an astonishing 66 percent. In one program operated out of Rikers Island, however, the unemployment rate for its graduates at one year after their release is more than cut in half—to 29 percent.

Cited as a model re-entry program by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Osborne Association’s Fresh Start program provides men incarcerated on Rikers Island with 10 weeks of training in culinary arts, computer literacy, and parenting/life skills. This training, along with the support they receive in creating and following their plan for release for a full year, helps the men stay clean, hold down jobs, and deepen connections to their families.

“The men in the program are highly motivated to get their lives on the right track,” said Eric Waters, Director of Osborne’s Jail-Based Services, which include Fresh Start. “They want to succeed and not return to jail—for themselves, but most importantly, for their families and their children.”

Fresh Start helps break the cycle of incarceration by working with small groups of individuals (generally 22-24 men) over a sustained period of time and engaging them on several levels simultaneously: self-examination, relationship building, vocational training, and life skills. They all receive the highly-valued Food Handler’s Certificate upon completion of the program. The program also boasts a high retention rate: 94 percent of participants graduated in 2008-2009.

Fresh Start participants leverage their new skill set and personal growth to become prep cooks, catering assistants, and counselors at substance abuse programs. These opportunities lessen the feelings of hopelessness that can drive individuals back to criminality upon their release.

As one soon-to-be graduate, Felix Rivera, put it, “Osborne gave me and other participants the opportunity to gain a new future. Therefore, when we get outside we will become better, stronger, and more successful human beings and accomplish this new meaning in our lives.”

Fresh Start is the longest continually operating jail reentry program on Rikers Island. From its origins focusing on culinary arts, it has adopted a holistic approach that focuses on the family as a key ingredient of long-term success.

The program is run by the Osborne Association, a non-profit founded in 1933 that extends a continuum of services to over 6,000 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals and their families each year. Services include substance abuse treatment, parenting workshops and job training, among many others. The Osborne Association operates programs both inside and outside 12 New York state prisons and Rikers Island. These programs benefit New York City and communities all over the state by helping individuals transcend the cycle of incarceration and live stable, happy lives – thereby reducing the pain and economic costs that crime incurs.

The upcoming graduation on March 29 will feature a keynote address from Alan S. Farrell, New York City Fatherhood Services Coordinator. Mr. Farrell believes Fresh Start enables fathers to play a crucial role in their children’s lives, and is concerned that one-third of the city’s children are growing up without a father. Fresh Start, on the other hand, helps reverse this trend by inspiring incarcerated men to reconnect and deepen connections to their children who anxiously await their return.

“The men who complete the program are gaining the skills and discipline needed to successfully return to their homes and communities,” said Mr. Farrell.  “I want to congratulate all of the graduates as they embark on this new journey. I am confident they will continue to grow in their relationships with their communities, families and themselves.”

The invocation will be offered by Rabbi Andy Bachman, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Volunteers from Congregation Beth Elohim, inspired by the transformational nature of Osborne’s programs and the people they serve, recently visited Rikers Island to assist in the establishment of children’s centers in visiting rooms at two Rikers Island jail facilities.

 

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Edith Lynn Hornik-Beer

has written for the major magazines and newspapers both here and abroad. Included are The New York Times, The Denver Post, Elle Magazine, Neue Zuercher Zeitung (Switzerland) and Berlin Tagesblatt (Germany). She is also the author of five books.