Resource fair in Camden offered for those returning from incarceration

By Phaedra Trethan, August 5, 2019

CAMDEN — The question, says Gale Muhammad, is not what former inmates deserve or don't deserve upon their release from prison.

"They are coming back, good or bad," said the founder of Women Who Never Give Up, a Moorestown-based outreach.

"The question is, don't we want them to come back as better people? Let's make it good. Let's prepare them."

Helping people adjust to life after incarceration is the goal of a reentry resource fair Thursday in Camden sponsored by Camden County. The event, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Urban Banquet Hall, 1999 Federal St., will include the county Board of Social Services, Project HOPE, Camden County Mobile Health Van, Rutgers Behavioral Health, the Mental Health Association of South West NJ, Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, Camden County Library, Joseph's House and Volunteers of America.

"Time stops for those in prison," noted Dan Lombardo, CEO of VOA Delaware Valley. "Society and technology still move at their usual rapid pace, but for them, it's like, 'Beam me up, Scotty.'"

VOA operates three halfway houses in Camden, including Hope House, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary

Halfway houses provide a transitional place for prisoners whose terms are almost finished, Lombardo explained. Most will spend 8 to 9 months in the halfway house, during which VOA tries to connect them with jobs, requires them to build savings for rent, makes sure they're paying any restitution or fines that were part of their original sentences, and helping them reconnect with family.

"The toughest things offenders face coming back — besides the stigma of being incarcerated, the scarlet letter — are all the collateral sanctions applied on them during the 'get tough on crime' era," said Lombardo.

Those returning from prison often have trouble obtaining driver's licenses, getting access to personal documents like birth certificates and Social Security cards, and restoring their voting rights once they're eligible.

But it's more than just documentation, Lombardo said. 

"We can talk to them about bus routes to get to work or to visit family," he said. "We can help them build independence deliberately."

He believes it's a net benefit to society to make sure former prisoners are fully integrated back into communities, for both practical reasons — they won't commit more crimes, making it safer for everyone — and financial ones.

"It costs about $50,000 a year to incarcerate someone in New Jersey," he noted. "Why spend that all over again? Instead, invest to make sure they become a tax-paying citizen again. They will contribute to society that way; in prison, they are costing you money."

"If we do not prepare them (for life after incarceration), they will return to us," said Karen Taylor, warden of the Camden County Jail.

"If we want to reduce recidivism, it's incumbent on the correctional facility and the community as a whole to make sure they have the tools, the map and the guide to successfully reenter their communities."

Thursday's resource fair will offer a way for those who've recently been released to connect with a variety of service providers, from addiction treatment to documentation assistance, housing to mental health services and even jobs, as EMR will be on hand to meet with potential applicants for its Camden recycling facilities.

"You have people coming back every day," said Diamond Thomas, who runs WCMD Radio and works with formerly incarcerated people. 

Thomas, who's been open about his own time in prison on drug charges, recalled coming back to Camden but finding it hard to adjust. He went to Raleigh, North Carolina, and Baltimore, before returning to New Jersey, but still felt alienated.

"I had done my time, I paid my debt, but I still felt like I was being judged," he said. He and his friend Anthony Ways, whose 1989 murder conviction was overturned after a jailhouse confession and court testimony exonerated him, wanted to do more to help others coming back to Camden.

"The conversation is, how do we become better?" said Thomas. "How do we reach back? There's a lot of us making sure no one is left behind."

Antonne Henshaw, released in September after serving 30 years for murder, is a graduate student at Rutgers–Camden studying criminal justice, an education he began in prison.

He bristles at the term "reentry."

"We're not reentering anything," he said. "It's a new entry. There's nothing for us. Everything is totally new."

He's working with Muhammad and Ways to help others coming out of prison, and advocating for more resources, training and education for those still in prison so they're better prepared when they are released.

Taylor noted that the majority of prisoners who move through Camden County Jail are incarcerated for short periods of time, and few go on to state prison. Still, though, they have needs that must be addressed, including housing and, all too often, addiction treatment.

Camden County Jail has expanded its use of medication-assisted treatment, she noted, and as attitudes toward addiction have changed, so too have perceptions about incarceration, punishment, and rehabilitation.

"I think as philosophy and culture changes it’s less challenging (to help those returning from incarceration)," she said.

"Speaking to my colleagues, we know many people are going back to community, and they’re going right back so it’s necessary for the community embrace them. We’re seeing that in Camden County, where there is a tremendous change in narrative.

"It takes all of us, it’s not just a police or a jail or a prosecutor’s issue; it impacts everyone in the community. We’re seeing more people willing to have the conversation, more stakeholders, there’s a positive change in the paradigm to speak about what the challengers are and to assess what needs are for that population."

Henshaw recalled that Muhammad asked him while he was still in prison what she could do to help ensure he never returned. He turned the question both inward and out.

"For me, it's about producing people who can be an asset to the community," he said. "The people who once harmed it can help it heal."