Alvin Valentine, an eloquent and boisterous man with dreadlocks cascading below his waist, had already demonstrated that he knew how to warm up an audience. He then proved that he knew how to focus their attention, by saying he had spent more than a third of his life in prison.
“I served eleven and a half years for armed robbery, burglary and assault,” he told the suddenly quiet room.
His audience was several dozen people crammed into a small hotel conference room at Diocesan Convention on Jan. 30. Valentine works at Exodus Transitional Community, a Harlem-based organization that helps formerly incarcerated people make the transition back into society.
Valentine was introduced by former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, who used a set of grim statistics to explain the need for such transitional services. “We’re in a crisis in America,” McGreevey said. “We have 5% of the world’s population; we have 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. There are more Americans incarcerated, as a percentage of population, than any other nation in the world. One out of every 99 Americans, according to the Pew Foundation, are now incarcerated.”
McGreevey is a member of the Newark Diocese’s Prison Ministry, and became involved with Exodus as part of his field education at General Theological Seminary, where he is seeking a Master of Divinity degree.
More statistics: 730,000 people walk out of prison every year. One third of them will be back in jail in a year; two-thirds of them will be back in three years. The prison system “engenders complete dependency as a means of satiating or controlling prisoners,” McGreevey said, and then spills them out into the job market with atrophied social skills and “the scarlet letter of a previous felony conviction.” The current re-entry program, “such as it is, is a complete and utter failure.”
The presence of McGreevey, who resigned as governor in 2004, may have helped draw many of the conventioneers into the room, but the meat of the presentation was served by the two ex-felons who accompanied him.
Valentine said he had studied masonry, welding and horticulture while he was in prison, but when he was released in 2005, he quickly found that those skills are useless to a man who can’t get a job. Finding employment was a condition of his parole, and he kept careful records of his job-hunting efforts. He said that in the three weeks after he emerged from jail with $40 and a Metrocard, he filled out 99 job applications. He got two phone calls, neither of which led anywhere.
After three weeks of freedom, Valentine was quickly falling into what Exodus calls “the pharaoh mentality,” evoking the Biblical story of wandering in the wilderness and coming to believe “it was better under the pharaoh – at least we ate every night.”
“What am I to do?” he asked. “Revert back to that which is familiar to me, that’s what. Revert to the pharaoh mentality. I’m not good at looking for a job, but I know cocaine. I know it real well – inside out. And I know that I can go and make a couple dollars way faster with cocaine than I can looking for a job.”
But before Valentine started down the path that would probably lead him back to the familiarity of prison, he connected with Exodus, which helped him find a job as a porter and personal trainer at a health club. His learning curve was steep after more than a decade behind bars – he had to learn basic social niceties like saying “good morning.” When his boss asked him to copy and fax some paperwork, “I go in the copy room, I might as well have been in a NASA rocket.”
After a year at the health club, he transitioned to a position as an outreach coordinator for Exodus itself, where most of the employees have been formerly incarcerated.
Exodus encourages released prisoners to work toward measurable, attainable goals in each of six interconnected areas of life: education, family/relationships, employment, spirituality, health/physical fitness, and community involvement. They list the steps necessary to complete each objective, and with the support of Exodus case managers, they agree to work on at least one action every day. As soon as a goal is met, a new goal is set.
The third speaker, Evan Misshula, came from a very different background – a mathematics degree from Yale, a “conventional middle class life” and a job in the investment business. After heavy losses in the dot-com bust, he tried to dig himself out of “a mess” – and eventually pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud in 2006.
He also worked at Exodus after his release in 2008, and used his business background to help convince potential employers to take a chance on an Exodus client. “Alvin, you could relate to the participants – I could relate to the people who were hiring the participants.”
“A job is your toe-hold in society … When Monday morning comes, you need to have to be somewhere to have a sense of dignity,” Misshula said After helping 53 formerly incarcerated people get a job, he left to become a doctoral student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he is doing quantitative research into rehabilitation programs that work.
The Rev. Pamela Bakal, Rector of Grace Church Nutley and President of the Newark Diocese Prison Ministry, closed the meeting by inviting the audience to get involved locally. The Prison Ministry’s activities include a Wednesday-night Bible study at Northern State Prison in Newark, and a cluster of programs aimed at supporting children whose parents are incarcerated, including mentoring and a summer camp. She can be reached at 973-235-1177.
Kirk Petersen is a member of St. George's, Maplewood.