The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York

 

March 18, 2011


Church reaches out to assist prison group

SUSAN POLOS PHOTO

Sister Elaine Roulet and Bailey Jackson. Mr. Jackson’s late wife, Thea, was a guiding force in college education and volunteer programs.

 
By R.J. MARX

Our Journey, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, and College Connection are just three of the many programs serving the needs of inmates — current and former — in the New York prison system. Funded by volunteers throughout the area and the state, the community outreach program of the First Presbyterian Church of Katonah hosted an event at the church featuring representatives of three programs providing outreach to men and women in prison.

The church, which originally got involved with the prison program through the inspiration of the late Thea Jackson, has long supported programs at the prison, beginning with the children’s visitation program.

“We’ve come to understand the value of this collaborative effort to effect the change, even at the level of the children,” said Jim Polos. “Certainly the only way that seems to work here is this spiritual transition and the support that is in place after people get out. The collaboration of groups that you see here are groups that we’ve supported over the years, groups that we’ve grown close to, even served on the board of. That’s why we’ve invited them here today. This is only three of many groups.”

Among the Sunday event in the Fellowship Room of the church were many local residents and volunteers, including Katonah’s Jim and Susan Polos; Bruce Elmegreen, one of the elders of the Church and Society committee; Katonah’s Katherine Vockins, the founder and director of Rehabilitation Through the Arts; and Katonah’s Gina Shea, representative of College Connection, a group providing higher education in the region’s prisons. Bedford Supervisor Lee Roberts and her husband, Ken, along with volunteers, served coffee and pastries to the audience.

Sister Elaine Roulet, the founder of Our Journey at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, presented her program’s spiritual outreach program, founded in 2005 and that now includes more than 100 formerly incarcerated women who help each other through re-entry struggles after being released from prison.

Moderated by Rehabilitation Through the Arts volunteer Pat Collins, the panel also included Our Journey’s former Bedford Hills inmate and social worker Kathy Boudin; Diane Ortiz of Our Journey and Exodus Transitional Group in Harlem; Geraldine Hardwick of Our Journey and Puppies Behind Bars; Iris Bowen of Our Journey; Michael Couxum, a former inmate and participant at RTA; and Sean Pica, of College Connections, and executive director of the educational group Hudson Link.

“Each one of these people could stand in front of you the entire time by themselves and tell you things that could touch your heart,” said Mr. Collins.

A volunteer for the arts program for 4 1/2 years at the Greenhaven Correctional Facility, Mr. Collins said “the deck is sometimes so extremely stacked against people — familial problems, drugs, gangs. To rise above that is very difficult.”

“Our Journey was a place where a woman could have some spiritual connection,” said Ms. Boudin. “I myself do not have a particularly religious or spiritual background, but working with Sister Elaine, I was able to determine my particular spirituality, which relates to nature more than some other form that other people might articulate.”

Our Journey is based at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. Sister Elaine said that support among inmates and former inmates after their release from prison is critical. “In New York, you’re spread from one borough to another, but now, every third Saturday of the month,” she said, “we come together and give each other the support we used to give each other on the inside. Having this Saturday to come together with people I’ve known inside — and haven’t known — it’s become kind of a foundation to build a new life outside.

“We have housing, we have people trying to get other people jobs,” Sister Elaine said. “But the only thing that was missing was the spiritual part. Every month we say, ‘It is not important how we go to God; it is important that we go to God.’ We say, ‘God knows God’s name.’”

Ms. Hardwick, a former Bedford Hills Correctional Facility inmate, is also a member of the Our Journey support group. She praised the program for the opportunity for discussion and counseling.

Iris Bowen, also a former inmate, received her bachelor’s degree following her release. Along with her work in Our Journey, she said she hopes to get a master’s degree and continue to serve the prison community as a mentor.

Former Sing Sing inmate Michael Couxum, currently a counselor in Mount Vernon with a college degree, said, “During my 17 years of incarceration, I was missing something — that spiritual part that was always inside of me.”

As a participant in Rehabilitation Through the Arts, he said, “I never thought I’d be part of a program where I’d see a bunch of grown men crying around me. We all shedding tears. We done killed people, we done robbed people, we all done some real serious crimes — but we all ended up crying because we just did a performance that was so great, it just made us cry because we just felt change in our lives. I believe in miracles, because one person started a program that’s in five different correctional facilities.”

Ms. Vockins described her own journey in forming the arts program, which has brought plays and musicals to prisons throughout the area. She began the program in 1996 at Sing Sing. “It was about everything the men knew most intimately: the hood, drugs, violence, AIDS, denial, but it was also about redemption and hope, responsibility and a chance to look at the future. That’s the foundation of RTA to where we are today.”

She said that there are 30 facilitators who go into the prisons, working 50 out of 52 weeks per year.

Ms. Vockins pointed to prison programs as one of the key reasons that New York’s recidivism rate, at 44 percent, is the lowest in the country.

Sean Pica described his own participation in the RTA program when he was incarcerated. “To see men I was in A block yard now singing and dancing, to sit here today and realize there are so many programs in our lives — when I go into Fishkill and Sing Sing, and Taconic, they need positive role models.”

Mr. Pica said he now coordinates more than 200 men and women taking college classes while in prison. Inspired by programs created at Bedford Hills, the program grew at Sing Sing with 16 men, of whom he was one.

The Taconic program, founded by Ms. Shea, said the work is a “partnership.” All of our work is so supportive of each other. Any program that helps expand the vision of inmates in prison — education, or theater, it doesn’t matter what it is — it gives them a sense of hope and connection with the outside world that is so important.”

According to Ms. Shea, College Connections has the highest percentage of students in any New York correctional facility. Credited classes offer general education courses from a consortium of three different participating institutions, Nyack, Mercy and Vassar colleges. They have recently partnered with Hudson Link in order to better facilitate expansion of more classes, instructors and students.

The event closed with financial gifts to each of the three groups from the church.


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