Staffed mostly by ex-offenders, New York’s Fortune Society works to build a safety net for its clients, even before they’re released from jail or prison.
Nearly 700,000 men and women get out of prison every year. According to the National Institute of Justice, almost two-thirds of them are arrested again within three years; within five, more than three-quarters are rearrested. For former prisoners who lack education, employment skills, or housing, or have an addiction or mental health problem, the odds are stacked against them.
Since 1967, when it was founded by the activist and Broadway producer David Rothenberg, a nonprofit called the Fortune Society has worked to break the cycle of recidivism in New York City. (Rothenberg was inspired by research visits he made to Rikers Island, the city jail, when producing the play Fortune and Men’s Eyes.) The organization—which has two locations in Harlem and one in Long Island City—works to get the formerly incarcerated back on their feet through a range of services, including housing (emergency, semi-permanent, and permanent), counseling, a single-stop access to public benefits, education and training, and employment help.
Stanley Richards, the senior vice president of the 200-person organization, says that in 2016 alone, it helped 40 people get their GEDs, 465 get jobs, and more than 300 find stable housing. By its estimate, the work it does avoids 88,000 prison or jail days annually, saving the city and state of New York $8 million a year.
Because many of its clients were incarcerated on drug-related charges, the Fortune Society offers comprehensive substance abuse counseling with unlimited lifetime follow-up. The goal is to build a strong safety net, but it doesn’t always hold—at least not right way. Richards attributes this partly to clients’ circumstances (mental-health problems and a legacy of physical abuse are common, as well as substance problems), but also to the fact that some don’t come out prepared to deal with the painful issues that got them into the criminal justice system in the first place.
He knows the journey firsthand. Twenty-three years ago, Richards was one of the men that he and his colleagues now seek to help. Arrested for robbery, he was jailed at Rikers Island, then sentenced to a state prison. “Drugs, arrest, and prison is what I knew and all I thought I could be,” he says.
Determined to break his own cycle, he took classes to prepare for and pass the GED, and enrolled in college classes offered through the prison system. He eventually earned his degree in social work and took a job at the Fortune Society. Seventy percent of the nonprofit’s staff have been incarcerated at some point in time, and many have gone through the job training program and other services themselves.
The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the disproportionate numbers of Latino and black Americans in the criminal justice system has damaged communities of color in particular. “[L]ock them up policies have not worked,“ Richards says. “If you lock these folks up, the majority end up coming home [to their communities]. The fact that many have no job skills or a way to earn a living only adds to the devastation.”
The Fortune Society often starts its work with a client before he or she is released, right within the jail or prison, through its Individualized Corrections Achievement Network, or I-CAN. Department of Corrections staff initially identify inmates for the program, Richards says. “We have staff assigned to work on Rikers Island, where we facilitate groups, conduct individual counseling sessions, and work with inmates interested in Fortune services.”
The program works with both detainees and inmates who have been sentenced. “The need is much greater than our capacity or that of the program model,” Richards adds. The Department of Corrections has over 9,500 inmates on Rikers at any time, the majority of them detainees.
After clients are released, staff members place them in a two-week job readiness workshop that trains them on how to perform in job interviews, including answering difficult questions about their conviction. Once they successfully complete the workshop, they are eligible for career counseling.
Damon Rodriguez needed a second chance when he was released from prison in 2013 and came to the Fortune Society 11 days later. “I didn’t want to ever go back [to prison],” he says. After going through the core job readiness programs, Rodriguez completed skills training and certification to work in green construction. His resolve paid off: He’s now a supervisor at a green construction company making $52 an hour.
Alisa Morrison sees new possibilities for her life thanks to the Fortune Society’s culinary training program. She went through it to pass the food handler license exam, and also got the national ServSafe certification.
“I feel like I belong now,” says Morrison, who says she’s “working on a plan to have my own catering business in the next five years.”
The nonprofit connects graduates of the skills trainings to paid transitional work, earning $9 an hour working part-time for 11 weeks while networking and marketing their skills to employers. More than 75 percent of transitional work graduates have gone on to gain full-time employment, Richards says. (Morrison’s transitional job ended in December, and Fortune Society staff members are still helping her find a permanent position.)
“Education and job training should not be looked at as hand-outs, but instead viewed as investments,” says Richards. For people who have often had little personal or financial stability in their lives, that investment can bring huge dividends.