My Churchill Fellowship Trip Week 7: USA New York City

The final week of my Churchill Fellowship trip in the United States of America, in New York City was the perfect end to an incredibly inspiring fact finding journey. Criminal Justice reform is well underway across the country and I was extremely privileged to visit and meet with many agencies at the forefront of this vital change. My week took me across New York City, from Midtown to Downtown, from Harlem to the Bronx and over to Brooklyn. Travelling to the US and New York City was also a special time for me personally as I had been there 30 years before and still have my photo of the Twin Towers taken from the Empire State Building. This was also then a time for me to relive memories, explore what I had not seen and pay my deepest respects at Ground Zero.

Central Park

Central Park

My first day involved speaking on the phone with Nicole Jarrett, from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization that serves policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels from all branches of government. It was wonderful to speak with Nicole on a warm sunny Autumn day while sitting in Central Park amongst bright autumn leaves. Nicole provided me with a wealth of information about the federally funded Mentoring Programs under the Second Chance Act.

The Fortune Society 140th Street NYC

The Fortune Society 140th Street NYC

I then walked the length of Central Park towards 140th Street to meet with the Fortune Society. The Fortune Society’s mission is to support successful reentry from prison and promote alternatives to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric of local communities. I met with Max Lindeman, Senior Director of Housing, at the Academy, the Fortune Society location in 140th Street, who provided me with the history of the Society, the formation of all the services and their future plans. We had a great discussion about prison reform. Max, a former prisoner has a master’s degree in social work and is working toward a Ph.D.

Columbia Law School NYC

Columbia Law School NYC

Later that Friday afternoon I had a very exciting meeting with Professor Susan Sturm, George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility and the founding director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School. I encourage you to read about her work and focus. In relation to my project, Susan discussed the importance on making education central for communities affected by the justice system. Education helps people move forward to something rather than just stopping doing something. Education helps shift the identity of a person as a prisoner or person with convictions to a person as a student.  Susan collaborates with a wide variety of higher education and community based organizations and networks involved in initiatives aimed at increasing full participation, including JustLeadershipUSA and the New York Reentry Education Network.

My last few days before flying home were wonderful and so inspiring. Early Monday morning I headed back to Harlem and to the Bronx this time by the Subway. First up I had a great morning with Lynnae Brown, Director with Howie the Harp Advocacy Center, learning all about the history of the service and the well established peer mentoring education programs. Howie the Harp Advocacy Center (HTH), is a peer-run program, that prepares people in mental health recovery to work as Peer Providers in Human Services. Participants have a mental health diagnosis and many have diverse experiences and co-experiences such as a history of incarceration and/or homelessness.

Howie The Harp Advocacy Center, Harlem

Howie The Harp Advocacy Center, Harlem

Exodus Transitional Community Inc. Harlem

Exodus Transitional Community Inc. Harlem

I then walked to East Harlem to meet with Exodus Transitional Community Inc. The Welcome Home sign above the stairway entrance said it all. Exodus is about ‘Changing Lives and Restoring Hope’ to formerly incarcerated men and women in order to help them successfully and meaningfully reintegrate into their communities.

Exodus Transitional Community Inc.

Exodus Transitional Community Inc.

It was an honour and privilege to meet Julio Medina, a former prisoner, who founded the organisation in 1999. Ramon Caba, also former prisoner, now Program Manager with Exodus provided me with a wealth of information on the broad range of services, including ARCHES, a Transformative Mentoring program for 16 to 24-year-olds on probation. We had a great discussion on Exodus’ policy advocacy work and prison reform. Then after a delicious turkey sandwich made for me at the center I headed back to the Subway to catch the train to the Bronx.

Exodus Transitional Community Inc.

Exodus Transitional Community Inc.

A short walk along Westchester Avenue, I found the Osborne Association and noticed it was surrounded by people queuing from one length to the other. I learned inside they were queuing for food assistance being provided by local sports identities. I had a wonderful meeting with Andre Ward, Director of Workplace Development who oversees the ARCHES and NextSTEPS mentoring programs; Siddiq Najee, Program Coordinator and Mia Legaspi-Cavin, Mentoring Program Manager. The range of services established within and delivered by the Osborne Association are incredible and again testimony that our way forward in Australian rehabilitation and reintegration programs is to acknowledge and embrace the expertise of former prisoners in the establishment, management and delivery of these programs. Both Andre and Siddiq have histories of lengthy periods of incarceration and it was a privilege to have such an in-depth, inspiring and informative discussion with them. I encourage you to look at their website.

Osborne Association

My amazing Monday in New York City was not over. I was thrilled to have made contact while on my trip with Professor Shadd Maruna, is Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University Newark. I was overjoyed that while Shadd had been out of the country he was able to meet with me on the day of his return. We had a wonderful discussion over dinner and drinks at Stout NYC on West 33rd Street, located in the heart of midtown Manhattan. Shadd Maruna and Fergus McNeill have spent the better part of their careers asking questions about “desistance”, why and how people transition out of crime. Fergus McNeill is the professor of criminology and social work at the University of Glasgow. In their latest project, along with Steve Farrall (at the University of Sheffield) and Claire Lightowler (of the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services) they collaborated with former prisoners to tell the story of desistance with those who are actively engaging in the process. Their documentary film,’The Road from Crime’, is a “co-production” with Allan Weaver, a Scottish “ex-offender” turned probation officer (and author of the book So You Think You Know Me?) documenting his journey to understand his own process of desistance and those of others like him. I was so thrilled to have met Shadd and have a kindred spirit discussion on social justice, prison reform and recognising the value of ex-offenders expertise in policy reform.

Red Hook Community Justice Center

Red Hook Community Justice Center

Tuesday then took me to Brooklyn. Subway train and short walk to the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a multi-jurisdictional community court, located in the heart of a geographically and socially isolated neighbourhood in southwest Brooklyn. I met with Viviana Gordon, Deputy Director, Red Hook Community Justice Center who provided me with an overview of the Center for Court Innovation and the Red Hook Community Justice Center Model; including community engagement and alternatives to incarceration; a tour of the facility and the unique opportunity to sit in the courtroom, next to Judge Alex Calabrese. Judge Alex Calabrese, the presiding judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center discussed with me the nature of the cases in front of him, the reasons for his decisions and the role of court based social workers. I saw first-hand the positive difference the egalitarian person centred approach can make for those involved in the court proceedings, through the simple gesture of defendants offered options for suitable court return dates and Judge Calabrese sitting at eye level in the courtroom and shaking the hand of many defendants. It was interesting to observe the trend of countless case dismissals for fines issued to people overstaying in the local park after closure and Judge Calabrese advising me that he regularly meets stakeholders to address policy and system issues. I also had the opportunity to learn about Red Hook’s Youth Court that involves the use of peers and observe the Peacemaker Program in court presenting a positive outcome to Judge Calabrese on an assault case before him.

SOS (Save Our Streets) Brooklyn

SOS (Save Our Streets) Brooklyn

It was then a mad dash to the bus, many thanks to Viviana for flagging it to wait for me so I could make my way from Red Hook to the Crown Height Mediation Center in Brooklyn. It was a bus and subway train to Kingston Avenue Brooklyn and when I walked up from the subway onto Eastern Parkway, I noticed the visible Jewish culture through the traditional dress. Down a couple of blocks I found the Crown Height Mediation Center, SOS Save Our Streets Program, and had another most amazing meetings of my trip. It was an honour and a lifetime experience to meet with Craig, Rudy, and other members of the team. I learnt how the Center began in response to the 1991 Brooklyn Riots. S.O.S. Crown Heights works closely with local organizations, neighbourhood churches and pastors, community residents and the individuals most likely to commit a shooting. I heard about how the staff of S.O.S. Crown Heights prevent gun violence from occurring in the S.O.S. catchment area in Crown Heights by mediating conflicts that may end in gun violence and acting as peer counsellors to men and women who are at risk of perpetrating or being victimized by violence. The “Credible Messengers” they are says it all. These amazing insightful people have many years’ crime and prison experience behind them and have the credibility within the community and with the youth at risk to make the difference, to provide the powerful visible and public message against gun violence, articulating that shooting is an unacceptable behaviour and leads to a tragic journey for all.

New York City Probation

New York City Probation

My final day, in fact my final morning in New York City, in the US and of my whole trip before the 21-hour flight home to Melbourne was heading down to Beaver Street, near Wall Street to meet Assistant Commissioner Lisa Frost with the New York City Department of Probation. It was the perfect meeting to end my trip and music to my ears to hear all that Lisa was about to tell me. Vital criminal justice reform is underway across the US and in particular New York City. There is unprecedented widespread collaboration with the community and a range of innovative funded programs; including AIM (Advocate Intervene Mentor) and ARCHES a transformative mentoring program, both having mentors who are people with former convictions. The NYC Department of Probation works closely with programs such as SOS Save Our Streets, highly valuing the role and work of the ‘credible messengers’. The department is collaborating with many ‘people who have been in the trenches’ and is seeing the benefits ex-offenders, through the inspiring change in them being passed onto others. Feeling so happy to have had such a wonderful final meeting and with a US government department, my trip to JFK International Airport and the flight home to my beautiful daughter Annie Irving waiting to meet me at Melbourne Airport, all went so smoothly – like magic.

I have learnt so much across all the countries and cities I have visited in the last seven weeks. By recognising the value that people with lived prison experience can bring to policies and services, and to their own profession, agencies in all the countries I visited have been able to bring positive reform to their criminal justice systems. By following their example, we can do this in Australia. The rate of recidivism in Australia is causing an ongoing and ever increasing burden on the taxpayer, risk to the community and disengagement of people from society. We now have the opportunity to reduce it. By believing in rehabilitation, restoration, reformation, desistance and recovery, we have the opportunity to improve the lives of many people, their families and community. Moreover and more significantly, to demonstrate that our prison system believes in the outcomes it is funded to achieve. It is time Australia. To recognise and celebrate the success stories and embrace the value of the expertise and commitment of those who have succeeded in desisting and recovering to help others find their personal success and help inform policy that will make a difference – a real personal and community difference.

My deepest heartfelt thanks to everyone who has helped me achieve this Churchill Fellowship honour, undertake this amazing life changing travel and project experience. I have felt inspired and honoured every step of the way and feel eternally grateful to everyone who met with me, gave me so much of their time and shared their expertise. In addition, thank you to those supporting me and the project into the future to help realise the reform we need in Australia. Exciting times ahead indeed! Stay tuned for my Churchill Fellowship Project Report that will be published on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust website in the new year. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me for any further information.

To see more photos from my time in New York City, feel free to visit here: https://onedrive.live.com/?v=photos&id=6DA3E54D5BEDF625%217951&cid=6DA3E54D5BEDF625&group=0

About Claire Seppings

Churchill Fellow 2015 Bachelor of Social Work (Monash University, 1984) Victorian Custody Reference Group ‘Dennis Mc Millin Access to Justice Award’ (2012) Minister for Human Services Award for Exemplary Service to Customers and Stakeholders (2008)
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2 Responses to My Churchill Fellowship Trip Week 7: USA New York City

  1. Tim Gattuso says:

    Another fantastic report Claire. It sounds like an amazing trip. Let’s hope we have some success changing attitudes to crime and punishment vs rehabilitation and reintegration over here now too.
    Well done and welcome back.

    Liked by 1 person

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