Conference Looks at Life After Incarceration

Conference Looks at Life After Incarceration

Monmouth University’s Department of Criminal Justice and School of Social Work hosted a conference entitled “Life After Incarceration” on Tuesday, Oct. 24, featuring experts and ex-inmates.

The conference, which began at 8:30 a.m., was sponsored by the New Jersey State Parole Board and had several parole board members in attendance.

The conference featured different sessions, each one focusing on a different aspect of the correctional challenges inmates face after being released.

Each session had a panel of experts, each one sharing their experience on the topic.

The panel topics included “Reentry Today in New Jersey,” “Mental Health and Substance Abuse Issues,” and “Supervision of Sex Offenders and Special Populations.”

The speakers at the conference included: Suzanne Lawrence, the Director of Transitional Services for the NJ Department of Corrections; Steve Fishbien, the Acting Deputy Assistant Director of the Office of Treatment and Recovery Support from the NJ Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services; and Steve Tallard, the Director of the Division of Parole and Community Programs. Several ex-inmates were also present to share their stories.

Nicholas Sewitch, Chair of the University’s Criminal Justice Department said that while participating in a Monmouth County reentry task force, the parole board approached him about holding a conference here at the university.

“When we were approached with this idea, I always felt that this is probably one of the areas of criminal justice that our students know the least about and that the public know the least about,” said Sewitch.

“We really don’t pay a lot of attention to the efforts that are made when offenders reenter society to assure that they become healthy, happy and productive members of society and not reoffend. Many people feel that once someone is prosecuted and goes to jail, that’s it.”

According to Sewitch, when he worked as a prosecutor he would have inmates sentenced and then be “done.”

“No matter where you are on this issue, reentry is important,” said Sewitch. “It makes sense from a public safety standpoint, from a legal standpoint, and from a humanistic standpoint that they receive treatment when they get out of these institutions. That is why I wanted students and faculty to see what is being done rather than just putting people in jail.”

Sophomore psychology student Maria Ramirez said that she was surprised by the turnout from the Monmouth community. “I expected there to be a lot of professionals, but the room was filled with a lot of students and professors from the University community,” she commented.

Each session was more filled than the last, and by the last session, those who arrived later had no other option to stand.

“I attended the last session (“Supervision of Sex Offenders and Special Populations,”) and even though I am not a criminal justice student, I never thought about what happens to this population after they are released from prison and how they present a challenge for parole officers,” she said.

Sewitch agrees that not a lot of people think about sex offenders reentering society.

“When they come out of jail, they’re pariahs. If they are on Megan’s Law (an online sex offender registry) they are even more of a pariah. They can’t get jobs, they can’t live in communities, so all of the obstacles and challenges that regular parolees face are magnified by 10 times when it comes to sex offenders,” Sewitch said.

Eleanor Novek, PhD., a professor in the communication department has been working with the education of incarcerated individuals and has a class at the University where students can go into prisons and work with this population themselves.

“Dr. Johanna Foster and I collaborated to design the Monmouth University Academic Enrichment Program specifically as a way to engage Monmouth students in an exchange of ideas and perspectives with students incarcerated in a New Jersey state prison and generate academic support strategies to benefit the needs of the students enrolled,” said Novek. “We hope to offer other classes in the future that offer Monmouth University students opportunities to study with incarcerated students.”

The class consists of students learning specific techniques in regards to teaching inmates, and is an opportunity for students who have never been exposed to prisons to get used to that environment. The second half of this is actually going into NJ state prisons and applying what they learned.

Jamie Tilton, a senior homeland security student and President of the Criminal Justice Guardian’s Club, said his favorite session was the “Supervision of Sex Offenders and Special Populations.”

“I liked this one so much because I didn’t know that there were programs for sex offenders after incarceration,” said Tilton. “As a society, we don’t really think about these people after they have served their ‘punishment,’ so it was really eye opening as to what happens to them.”

Novek also explained what the University community can do to help the population of inmates reentering society.

 “Students can start by informing themselves about issues of mass incarceration,” Novek said. “Some good sources include Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and the website of The Sentencing Project. They can also join with other Monmouth students in volunteering with organizations like the Alternatives to Violence Project, which conducts conflict resolution workshops in prisons, or Redeem-Her, which helps women returning from rehab, jails or prisons get back on their feet.”

Sewitch also agrees that the best thing students can do to fight the stigma that makes it so hard for parolees to enter society is to understand and educate themselves.

 “People who commit crimes, even serious crimes, are people just like the rest of us,” he explained. “They have good points and bad points and their flaws, but understand that the world is not good vs. evil. These are not evil people, and understand they are human.”

“When I was a prosecutor, it took me a long time to understand that the law is not always good vs. evil,” Sewitch continued. “Not everyone is either good or garbage, and when I understood that, I became better at my job. That is why we try to teach our students about discretion and how that is a powerful tool you can possess as a law enforcement officers.”

PHOTO COURTESY of Anthony DePrimo