ITHACA, N.Y. – The Tompkins County Re-Entry Toolkit fits in a back pocket. It has no staples and no hard binding. It’s a guide designed for, and by, people close to the experience of incarceration: people who have recently come home from jail or prison, their family members, and a community of advocates and activists who work daily on issues related to racial justice and mass incarceration.
“This is built by the experiences of the people themselves,” said Fabina Colon, director of the Multicultural Resource Center, one of the organizations that partnered to create the Re-Entry Toolkit. “We’re proud of the outcome. It’s accessible, people are using it.”
The guide is a joint effort of MRC and local leaders from the Alliance of Families for Justice, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and For Brown Bleeders, as well as numerous volunteers who offered input. It includes advice, a list of local resources, and encouraging quotes drawn from the authors’ experiences working with folks returning home, and it meets Department of Corrections security requirements so it can make its way into visitation rooms and cells.
The creators of the Re-Entry Toolkit said there are myriad resources available in Tompkins for people returning home from jail or prison. The county launched a re-entry plan at the jail in 2016, and many organizations, including Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources of Tompkins County, Ultimate Re-Entry Opportunity and Legal Assistance of Western New York, provide services such as job and “know your rights” training, help with college enrollment and assistance with landlord or employer disputes.
But while local resources exist, the toolkit team said they can be hard to find and access. Social scientists have shown that people with criminal records face discrimination when seeking employment, and the federal government only prohibited landlords from discriminating on the basis of a criminal record in 2016. Even with local services available, people returning home often struggle to find work, housing and social support.
The toolkit is realistic about challenges people may face during re-entry and offers suggestions for overcoming them.
“Be prepared to be denied housing,” it reads, continuing, “If you do get denied, stay strong and file an appeal to the landlord/agency directly.”
“We wanted to provide a tool so people could build their own capacity for self-advocacy,” Colon said. “If you’re denied housing, how do you ask questions? ‘Is there a process for me to appeal this?’ ‘Is there a handbook?’”
The guide is oriented around skill-building, insider tips and self-care. For instance, it lists specific contact people at large organizations, identifies organizations known to be “particularly culturally welcoming and competent,” and suggests exploring local trails, art walks and free concerts to maintain physical and mental health.
Rose Fleurant, co-founder of the collective For Brown Bleeders, said it was important to listen to the voices of the people who are most affected by incarceration while creating the toolkit. “This is something we’re co-building together,” Fleurant said, “and people are still chiming in. It’s growing and manifesting in different ways.”
In its current iteration, the toolkit guides people through the re-entry process from six months before their release until months or years after they return home. For instance, it covers how to gather applications for resources like SNAP food assistance, housing, and jobs while in custody, and shares tips for building supportive relationships while becoming self-sufficient once home.
Practical advice is mixed with reassuring messages: “Re-entry is entering back into a lot of things. Society. Family. Relationships. It’s not easy. There are a lot of ways the system is set up that make it hard for you. But we’re here to help you take steps to make it through.”
The project’s graphic designer, Coralee McNee, said the layout and mix of content “make the document more inviting.” It reads like a conversation, she said, not a textbook.
The guide’s warm tone also sends the message that people returning from incarceration are welcome in the community.
“We have to start by changing the stigma,” said Phoebe Brown, regional coordinator of Alliance of Families for Justice. Brown said she hopes the toolkit “can help people finagle the system,” but added that organizations need to evaluate their commitment to working with people who have been incarcerated.
“Are you doing this work because in your heart of hearts you have thought about social justice,” Brown asked of local service providers and employers, “or because it looks good?”
Early responses to the toolkit suggest there is high demand for help navigating existing resources. Organizations in cities including Binghamton and Elmira have reached out to MRC for advice on creating their own guides, and the team has distributed an initial printing of 200 booklets. Additional copies will make their way to community organizations and the Tompkins County Public Library soon, and an online version is available here.
Featured image: The Tompkins County Re-Entry Toolkit. (Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice)