It was 10 years ago when Jim McGreevey was the governor of New Jersey. Some considered him to be a natural for even higher office. Then came the criticism for appointing a homeland security advisor who lacked experience, a man who later filed a sexual harassment complaint against the governor. Soon after, McGreevey famously declared in a televised announcement that he was a “gay American” and resigned from office. In the first of a three-part interview, NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider sat down with the former governor to discuss his reemergence as an Episcopal minister attending to the needs of the prison population, which is the subject of a documentary film — “Fall to Grace” — currently airing on HBO.
When thinking about the past 10 years, McGreevey considers what he is doing now to be the most meaningful work of his career — the opportunity to help incarcerated females who come from challenging and difficult circumstances “reshape the narrative of their lives.”
Along with that purpose, he wants to remind the general population that there are real human beings behind the concrete walls and barbed wire. In so doing, he hopes to change how society views prison and imprisonment in this country.
McGreevey’s work with incarcerated individuals began while he was attending general theological school in New York.
“The dean of the seminary … suggested I go uptown and work in a program in Harlem where men and women were coming out of federal prison,” McGreevey said.
According to McGreevey, the experience opened his eyes to a culture in which self determination and individuality were discouraged.
“What a warden typically wants is an acquiescent population, a population that doesn’t ripple, that doesn’t cause problems,” said McGreevey. ‘So you’re told when to eat, when to shower or when to go to bed … you lose any sense of creativity, you lose any sense of self initiative.”
But one of the greatest travesties of the prison system, he said, is that no one works.
“So that sense of self pride, self motivation, that sense of ownership for the quality of one’s work completely dissipates.”
Reflecting on his political career, McGreevey looks back fondly on the years he served as mayor of Woodbridge.
“When you’re a mayor, you’re still close to the ground, close to families — people are born, people die, mothers in nursing home beds … the tragedy of a child experimenting with drugs,” he said.
His gubernatorial experience, however, was a different story. He concedes that being governor was a career ambition, saying “I remember thinking about that job and planning for that job… it was something I was driven to.”
Once he got the job, he said he found himself spending most of his time “wheeling and dealing” to secure votes to pass a bill or a budget.
“You become more involved in the antics of politics than in the people which is the fabric of our civil society,” said McGreeevey.