LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

New report highlights benefits of prison re-entry programs

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

Put yourself in these shoes: You’re 18 years old growing up in Newark. You have supportive parents, but your addiction to drugs just takes over.

“They taught me to be a man, be responsible and take care of my responsibilities. But, once again, with the drinking and the drugs and trying to be accepted with my friends, kept me away from the good advice,” described Leon Cummings, a man for whom this situation was a reality. For 23 years, Cummings says he’s been going in and out of prison.

“Drug selling, trying to, you know, pay my bills. I had a burglary charge, when I was younger. I had an armed robbery charge. And you know, I made, I sold to undercover officers,” he said.

Nationally, it has been shown that over three-quarters of formerly incarcerated persons have substance abuse issues, and more than one-third have mental or physical disabilities. But between one-third and one-half of individuals do not receive treatment for their chronic conditions while incarcerated.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, chair of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, said their program wants to tackle those issues once inmates are released. He introduced a new report that finds there are two big things that need to be done in order to have former prisoners succeed: access to health care and education to train for a career.

“They’re walking out of the system and we give them these opportunities immediately. We maintain their sobriety, we maintain structure housing, help them with their legal issues and keep them connected to health care. But, most importantly, we understand for long-term sustainability, it’s employment, employment, employment,” stressed McGreevey.

Those are all things that Edwin Ortiz told NJTV News he didn’t have when he was released after spending 30 years behind bars.

“It’s frustrating a lot of times when you come home and you try to find a job, you’re applying for work, you’re trying to find housing and people discriminate against you because of your background. They don’t want to give you a chance,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz was convicted of felony murder when he was 19 years old.

“When I was a teenager I started using drugs, and I became addicted. And to support my addiction, I had to commit crimes. That’s the path that I chose,” said Ortiz. “I grew up in one of the worst projects in Newark. It was a rough place, but I allowed my environment to influence the choices in my life. All it takes is one bad decision, and that’s what I emphasize with people. The choices you make can change your life.”

He says the New Jersey Reentry Corporation changed his life and allows him to help other people not make the same mistake he once made.

“I made decisions I shouldn’t have made and, unfortunately, someone lost their life. And that’s something I live with each and every day. And that’s something that motivates me each and every day to become a better person,” he said.

The program costs $2,200 per client. To put that into perspective, it currently costs the state of New Jersey $53,681 to incarcerate one individual for one year. And more than one-half of the people released from prisons in New Jersey, the report shows, are rearrested.

“This isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s an American issue,” said McGreevey.

So, put yourself back in Leon Cummings’ shoes. You were released from prison a month ago. You know you need to change.

“I blew a good relationship with my wife and my daughter, and I miss my family a lot,” admitted Cummings.

And after 23 years, you’re given help, a second chance. A chance you’re not going to let slip away.

“The opioids had me, and I’m doing something about that. I try to make my NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings, and I try to be around positive people. I’m looking for a good church, I’m looking to reconnect with my daughter again. Hopefully, God’s willing, everything will work out for me,” Cummings said.