Former Gov. Jim McGreevey has moved passed his political life and now is heavily involved in helping women in prison improve their lives and rejoin their families. In the second of a three-part interview, he told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that under no circumstances will he return to public office.
While he was governor, McGreevey said he had a sense of detachment. He said he credits Gov. Chris Christie for holding town hall meetings and staying in touch with the public. “That’s something that I did as mayor of Woodbridge. I think it’s so critically important that if you’re not gonna go down to the local VFW hall, if you’re not gonna go to the local coffee shop that you stay in touch with the rhythms, with the patterns of daily life. And I think, for me, that’s something that I regularly did as mayor, but I lost, to a certain sense, as governor,” he said.
McGreevey said he would argue that all people have a god, whether it’s power, money, ego or a higher power. “For me, I think in politics, self survival, sustenance, the need to stay in place became all too real,” he said.
The former governor now focuses his attention on helping incarcerated women improve their lives. He said he finds joy in touching an individual life. “For me, that keeps me grounded in the moment. And to help women, frankly, whose circumstances were so different than mine,” he said. “But I can hopefully contribute to them seeing themselves differently.”
According to McGreevey, the recidivism rate for the program is 22 percent compared to the national average of 66 percent. “That means almost four out of five of the women I’m working with — and it’s clearly not just me, it’s an entire team — these women are being rejoined with their families,” he said. “They’re remaining sober and 100 percent of them, Michael, are working.”
McGreevey said the program has been successful because the women have changed perceptions of themselves.
The former governor hasn’t made many public appearances since his resignation, mainly because he didn’t want to answer the same questions about his political career. “I want to talk about women in prison. That’s my passion. The Jim McGreevey story has been told so many times, I’m bored with it,” he said.
McGreevey said he could speak for hours about helping female prisoners because he believes in treatment and and rehabilitation instead of just incarceration, explaining that 70 percent of the women behind bars are addicts. “Why aren’t we treating them and helping them to reclaim their lives instead of doing nothing?” he asked. “They get released and they go to the same corner, the same drug dealer. So that’s my passion, to talk about that.”
With the release of the HBO documentary “Fall to Grace” and McGreevey’s reemergence in the public eye, some have said he looks like a candidate again. But McGreevey said he would never, under any circumstances, go back into politics. “For the women that I work with, I’d like to be help in some small way to be a voice for them,” he said. “And we can take back their lives.”
In addition to working with many addicts, McGreevey said the overwhelming majority of the women in the program have been victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Helping them with addiction and providing safe, sober housing after prison, as well as employment opportunities, has helped many. McGreevey relayed one story of a woman with 26 criminal convictions who is now working, living in her own home and is reunited with her family.
“So at the end of the day, if I can change how we see prison, instead of just being a tolling where people are locked up for years without any education, without any addiction treatment, without any hope and they come out and within two weeks or within, clearly within three years, they’re back in, this has all been a sad, miserably expensive failure,” McGreevey said. “And so what I’d like to do now is work to develop a prison system as they have in Israel, as they have in Scandinavia that works. That takes these people from wardens of the state at a cost of $45,000 a year in a jail cell, to having these people become productive, taxpaying citizens.”
In addition to the economic impact and social impact, McGreevey said there is a moral impact as well. “These are human beings,” he said.