Last Friday, May 10, the Tompkins County Jail and local alternatives to incarceration organizations were surprised by two special guests: Antoine Bethea and Michael Thomas, players for the New York Giants. The team, in partnership with the criminal justice think tank the VERA Institute, came to Tompkins County to tour the county jail and hear about what alternatives the county is successfully using to incarceration.
The coordination for the event started way before Friday. Last year, Tompkins County Legislator Shawna Black met a senior planner at the VERA Institute of Justice at a Drug Policy Alliance conference. Since then, the two have kept in touch as the VERA Institute was interested in learning about what the county was doing with alternatives to incarceration.
“In fact, many of the things that we are doing locally The Vera Institute has been working with other communities to try and implement, based on our examples,” Black said in an email.
About a month ago, Black received an email from the senior planner about the VERA Institute’s partnership with the New York Giants, sharing that some of the players had an interest in touring a rural New York jail. With the help of Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne and Captain Raymond Bunce, Bethea and Thomas were able to tour the Tompkins County jail before heading to the Fire and Emergency building to meet with participants of one of the local alternative programs, College Initiative Upstate (CIU), a program Black thought would be of interest to the VERA institute and the players.
“This is a program that takes people that have been recently incarcerated and invests in their future with a college education,” Black said. “We are able to do this with a wonderful partnership with TC3 and the amazing staff at CIU and OAR (Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources).”
CUI can take on a number of different roles when it comes to helping someone who was formerly incarcerated or currently going through the court system. If someone comes to CUI and is ready to get back into college, CUI will help them look for and apply to the schools they want to go to. The initiative offers college preparation classes that last six weeks for those who may not be ready to go back to college but know they want to continue their education. CUI will help people figure out how to finance their way through college with the help of grants and scholarships.
Tompkins County Legislator Rich John, chair of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, started the post-jail event by explaining some of the many alternative programs that the county has invested in over the years, and the success that they have seen. Several years ago, the county discussed the idea of building a new jail, but the community pushback helped spur more investment in alternatives and a formal study of the jail and outside ideas to lower the jail population.
The programs seem to be having a positive effect. In March, Dave Sanders, the Criminal Justice Coordinator for Tompkins County, announced that recidivism rates (the rate of return to jail for incarcerated persons) at the county jail were significantly down. While the county is lucky to have so many organizations and programs working to solve the problem of incarceration and recidivism, having so many programs makes it hard to pinpoint what exactly is causing the decline in recidivism.
To demonstrate the success that alternatives to incarceration can have, several participants from CIU spoke at Friday’s event and tell their stories to the members of the VERA Institute and Bethea and Thomas.
“I know it’s very small, CIU,” said Ricardo Escobedo, a current student at TC3 and a CIU participant who said he felt lost after a felony charge and being on probation for two years, but before he found the program. “I think it should be way bigger. These guys really acted as a support group for me to get back on track. Really live a life that I was happy living, a sober one as well.”
Escobedo is currently studying Human Services at Tompkins Cortland Community College, planning to graduate next year.
Jaime Coleman was one of the first graduates of the CIU Ithaca program. She was trying to transfer from TC3 to another school and was denied because of her criminal history when she started working with CIU.
“It was life-changing for me,” Coleman said of finding CIU. “I wish CIU had existed here when I first started, because, for a first-generation college student who was a high school drop-out, spent 19 years of my life drinking and driving and hustling, in and out of jail and prison, college was like a different universe. I didn’t understand the language. If I had had CIU there to help it would have made the transition so much easier.”
Coleman graduated from Empire State College with a degree in Human Services and now works for OAR helping people who have been through similar situations to her find success.
After the presentations, both the VERA Institute and Thomas and Bethea offered words of encouragement and support to help keep programs like CIU running.
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