Dear Editor: I hope all of The Tablet’s readers noted the article “Culinary Program Helps Former Inmates Achieve Success,” (Aug. 18). The writer describes a program in Cleveland where people who had been incarcerated are being taught job skills that can enable them to make a successful re-entry into the community by providing job skills and employability skills.
As we reshape our beliefs about the needs of people re-entering our communities and recognize our obligation to provide means for success, programs like the culinary skills program described in The Tablet are essential to reducing recidivism (re-arrest and returning to prison), not only changing people’s lives for the better but also increasing community safety.
Tablet readers can be proud to know that here in New York State we are at the forefront for changes that can provide employment opportunity that can lead to successful re-entry. As New Yorkers, we can be proud that our state, ahead of many other states, has passed legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against someone because of former incarceration. In the recent “ban the box” initiative, legislators ruled against asking about former incarceration on a job application and also against asking about it during an interview.
We can be proud that our state is funding re-entry centers across the state. There is one in Downtown Brooklyn; another in Queens. People can come to these centers for help with all the many issues that need to be resolved before they can achieve a successful re-entry – issues such as housing, employment, drug and alcohol issues, and so forth. The results of re-entry services dramatically reduce recidivism.
It is good to recognize what has been achieved in our state by forward-thinking legislators, and of course to thank those legislators. However, an important part of making positive change for those who are struggling with trying to succeed at re-entry is our individual responsibility. For example, as our world has moved forward with trying to eliminate prejudice and injustice, we have made big strides in reducing gender discrimination.
In order to do this, we have had to reshape our speech. Language creates thoughts; thoughts create actions. Remember, we used to have our mail delivered by the mailman; the fire truck was driven by the fireman, and so on. Now, we use gender-neutral words such as mail carrier and fire fighter, and as we changed our language, other changes followed. The doors are now open for women to deliver the mail, to drive the fire truck, to drive the bus, to fight in the army, to sit in the executive offices.
People who have been in prison, and their families and children, have long been subject to sweeping prejudice. They have been barred from employment (as our state is taking steps to rectify). They have been barred from housing. Their children have been victims of prejudice. (“Don’t play with Johnny. They are not our kind of people.)
Look at the changes that have happened to change gender inequities. We can do the same by changing the words we use for people affected by incarceration. We need to identify the person by his/her personhood, not by his/her crime. He is not a felon. He is a person who has committed a felony. He is not an inmate. He is a person who is or has been in prison. And so on.
You can be part of the change that is happening all around us. It is not just culinary education in Cleveland, Ohio. It is all of us and it is the words we use.
Editor’s Note: Ellen Edelman, MS, MSW, is founder and executive director of Families, Fathers & Children, Inc., a prison ministry based at St. Augustine Church, Park Slope.