Tom Reigle was just 23 years old when he was convicted of capital murder for a drug deal that went way, way wrong. He escaped the death penalty, but faced 30 years in New Jersey’s toughest prisons, with no chance of an early release on parole.
Behind bars, Reigle said he grew up a lot; he kicked drugs, got his high-school equivalency degree, and taught English to other inmates. But as his April 11, 2015 release date grew close, Reigle became more concerned about how he would survive on the outside.
“Where was I going to live, who was going to hire me, how were people going to react when they hear I was a convicted murderer?” he wondered. Prisoners who are released on parole are automatically connected to a network of services -- and monitoring -- but not those who “max out” like Reigle.
Just three months before his release, Reigle heard about a service that sounded promising: Martin’s Place, a site run by the Jersey City Employment and Training Program to help former prisoners with reentry -- their return and reintegration into society after years behind bars. As a result, when he walked out of East Jersey State Prison on a late-winter Saturday, he had safe housing, a spot in counseling programs, and a host of other support options listed in a detailed itinerary covering his first few weeks of freedom.
“That’s all I really wanted when I was in prison; I wanted to be a normal person, with the simple things” like a job, a home and a purpose, Reigle said. “If this program wasn’t here, I don’t know what would have happened,” he said, imagining himself homeless and returning to his former life of crime.
The 28-year-old JCETP has won national awards and widespread praise for its work to smooth the reentry of thousands of prisoners. Last week acting Gov. Kim Guadagno joined state and local officials to announce a $4.2 million, three-year state contract that will allow the program to expand its successful model with a residential treatment facility on the campus of Sacred Heart Church, on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
The new facility -- Martin’s Place Community Resource Center at Sacred Heart -- will serve as one of 10 Community Resource Centers statewide, replacing a current Hudson County hub near Journal Square. Overseen by the Division of Parole, these CRCs serve as case managers and provide job skills and other services to parolees and others under the court’s control.
The Sacred Heart center, scheduled to open in early fall, has stirred some community concern about safety. And the program cannot promise perfect success. That said, Martin’s Place model has shown far better results than other reentry programs and the need is significant: Roughly 10,000 prisoners are released each year from state facilities, many woefully unprepared for life on the outside.
According to a 2011 report, nearly 43 percent of these former prisoners end up back behind bars; the national average for such recidivism is closer to 60 percent. Martin’s Place, through its comprehensive network of programs, has cut that rate of prison return to nearly 22 percent, officials said.
“I’m proud of this program for so many reasons. We’re changing lives -- and that’s really what government is about,” said Jersey City Mayor Steven M. Fulop, who made prisoner reentry a priority. Fulop tapped former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who has worked extensively with inmates in recent years, to lead the JCEPT and create Martin’s Place, which has helped more than 400 onetime offenders since it opened in September.
State officials are also using the successful effort in Jersey City as a model for pilot programs in five other counties, and Gov. Chris Christie included $3.5 million for the measure in this year’s budget. The goal is to create one-stop centers that provide a wide range of comprehensive programs to supplement the CRC’s work.
“Every life is precious. The governor doesn’t just say that, he has backed it up,” said James T. Plousis, chairman of the State Parole Board, during the announcement at Sacred Heart, which was held in a small, bright, freshly painted chapel that will serve as a meeting room. “You can say a lot of things about the governor, but he has been strong on reentry.”
“Recidivism doesn’t have a political party, last time I checked,” added Guadagno, a former county sheriff. Christie and Guadagno are Republicans; McGreevey and Fulop, a possible gubernatorial contender in 2017, are Democrats.
Like Martin’s Place, the Sacred Heart center will offer work-skills training, resume help and job placement,connect participants with safe housing and provide drug and mental health counseling through Integrity House, an established local organization. Program officials said some 61 percent of those who come through Martin’s Place are slotted into a job.
A partnership with the state Bar Association will also provide clients access to free legal assistance, which can help them clear up old motor vehicle fines and secure a driver’s license, or deal with child support issues so they aren’t hauled back into court. The program will equip participants with a Medicaid card and connect them to a nearby federal health clinic for actual treatment.
“We’re just helping to shake the concrete off their wings so they can fly,” said John Koufos, the reentry manager at JCEPT– and a Martin’s Place graduate himself. A former criminal defense attorney, Koufos’s longtime drinking problems led to a car crash that left a teenager badly hurt -- and landed Koufos in jail, alongside his former clients.
The new residential facility will house 60 parolees in a historic stone building, once the home to an order of Dominican friars, which is being restored by inmates in a program run by the Hudson County Building Trades. The on-site programing will be open to other former prisoners and community members. The building is just up the block from Martin’s Place -- and next door to the Sacred Heart elementary school.
The location triggered questions from some community members, who gathered last week to share concerns about the lack of notification and the proximity of parolees near a school. McGreevey has said it will be quite safe with at least five law-enforcement officers on site at all times and a battery of more than two-dozen security cameras. (He will host a public meeting on the program at 7 pm, August 10, at Sacred Heart Church.)
The program will also open its doors to neighbors in the evenings, allowing them to take advantage of Medicare and Medicaid enrollment, health screenings, computer classes, and more, McGreevey added. And the presence of the professionals providing these services will also have economic and other benefits to the community, he said.
“It will be among the most well policed areas of the city,” McGreevey said, when you consider the police presence per person. “And these are the men and women who want to do right,” he said of program participants.
Fulop concedes some residents – and a few City Council members – worried about the impact of the original Martin’s Place, down the street, but said they have grown comfortable with the program since its start. He also underscored how the effort benefits the wider community, not just former inmates and their loved ones.
“It’s a small number of people doing a high number of crimes,” Fulop said. “When you focus on that small number, you can have a big impact on the community in terms of safety and economic benefits.”
Martin’s Place also attracts those who want to do better, the mayor agreed. “The people who are coming to Martin’s Place are the people who want help,” he said. “They don’t want to go back to that cycle of crime.”
Several local companies have also benefited directly from the program -- in turn providing critical jobs to the participants. Andrew Campbell, owner of Eastern Millwork, said he has struggled to get dedicated workers, but JCETP graduates have been superior.
“What we found is that the guys who come through the governor’s program are very serious, ultra reliable and motivated to learn,” Campbell said of the few dozen ex-prisoners he has employed in his shop, running deliveries or at job sites. “It’s been a very successful situation for us.”
Jessica Isaacs, founder of Cocoa Bakery, hasn’t had 100 percent success with the dozen or former inmates she has hired, but she said it has been a positive experience that produced several stellar workers, including two who have moved up the ranks and now serve customers. Successful candidates “definitely have an eagerness to show what they can do” and an eagerness to work, she said.
“I’m hoping to grow and expand and there will be opportunity for other positions” available to JCETP participants, she added. “There’s no reason not to.”