Boldface names join effort to help formerly-incarcerated reenter society

Actor Michael K. Williams was among those on hand Friday for the launch of the New Jersey Reentry Ambassador Program, an initiative that’s enlisting the expertise and clout of high-profile people to help the formerly incarcerated take their place in society and stay out of jail.

And in an impassioned speech, the 53-year-old star of such hits as “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire” offered a succinct job description for the role:
“I’m just a brother from the community that’s sick and tired of being sick and tired. So, I roll up my sleeves and I do what I can do. And what I can do is I can go on them corners and grab me up somebody and say, ‘Brother, what you doing today?’ Right? I mentor.”

The concept behind the ambassadors program is like a social movement, according to former Gov. Jim McGreevey who is the chairman of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, the organization that’s quarterbacking the effort.

“We’re going to have a thousand ambassadors all across the state of New Jersey, people that have been in prison, law enforcement, religious leaders, coming together and talking about how do we change the paradigm,” he said. “How do people that have made bad decisions recognize their bad decisions, how are they held accountable, but how are they going to rejoin the community?”

Joining him Friday for Friday’s listening session were top officials in law enforcement, judges and former inmates, some who served three decades behind bars. All offered suggestions for what will make the program successful.

“I think the biggest part is communication,” said Haywood Gandy, the founder of a group called Successful Reentry 101.

U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Cox Arleo said those returning home require a range of services, and many need care for untreated emotional trauma.

“It’s not a one size fits all, and some people really need to step back and heal before they can be told what to do again,” she said.

Advocate Edwin Ortiz picked up on that theme.

“If you do not deal with that trauma, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to relapse, you’re going to go back to drugs or alcohol,” he said.

Those in law enforcement said they accept their roles as ambassadors of social change.

“Our State Police just trained every road trooper on implicit bias,” said state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. “So the next road stop they’re putting themselves in check if they’re trying to act on a deep-rooted bias — no matter whether it’s a different race, religion, or whatever — they know how to identify that but never act on it … in stops, don’t act on it.”

Craig Capenito, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, emphasized the need to take a long view.

“Reentry is not supposed to get you jobs. Jobs are short term fixes,” he said. “We want to get you careers.

“Judge Arleo and I just sat down with an employer directly and we are vouching for you,” he continued. “We sat in a conference room telling them ‘you’re right, you’re not a criminal, you’re someone who committed a crime but it doesn’t define you for the rest of your life.’”

Rev. Dr. Regena Thomas of the American Federation of Teachers said it was encouraging to see key law enforcement officials taking part in the process.

“It’s encouraging to know that we can bring all of those persons responsible together to begin to have conversations,” she said. “But, as was constantly echoed here, we cannot just continue to talk. We must do action.”

For Williams, taking on the role of ambassador was important on a personal level.

“I’m so passionate about this because I come from the same community,” he said. “There but for the grace of God it could have been me. I can’t forget where I come from.”