Leaving Sing Sing

With much anticipation I went to visit my friend John Valverde in his new paralegal job in Queens, New York. For years our meeting place had been Sing Sing prison, where he’d spent 16 years behind bars.

Each year around 600,000 people are released from prison back to a society that has little use for them. Finding a job is difficult when you have a criminal record, which must be declared on any job application. In a culture that depends on e-mail, credit cards, cell phones, and text messaging, even low-paying employment can be out of reach for a person who is fresh out of long-term incarceration, without training in how to operate on the outside. Many parolees lack basic education, family support, and marketable skills. These problems are a big part of the reason why, nationwide, more than 60 percent of those released from prison will be rearrested within three years.

Valverde, who quickly succeeded in landing his first job, is unusually fortunate: He had welcoming family, a good education—and Rye Presby­terian Church, which sends a dozen or so members each month to visit inmates. For the past 14 years, Rye—a 1,200-member congregation in affluent Westchester, New York—has given moral, spiritual, and practical support to men imprisoned in Sing Sing.

Nancy Steed, a leader of the Rye group, says, “Contact with the men in prison put human faces on the statistics. Before that, my attitude was, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key if they steal my gold chain.’” Her husband and co-leader, Robert Steed, elaborates: “We realized the people in prison did not fit the stereotype portrayed in the media. Instead, they were well-spoken, intelligent, and devoted to their families. Prison work has become the most important of many volunteer projects we have been involved in.”

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Sojourners Magazine August 2008
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