Testimony from Serena Liguori, presented at "Deconstructing the Prison Pipeline" on May 10 hosted by Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr. and Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean Pierre.
New HOUR's vision is to provide successful support for children and mothers during and after incarceration. We recognize the critical role mothers play—often as the primary caretaker for their children. We understand the need for specialized support for mothers whose pathways to prison or jail are often tied to domestic violence or substance abuse. By providing mothers with parenting skills, work skills, transition services, and wellness programs during and after incarceration, we seek to support healthy relationships and end the trauma that children of incarcerated mothers face. I would like to acknowledge and thank Suffolk County Sheriff Toulon for allowing us the privilege to provide gender specific programming to women and mothers in the Suffolk Correctional Facilities.
Women’s pathways to incarceration are inextricably linked to abuse, lack of mental health support and substance abuse. Most incarcerated women have a long history of abuse. An overwhelming 9 out of 10 women behind bars are survivors of abuse. The impact of abuse often leads women to commit crimes. I can personally attest to the impact of domestic violence on my own life’s journey having been incarcerated because of family violence. For over a decade, I along with many other advocates, have worked to urge the passage of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act.
We recognize and applaud the New York State legislature for successfully passing this important legislation this session. This new law will finally untie judge’s hands, allowing them the discretion to impose alternative sentences for those convicted of offenses caused by or related to domestic violence. Yet the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act has not yet changed outcomes for survivor defendants and isn’t likely to do so if judges do not know about and urge use of this new statute.
I came home from incarceration 21 years ago and yet the very same barriers I faced then are still resoundingly shared by the 570 women who have walked through New Hour’s doors. Women returning to Long Island after incarceration from federal, state and local jails share the same three major barriers to successful reentry: lack of housing, lack of education and technical skills, and the cost and inefficiency of public transportation across Long Island.
While I was lucky enough to receive my associate's degree in the College Bound program at Bedford Hills, most returning citizens will have left prison or jail with little to no improved educational opportunities. New Hour offers a 12-week post incarceration leadership and advocacy training program, EMERGE: Empowering Methods for Effective Reentry, Growth, and Engagement. This program provides skills, resources, and support to empower women who come home from incarceration stigmatized, hopeless, and overwhelmed by the re-entry process.
Higher education is critical to creating successful outcomes for returning citizens and part of this educational journey is the ability to create increased social-emotional development. EMERGE offers women the opportunity to explore and understand their choices and to understand how to make smarter, better choices in the future with newfound resources and support. It has been a privilege to watch New Hour women grow to find community, hope, and a renewed sense of their own inner power to create a better life for themselves and their families.
Part of EMERGE’s course focuses on employment readiness and connects women with sources of higher education opportunities. Some of our work includes connecting women to the College and Community Fellowship based in New York City, which enables women with criminal convictions to earn their college degrees so that they, their families, and their communities can thrive. While CCF is readily available to women in New York City, there is still a lack of a clear collaboration between higher education for those incarcerated or returning from incarceration here on Long Island. A round trip ticket to New York City can be close to $50, making regular access to services for women in re-entry financially impossible.
We must do better here on Long Island, with a wealth of educational opportunities, we could create a comprehensive educational network of colleges and universities that would work together to create opportunities for all returning citizens to apply and attend college across the island after incarceration.
It is notable that in 2018, the New York County District Attorney’s Criminal Justice Investment Initiative awarded CCF $2 million over three years to build out their student services. We call on our local officials, district attorneys and county executives to prioritize funding for education here on Long Island for those in re-entry. Funding education for those in re-entry creates stability for returning citizens and therefore increased community safety drastically reducing crime and recidivism.
Three out of four women in prison are mothers and the impact in their families and children is devastating. When a mother or father become incarcerated, the whole family suffers as a result. All the mothers we work with have clearly stated their objective for reentry is to create a safe home for their children. Unlike most men, women often return to become the primary caretaker for their children post incarceration. Nearly 2.7 million children have a parent in jail or state or federal prison. One in nine African-American children, one in 28 Latino children, and one in 57 white children have a parent who is incarcerated.
Formerly incarcerated mothers worry about the ripple effect of the trauma of arrest and incarceration on their children. We know that children of incarcerated parents are at a higher risk to become justice involved. Often this risk can be mitigated by lowering trauma through the creation of child-sensitive arrest protocols, data collection, and training for police officers. There should be written protocols to minimize trauma to children at the time of a parent’s arrest, as well as an effort to collect data on the numbers of children present at the time of arrest. Model protocols are available and other jurisdictions, including the Albany Police Department, which has created these safeguards to protect children from further trauma.
Children in New Jersey, Florida, California, and Hawaii have laws or regulations that require corrections to consider proximity to family when placing an incarcerated parent in a prison to serve their sentence. Yet in New York, there is no consideration made for the often-remote placement of incarcerated mothers and fathers. For example, Albion Correctional Facility, the largest women’s prison in New York State, houses women near the border of Canada, where children without little access to money and a caretaker with the time required to travel the 10 hours to visit their mother. We urge the passage of the Proximity Bill (Senator Montgomery/Assm. Rozic), which would create improved well-being for children and their parents as well as to cultivate successful family reunification and re-entry by placing parents in facilities closest to their children.
I am grateful for your creation of this timely discussion about the need for access to higher education for incarcerated and returning citizens. I am hopeful that this is the beginning of the island-wide dialogue needed to impact and create successful outcomes for justice-involved mothers, fathers, and families across Long Island.