Freeholder Bill O’Dea can’t remember what campaign brought him to the Harry Moore Public housing that day years ago, but the moment sticks in his mind as if fate had put him there.
“I was there campaigning with Jeff [Dublin] and a woman came to us and said that she had been released from the Hudson County Correctional Facility three or four days earlier and that she expected she’d be back there inside a week or so,” O’Dea recalled. “She said men have a reentry program when they get out of the county correctional facility, but women don’t.”
Often men and women who are serving time have a host of issues to deal with when reintegrated into general society. Many do not know how to interact, how to get jobs, or how to set themselves up to keep from failing. Many are still addicted to or are drawn back toward drug use.
O’Dea and Dublin, who have often worked together, had watched significant changes in the community over the last decade, including low-rise buildings constructed by the federal government on the site of failed housing projects. The original idea of the projects was to clear slums, but in many cases, the new buildings simply created new modern slums and breeding grounds for drug use and crime.
But upon meeting the woman that day four years ago, O’Dea and Dublin discovered that it took more than brick and mortar to do away with human misery and curb crime. Something had to be done for the people, especially people like this woman who appeared to have been overlooked by the system. The two men began to work with other freeholders to make up for this lack.
“Everything happens for a reason in life,” O’Dea said. “That one person on that day was meant to come to us not at a public meeting, but at a public housing project to bring to our attention the severity of the issue as it related to substance abuse and how it leads to criminal behavior and incarceration and the failure of the system to properly address it.”
Hudson County prisoners less likely to return if treated
Based on that moment, O’Dea and Dublin began meeting with members of the Hudson County administration and the directors, seeking a way to develop a solution.
This resulted in the establishment 18 months ago of an addiction disorder treatment program for incarcerated women, funded by a federal Second Chance Act Grant.
The story of this woman and her chance meeting with O’Dea in the Harry Moore Projects, according to former Gov. Jim McGreevey and Hudson County Director of Corrections Oscar Aviles, was recently conveyed to both the federal government and the New Jersey Task Force for Reentry, whose representatives recently visited the Hudson County Correctional Facility, heaping praise on a program that is perhaps a model for the state.
“The program we’re doing, I think, is breaking new ground because when you look to the number of incarcerated persons. Upward of 78 to 80 percent have addiction issues,” said McGreevey, who represents Integrity House, a rehabilitation group based in Secaucus and Newark, and operates the women’s program. He is about to start running a newly established program for men in Hudson County. “Columbia University Center of Addiction Services did an exhaustive study that demonstrated that if you work with individuals while they are still in prison, they will have among the lowest recidivism rates. Our recidivism number is substantially below the national and state average.”
In New Jersey, two-thirds of inmates released to the general population are back behind bars within three years.
“While the governor is calling for treatment, Hudson County is getting it down and when the governor’s task force came up to see Director Aviles and to see what was happening with reentry, they were very favorably disposed,” McGreevey said. “This is something very tangible. This changing people’s lives.”
McGreevey said Hudson County has one of only two programs like this in the state.
“When the governor reentry task force toured the correctional facility, they said this was the best organized and seamless web of service for what’s happening inside the jail and the delivery of service,” McGreevey said. “This was echoed the U.S. Department of Justice.”
Freeholder Jose Munoz said that women’s reentry was one of his concerns even when he was getting his masters, and one of the things he wanted to concentrate on when he came onto the freeholder board.
“One of things I wanted was a drug treatment program for females. We didn’t have one,” he said.
“While we may be one big wonderful dysfunctional family here, many people are here who have their hearts in the right place.” – Jim McGreevey
Aviles said the program provides 40 beds for women and another 40 beds for men. While the women’s program is paid for by a federal grant, the men’s program, which also involves mental health treatments, is funded through The Hudson County Inmate Welfare Trust Fund, which puts a surcharge on items purchased by prisoners in the facility commissary, so that prisoners themselves are paying for their own treatment. Approved by the New Jersey State Commissioner of Corrections, the fund currently has about $850,000 in it.
The male program was approved by the freeholders at their June 14 meeting.
Aviles said staff from Integrity House has people who go to the jail where they treat the inmates.
O’Dea said there is one other issue that needs to be addressed, noting that people who plead guilty to or are convicted of selling drugs are in many cases banned for life from receiving food stamps, subsidized housing, and other programs needed for reentry.
“You can murder somebody, get out of jail, and collect food stamps. You can rape a dozen individuals get out of jail and get welfare. If you convicted of sale of drugs, you face lifetime prohibition,” O’Dea said. “If an individual goes through program like this and is certified, that lifetime ban needs to be lifted.”
He also said many people who make plea deals are unaware of this ban, and that they should be made aware before they plead guilty to these crimes.
“In this economic climate, the odds are someone walking into a job straight out of jail without needing food stamps or temporary help with rent is nearly zero,” O’Dea said.
Aviles said legislation sponsored by state Senators Ray Lesniak and Sandra Cunningham would change the status of programs like this, allowing this facility to be licensed as a drug treatment center for impatient treatment. Part of that legislation would lift the ban.
McGreevey said coming back to Hudson County was a blessing.
“While we may be one big wonderful dysfunctional family here, many people are here who have their hearts in the right place,” he said. “We are recapturing a life at a time and putting them back to productive use, and giving people a second chance.
O’Dea pressed the point even more.
“If a person has a drug addiction that causes that person to go to jail and we don’t address the drug addiction, then we are assuring that that person will end up back in jail because we haven’t addressed the core problem,” he said. “But for that one woman, grabbing us that one day in that public housing site, we might not have been where we are today with the progress that we’ve made.”
What happened to the woman that started all this four years ago?
“She went through the program,” O’Dea said.