Getting Out of Jail and Back to Work in 'Second Chance City'

In Jersey City, N.J., ex-offenders are getting an opportunity to start their lives over again -- and so is a familiar public figure trying to help them.
by | May 2015

Many of the inmates in the county jail outside Jersey City, N.J., still call Jim McGreevey governor, even though he left office more than a decade ago. But not these women in forest green scrubs. They know him. They address him as Jim. He asks how they’re feeling and they answer in turn: “Grateful.” “Blessed.”

“OK.” “Angry.”

“I feel like God got my back today,” one says. Others nod in approval.

Jim asks about their sins and most recall the crime that brought them there. One says she still sins in her sleep. More nods.

“We all make mistakes,” McGreevey says, “but we all get up.”

McGreevey speaks from experience. He is getting his own second chance. Elected governor of New Jersey in 2001, he resigned three years later after coming out as a “gay American” and admitting to an affair with his homeland security adviser. Then came an ugly public divorce, a memoir and a tell-all Oprah interview. Now he’s director of Jersey City’s Employment and Training Program, which helps inmates and ex-offenders glue their lives back together after release from incarceration. A few times a month, McGreevey visits the jail to talk with inmates enrolled in a drug addiction counseling program.

Lots of cities and counties are trying to find ways to keep people from returning to jail, but the program in Jersey City is notable for a couple of reasons: It has recorded measurable gains since 2010 and a former governor is personally overseeing the program. Each year, about 48 percent of the 7,200 inmates in the Hudson County jail are rearrested within three months of their release. But graduates of the re-entry program have recorded much better numbers. Among the nearly 700 who have been exposed to in-jail drug counseling, the rearrest rate is 23 percent.

McGreevey’s own personal arc gives added weight to the work. After resigning from the governor’s office, he attended an Episcopalian missionary school and ended up assisting at a drug treatment program for ex-cons in Harlem. It was one of the few places where McGreevey thought he could start over. “I was filled with my own sense of shame,” he says. “But how could these people look down on me?” Two years ago, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop decided to make prisoner re-entry a piece of the city’s workforce strategy and invited McGreevey to run the program.

Now 57 and gray-haired, the former governor still has the enthusiasm of his early years in politics, which lifted him to the governorship at age 43. He peppers his assessment of the corrections system with equal parts expletives and statistics. The United States spends $74 billion per year on incarcerating people, yet “we do virtually nothing when they come out,” he says. “It’s startling how fucking stupid it is.”

Jersey City is trying to find a local solution to a national problem. The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Its population in prison or jail more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2012. The rising number of inmates generated a flood of people being released from jail or prison every year. Nationally, about three-quarters of prison inmates get re-arrested within five years of their release. That’s not too surprising, because ex-offenders return home with the deck stacked against them. Employers are reluctant to hire them, they lack employable skills and frequently they have other problems to contend with, such as homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction.

The problem of prisoner re-entry keeps gaining public attention at all levels of government. It’s as close to a bipartisan national issue as one can find these days. Democrats from President Obama to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker are recommending the same sorts of remedies as prominent Republicans such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Both parties seem to agree that with the costs of incarceration so high, programs with even modest success can pay for themselves. Thus, re-entry experiments like the one in Jersey City can appeal to those who see a moral reason for rehabilitating ex-offenders and those who see it as a matter of fiscal prudence.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” McGreevey says.

The origins of the Jersey City program actually precede both Fulop and McGreevey. They start with a meeting of the Hudson County freeholder commission in 2006, when Oscar Aviles, the county warden, had to answer questions about the local crime rate. One of the freeholders called Aviles to the podium and asked him what he was doing to make sure the people he released into the community didn’t commit new crimes. “I was like, ‘That’s not my problem. This is somebody else’s problem,’” he recalls. In retrospect, the public grilling was a turning point for Aviles. He used to conceive of his job as keeping the jail safe and secure. He didn’t measure his performance by what happened to former inmates beyond his walls.

That mentality has been common in corrections for the past 30 years, and now Aviles is among a cadre of wardens arguing it has become a barrier to effective rehabilitation of ex-inmates. Once Aviles began feeling accountable for inmates’ transition back into society, he started looking for ways to improve their chances of success. In 2010, Hudson County won a competitive Second Chance Act grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that funded an array of support services both behind bars and outside. The grant paid for a nonprofit called Integrity House to set up an office in the jail and conduct a mix of 12-step meetings and one-on-one drug counseling sessions for people the jail had identified as substance users. McGreevey came on board in the first three months.

Here’s how the program works today: As soon as inmates enter the county jail, they are screened for a history of drug use, which is one of the main ways Hudson County stands apart from other places with re-entry programs. The screening targets the “frequent flyers,” people who repeatedly cycle through jail due to untreated mental illness and substance abuse disorders. The jail also works with family services to make sure inmates are pre-enrolled in Medicaid and other forms of government assistance, so they don’t have to wait to receive benefits once they leave jail.

At the moment, the re-entry program is still a small-scale experiment. Only about 5 percent of the jail’s annual population participates in the program, in part because demand for treatment exceeds capacity. As of April, only 80 inmates, divided evenly by gender, could participate at any one time because of staffing and shelter constraints. Upon release, inmates who participate in drug treatment are met by a staff member and taken to transitional sober housing. This is rare in American corrections, as most inmates usually exit incarceration without anyone waiting for them. The housing is free, so long as tenants pass regular random urine tests and enroll in either job training or employment-related schooling. Case managers check in with inmates every week for the first three months and once a month for the next year.

The statistics released thus far show that people who receive the extra support services are getting jobs and re-offending less than the general jail and ex-offender population. The results have convinced federal officials to award multiple grants to Hudson County and pay for a formal evaluation of how and why the program seems to work so well.

Jersey City offers an ideal environment to try a re-entry program. If ex-inmates can find jobs anywhere, it’s here. The city’s population is growing. It rose by more than 7 percent between 2000 and 2013, and construction cranes are visible all over the city. The median income has climbed by more than a third since 2005. Part of the growth in residents and income is due to the high cost of living in New York City, just across the Hudson River. Jersey City has essentially become a less expensive extension of lower Manhattan. Goldman Sachs, Chase Bank, Merrill Lynch, Citibank and UBS all occupy buildings in Jersey City’s financial district, earning it the nickname “Wall Street West.”

During his campaign for mayor two years ago, Fulop sought advice from McGreevey about workforce development, particularly for the poor. McGreevey used the opportunity to discuss ex-offenders and the barriers they face returning from jail or prison. The talk left an impression on Fulop, who decided to make re-entry a new focus of Jersey City’s employment agency and put McGreevey in charge. Since then, the city has opened Martin’s Place, a job center exclusively for ex-offenders, located in a ward with some of the highest rates of violent crime and poverty in the area.

The emphasis on prisoner re-entry by the Fulop administration and its partners in Hudson County has drawn some complaints that too much money is being spent on an undeserving population. The county portion alone costs an estimated $2.9 million per year -- in addition to the traditional corrections costs for an inmate. Convicted criminals get first priority with transitional housing and welfare benefits at the expense of other residents. The city’s employment office not only helps clients find jobs, but functions as a mobile HR department, serving as a liaison between businesses and the ex-offenders they hire. The staff also links clients to free legal aid. All of that work derives from the basic premise that if ex-offenders find and keep jobs, they’re less likely to commit another crime.

Frank Mazza, director of community reintegration at the Hudson County jail, says the re-entry program represents the current best thinking on how to rehabilitate inmates and ex-offenders: It focuses on drug users and the mentally ill, it offers service inside the jail and after release, and it tackles a host of related problems at once. Still, he wonders about the long-term political viability of the program. He worries that it doesn’t have the backing of the average citizen. “I think the public is against me,” Mazza says.

Fulop concedes that giving extra resources to people who broke the law is controversial. “It’s not the sexiest population to be dealing with,” he says. Nonetheless, his assessment is that the benefits outweigh the costs because lowering the recidivism rate is in everyone’s best interests. Ex-offenders who don’t remain sober, who can’t find housing or who can’t find employment increase the strain on taxpayer-funded services, from hospitals to emergency shelters to law enforcement. For every ex-offender who does not return to jail, Hudson County estimates that it saves $47,000. While the data is too thin to make any broader observations, Mazza and Fulop are also betting that the re-entry program reduces overall crime.

Fulop believes enough in the program that he’s sending McGreevey across the state to meet with other public officials about exporting the re-entry model. Five counties are in the process of designing their own re-entry programs. If more local jurisdictions adopt the model, the mayor reasons, it will improve their chances of receiving federal, state and private grant funding to expand and improve the effort.

But there may be limits to how successfully the Jersey City program can be replicated. Jersey City is attracting young, affluent professionals whose purchasing power adds to the construction and service-sector employment base. “Those conditions don’t exist all over the state,” says Jerry Harris, interim CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a nonprofit think tank. “Millennials are looking for cool places. Trenton and Camden are not cool.”

And not every community in the state is enjoying the kind of economic renaissance Jersey City is. Harris points to Atlantic City, the state’s faded gambling mecca, which is losing much of its job base as the casinos close. “That’s 9,000 fewer jobs” in the past year alone, he says, “and 9,000 more people competing with [ex-inmates] trying to re-integrate.”

Jersey City’s re-entry program benefits not only from a healthy local economy but also from a cadre of officials -- from Fulop and McGreevey down to the warden of the county jail -- who are personally invested in the outcome. One of those officials is John Koufos.

Up until a few years ago, Koufos was a criminal defense attorney, a partner at a law firm and an adjunct professor at a local university. He was also an alcoholic.

One night in 2011, he drove drunk and hit a 17-year-old boy walking home, injuring him badly. Koufos fled the scene and persuaded a junior lawyer in his firm to confess to the crime. Police later discovered Koufos was the driver responsible for the accident. Besides losing his license to practice law, he served two years in state prison.

After Fulop became mayor, Koufos read about the re-entry efforts and asked to volunteer at the job center. Now, yet another second-chance seeker, he manages the re-entry office at Martin’s Place. Koufos dresses in a suit and tie, but his experience with addiction and incarceration gives him cachet with ex-offenders. He knows that the corrections system isn’t designed to prepare inmates for work or future family responsibilities. “For the most part, you’re just tolling time,” he says. “The world is progressing, but [you are] not.”

Koufos and the staff at Martin’s Place try to catch people up. They help with every aspect of the job search process. They edit résumés, conduct practice interviews and teach clients how to convey professionalism in their speech, writing and attire. So far, about 61 percent of clients who have completed the center’s one-week training course have found jobs within three months.

The results are encouraging, but not everybody who walks into Martin’s Place is ready to change. One afternoon in February, a member of Koufos’ staff left her purse in an empty room. It took less than an hour before a client being served by the job center -- a recovering heroin addict -- stole the purse and used the credit cards for public transportation. While Koufos and his team seemed frustrated by the betrayal, they were equally annoyed by what the theft meant for one of their clients -- an arrest and possible re-incarceration.

Then something unexpected happened. Word of the theft spread. Other clients who were further along in drug treatment and job assistance offered to help. They tracked down the purse and presented it along with the man who stole it.

Koufos says both parts of the experience are emblematic of the re-entry program so far. Some people do falter, especially drug addicts. They have to hit rock bottom before they’ll accept help, and sometimes they have to hit bottom more than once. Talking about the purse incident afterwards, Koufos chose not to dwell on the theft. He focused on how the community of ex-offenders responded. They rallied around his staff and resolved the situation themselves. That gave him hope.