"I'm Still Free"
Another day, another great Center for Court Innovation event, this time in upper Manhattan as the Harlem Community Justice Center celebrated the latest cohort of graduates from its reentry court. More than 41 parolees were honored for having completed the nine month program.
I'm afraid I have written about these events on quite a few occasions so I apologize for the repetition, but this evening was another inspiring affair. As always, I was struck by the mutual respect, gratitude and warmth between the graduates and their parole officers -- pretty much the opposite of what many people might expect the relationship between parolee and parole officer to look like.
The graduates were asked to say a few words as they accepted their certificates. Part of the joy of these graduations is to see how each parolee reacts to this assignment. Some are reticent. Some make jokes. Some speak directly to their fellow parolees. Some speak to the rest of the audience. And some are natural speechmakers who light up in front of the microphone.
Despite the diverse personalities of the individual parolees, their remarks tend to cluster around a few key themes -- their lives before prison, the challenges of reentry, the impact of the reentry court. Here are a few sample quotations I jotted down from various speakers:
"I came home with nothing"
"I thought the world was against me."
"When I came here I was broken down. I didn't want this program."
"I've been bumped and bruised."
"I've come a long ways. I was in prison for 22 years. The first week I came to the program I had a job...I still have a job."
"I want to thank my parole officer for treating me like a regular human being."
"Without my parole officers, I would have gone back."
"Thanks for not giving up on me."
"I'm still free."