For years, Newark native Omari Atiba was a number inside prison, serving a 30-year sentence for homicide. Now, working through the challenges of reentry into life on the outside, he is getting his name back.
And his humanity.
"I've been out here fighting and scratching, trying to make a change," Atiba, 52, who was released from prison in February. "I've learned from my experience. The truth is that our reality in prison wasn't reality. But we're here now. And we want to give back."
A group of about a dozen former prisoners met before Labor Day at the Greater Newark Conservancy in Newark's Central Ward for a round table discussion about the issues facing New Jersey's reentry population. Approximately 12 million people are released from American jails every year.
According to a 2016 Release Outcome Report of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC), the State Parole Board, and the Juvenile Justice Commission, more than 10,000 prisoners were released from New Jersey correctional facilities in 2011.
Of these, within three years post-release, about 52 percent were rearrested, 40 percent were reconvicted, and 31 percent were reincarcerated. In only three years, over half of those released from prison were again involved in the justice system, and nearly a third were already back in prison or jail.
Among the factors increasing recidivism are low levels of education tied to unemployment, addiction and substance abuse, and untreated mental illness. The men and women at the round table have seen it all, including psychic wounds and the stigma suffered by those who did their time.
"Being in there, it's about survival. Prison makes you feel like you don't matter, and build up this tough demeanor. I had to stay in touch with my family to stay in touch with my soft side. Otherwise, the whole thing turns you into a monster," said Newark native Rashida Smith, 40, a former prisoner who now works in construction management.
"I want to see change in both the prison system and the reentry system," Smith said. "They have all these programs in prison that are supposed to help you reintegrate into society, but it's book knowledge. It needs to go back to rehabilitation. We can help get recidivism down."
The City of Newark has an Office of Reentry designed to help those formerly incarcerated obtain the education and job training skills needed in order to develop a career.
On a wider level, according to former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, who as chairman the non-profit New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC) coordinated the reentry round table among with NJRC Executive Director John Koufos , the use of the halfway house system as a way to facilitate ex-prisoner reentry needs to revamped.
"Halfway houses need to have a different function. You'll have 60 guys trying to work with three computers. It's like prison life, or worse than prison," said McGreevey, whose organization helps ex-offenders with getting the documentation and education needed to fully reintegrate into society.
"There is not the type of change taking place to move from where you are to where you need to go," McGreevey said. "The halfway houses want to measure your success by measuring your programming hours, but discourage outside employment by keeping you in the confines of the house."
The deleterious effect of technical violations in halfway houses were readily apparent at the conference.
Haywood Gandy, an ex-offender who served 18 years for bank robbery, works closely with the NJRC. Gandy helped to organize the conference, but was nowhere to be seen when it began. He had violated his parole two days before, as was being held in East Jersey State Prison, popularly known as Rahway State Prison. His crime: using a cell phone in his halfway house when a friend called to check up on him.
"It breaks my heart that he's not here right now," said his sister, Kemberly Gandy. "This is his baby. It feels like no matter what you do, you can't win. The whole system needs to be overhauled. When you've done your time, that should be it."
Ronald W. Pierce, 59, who served 30 years for homicide and is now a student at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice in Newark, said the barriers to reentry need to be removed.
"You've got allow the people in the system to vote," Pierce said. "If you silence millions of Americans, especially those from urban areas, you destroy the collective efficacy of that community. What politician will listen to a community where a high percentage of their population can't vote?"
McGreevey noted that New Jersey politicians on both side of the aisle are working to improve the reentry process. Former President Barack Obama had pushed for criminal justice reform. But what people like Omari Atiba are dealing with goes in many ways beyond politics.
Ironically, one of the windows inside the conference room had bars on it. But Atiba looked outside to the peaceful green garden of the conservancy grounds, an oasis in the midst of Newark, and described building a life that is his own sanctuary.
"I left all the negative philosophy that I had as a kid back in prison," Atiba said before he went to work his second shift at his job while he studies for a nursing degree. "Family is important, and it isn't just the people you grew up with. It's the people that you grow with. I'm human again."