NEWARK, NJ — For the thousands of individuals who leave New Jersey’s prison system each year, the barriers to re-entry can feel like insurmountable obstacles.

Newark Public Library is on its way to making that journey more traversable in 2020 through Fresh Start @ Your Library, a two-year program offered in partnership with the State Parole Board, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and six other participating libraries throughout the state. 

Sponsored by the New Jersey State Library, Fresh Start will provide social workers, GED courses and testing, job training and connection to employment opportunities for inmates returning to the Newark community. In addition to Newark, the $628,774 grant awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services is being dispersed across the library systems in Long Branch, Paterson, Trenton, Atlantic City and Cumberland County. The Free Library of Philadelphia will join the initiative in year two of the grant. 

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Tom Alrutz, NPL’s interim director, said the grant funding allows NPL to expand its already existing resources for people in need of support. No stranger to providing onsite connection to human services, NPL is one of two libraries in the state that employs a full-time social worker. 

“We offer these services to all our citizens, all the time,” Alrutz said. “[Fresh Start] raises it to a higher level and gives us more resources, help and awareness. Working with the Parole Board and Labor and Workforce Development, we’ll be able to do it even better and reach the re-entry community as effectively as possible.”

Two more full-time social workers will join the library to deliver the grant, which also provides funding for 50 returning Newarkers to take the GED exam.

Noting the significant number of people living in Newark who have been incarcerated, Alrutz added that the program’s linkage to the Parole Board is critical in identifying and reaching this population going forward. In 2018, about 9,000 inmates were released in New Jersey alone, and according to the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, more than half will be rearrested within a three-year period while 31 percent will face reincarceration. 

“New Jersey has some of the highest racial disparities in state prisons in the nation. We have to respond to that, and libraries have always responded to the needs of their communities,” Alrutz said of the importance of reconnection centers. “We’ve already been well-positioned to partake in this program, it’s part of how we serve people in their needs for the GED, college prep, reading and literacy help. We’re a neutral, accepting place where people can feel comfortable.” 

Fresh Start is forming the basis for a model for libraries and organizations to implement nationwide, according to Alrutz. The New Jersey State Library is working with an advisory committee comprised of librarians and social workers from San Francisco, Denver, Washington, D.C. and Monmouth University to create the process and a toolkit of best practices that can be used in any library in the United States. 
“Libraries are the linchpins that connect returning citizens with the variety of available services within their communities,” New Jersey State Librarian Mary Chute said in a press release. “We believe libraries are uniquely positioned as key collaborators in strengthening the work of government agencies and nonprofit organizations that help returning citizens find jobs, secure stable housing, and complete other essential tasks.”