NEWARK, NJ — When Michael K. Williams played the legendary character of Omar Little on the well-known TV show "The Wire," his character had a famous line: "You come at the king, you best not miss."
When Williams came to Newark earlier this month to talk about the challenges faced by former prisoners seeking to re-enter society, one of the best traits of Omar Little came to life. The real-life Williams came armed with double-barreled words of hope, not with Omar's trusty shotgun. But just like Omar, Williams's weapon of choice did not miss.
"We're speaking about some people getting a second chance. But there's a lot of people out there, including our youth, that's never gotten a first chance," Williams said as he addressed a mesmerized audience at the Newark office of the non-profit New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC). "What I can do is I can go on them corners, and grab me up somebody, and say 'Brother, what you doing today?' I mentor, and I don't do it by myself. I get my brothers within my circle, and we're putting the wrap around someone. We have to be the wrap around. I'm not waiting for anybody else to be the wrap around my children."
Williams' appearance at the recent event, sponsored by the NJRC, an organization led by former Democratic New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, marked the launch of an Ambassador program that will use a similar Columbia University program as a model.
The NJRC Ambassador program has three prime goals. The ambassadors will serve as points of contact and referral sources for families and their loved ones suffering from the negative impact of addiction and incarceration - including providing pathways to financial resources and programs to ease the reentry process. The ambassadors will also have an advocacy role, personally promoting ex-prisoners with law enforcement, medical and mental health providers, as well as the business community, as they get jobs and fully re-enter the regular personal and professional lives that those who have never been in jail often take for granted. Finally, the NJRC Ambassadors will serve as spokespersons to the public, the media, and members of the government.
A notable array of people from across the strata of society were in attendance at the Newark conference, held at the Greater Newark Conservancy headquarters on Prince Street in the heart of Newark's Central Ward. New Jersey State Parole Board Chairman Samuel J. Plumeri, Jr., was present, as well as U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Craig Carpenito and U.S. Federal District Judge Madeline Cox Arleo.
Several prominent Newark politicians spoke out about reentry, their participation appropriate in a city where many citizens are reclaiming their lives after being incarcerated.
"Everybody makes a mistake, and some pay for it more than others," said state Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29th), who serves as the chair of the Assembly budget committee. "This is an opportunity for you to recreate your lives, and to be part of a bigger cultural change."
"The parole board gave you a chance. But you have to remember that you gave yourself a chance. You earned your way out," said state Senator Ron Rice (D-28th), who served as a Newark police officer before getting into politics. "The key is while you're out here, keeping it moving in the right direction."
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal pointed to a local example of the ongoing need to improve relations between law enforcement and local communities, another key element of a successful reentry policy.
"We had a community listening session at Newark's Central High School. I went around the room, and I asked the young people there to define in one or two words their view of law enforcement. And to a child, it was fear, distrust, and confusion," Grewal said to a packed room. "And when I said how do we fix this, they said 'We just want to know who our cops are. We want to know our cops on clear, blue-sky days when there's nothing bad going on.' And that's easy. Our cops need to get back into the schools, go into our communities, and develop relationships of trust."
As several ex-prisoners noted, however, trust on both sides of the bars of a prison cell can be hard to build. Moreover, the combined need for job training for ex-offenders and employers, treatment for the opioid addiction ravaging all of America, restoring voting rights, rebuilding family relationships and economic credit, and addressing mental health issues stemming from the aftermath of crime committed and time served can make the challenges surrounding reentry seem overwhelming.
But in a room full of policymakers, preachers, and politicians, it was the ex-prisoners whose words got closest to the heart of what drives not only a positive reentry plan, but real redemption.
"You have to take responsibility for the ripple effect because it's not just the one victim - it's the victim's families. If you harm anyone, their families have to deal with their trauma as well. And your family has to deal with your stigma," said Ron Pierce, a voting rights advocate who is a Justice & Democracy fellow with the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. He recently graduated from Rutgers-Newark with a degree in Justice Studies through the New Jersey Transformative Education in Prisons program.
"I try to remember all the different harms I caused, not just to the individual whose life I took," added Pierce, who served more than 30 years in prison for murder. "I try to pay forward everything with the legislation that I try to advance to make it better for those coming out."
Amani Shakur, who served more than 17 years for armed robbery and other crimes, has put prison behind him and works as a fleet manager for the City of Newark's Department of Public Works. Shakur's view of what it takes for the successful reentry of ex-prisoners is based on what he sees on the streets of Newark, not at a policy roundtable.
"For the most part, the people here are listening. But do they hear us? That's another question," Shakur said. "We need them to hear us, because the youth of this city depend on us. I'm a person that they look up to in the community. My story is important to them. As they look up to me to continue to do right, without the system helping me, or helping the brothers from the reentry program, we're all bound to fail."
The character of Omar Little on The Wire never went through any reentry process. Instead, Omar was gunned down in a Baltimore corner store, murdered by a child who idolized him. Part of Omar's legend that lived on after his death, including among his character's many admirers, was his personal credo: “A man gotta have a code.”
When asked what kind of code it takes on both sides of the law to realize a successful reentry policy, Williams, who had his own troubles with the law growing up in Brooklyn, pointed to a real-life path of dignity, forgiveness, and respect.
"That's a loaded question. There's no one answer to that, because every individual has different issues that they face when they come home. However, as a community, we cannot judge. We cannot 'other'. We should not be othering them," Williams told TAPinto Newark in an exclusive one-on-one interview. "I've been on that side of the tracks, where I was othered. It doesn't feel good. God blessed me to have a second chance at life. But that's the number one thing we can do as a community - to not 'other' the formerly incarcerated."
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