As welcoming as it is for ex-felons to hear the doors of prison close behind them on the way out, the sound is something they will have to get used and can make it highly likely that the door just closed will be the one that is ultimately reopened. As such, prison volunteer, educator and Croton Falls Presbyterian Minister Hans Hallundbaek has been doing all he can for the last 20 years to close the revolving door and is now involved in a new initiative in Ossining to help released prisoners successfully reentry society.
“It is a 15 week program that helps them look for jobs, interview, manage finances and find a place to live,” he says of Breaking the Chains of the Past Program, which is held weekly at the Ossining Presbyterian Church
Set up upon release with housing that amounts to nothing better than a shelter, obtaining housing is also included among the assistance. All told, he’s definitely resigned to the difficulties ahead for them. “A person comes back after 5, 10 years, it’s very tough,” he says, and while he does see a small change in the “get tough on crime policies” that have turned millions of low level drug offenders into felons, it’s still going to be a long time before the war on drugs stops providing an ample work load. “We are number one in the world in incarcerating people,” he says.
A figure he had no inclination of when leaving the business world over 20 years ago for something more meaningful. “I had my midlife correction,” he relays his wife’s words, as the seminary became his path.
Then by happenstance, Hallundbaek was invited into Sing Sing to do a Thanksgiving Service and was awakened to something that should be obvious but really isn’t to most of us on the outside. “Once you get inside and meet them, you realize they are human beings. They may have made serious mistakes but they are not necessarily the mistakes they made,” he says.
In turn, he became alerted to the residue left behind by the War on Drugs. But given the injustice in many cases and since “The War” has been waged largely and disproportionately against people of color, these ex-felons must not make such a great hire of all the years stolen and anger accumulated. “Most of them have been angry for many years, but they find ways to resolve that and they come out determined to stay out,” he says.
Of course, the extended gap on a resume that includes a prison sentence never gets passed a prospective employer and is among the challenges the reentry program helps enrollees confront. “How can you make your experience into something that can be seen as a positive? Whatever you may have learned in vocational work, education and so on,” he says.
Still, the bad economy tall order enough, the program does at least have an outlet with a number of local Rotary Club members who have an inside track on where the jobs are. “Once they get to know the people coming back by working as mentors, members can steer them toward job situations,” he says.
With this current project and his overall work in this area, the word back from employers is typically positive. “They want so hard to make it work that they seem to have an additional incentive,” he relays past feedback.
On a larger level of affecting change, activists such as himself try to nudge political change in accordance to the limitations that govern elected officials. “It can be dangerous to be seen as soft on crime so the way to work with politicians is to help them understand the issues,” he says.
As it stands, Eric Holder, The AFL-CIO and even Barack Obama are among those publically stating that change is needed. In turn, he says we should take their cue. “People can inform themselves better, evaluate it themselves or go visit a prison,” he says.
Thus, he recommends a video screening of Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow at the Katonah Library on March 27th. Exposing how the War on Drugs has been unfairly executed, its implementation relegates millions to second class citizenship via the ex-con label that follows and is simply a follow up to the original Jim Crow that once limited housing, employment and voting rights. “Whether you agree or not, it’s raising appropriate questions about the system,” he says.
Given the consequences, questions we must demand answers to.
Rich Monetti interview of Hans Hallundbaek