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The Fortune Society: Helping Former Prisoners

The Fortune Society: Helping Former Prisoners

JoAnne Page and Betty Rauch are avidly working to humanize the criminal justice system.

JoAnne Page, left, CEO, and Betty P. Rauch, board chairwoman, at opening of Fortune's Society's Castle Gardens.
Castle Gardens Community Learning Center.
Looking west from Castle Gardens rooftop.
JoAnne Page speaking at groundbreaking for Castle Gardens; Betty Rauch is seated behind her.

When JoAnne Page gives her age, she does it proudly. “I was born in 1954,” she says, “the year of Brown vs. the Board of Education.” JoAnne, the child of a Holocaust survivor who grew up in the Bronx and Long Island, cut classes during high school to sit in on court cases. She was especially riveted by issues involving politics and poverty, and after graduating from Yale Law School, she went to work as a criminal defense lawyer. But the fit was not right, so JoAnne quit adversarial work to do service work with a broader scope. 

She found her calling at the Fortune Society, a New York City-based organization founded in 1967 that offers housing, employment, education, mental health services, and other programs to some 3,500 men and women each year, soon after they are released from jail or prison. Fortune also works to provide alternatives to incarceration.

JoAnne has been the president and CEO since 1989, working with such focus and commitment that she has been dubbed “a goddess in the criminal justice world.” As she sees it, our criminal justice system damages prisoners rather than rehabilitating them, leaving society to pay the price. She calls prisons “factories of rage” where some practices—like confining prisoners to 23-hour lockups, sometimes for years—only exacerbate the mental illnesses that have caused many prisoners to break the law. Such punishments, she says, “violate all standards of decency and all international standards.” And concludes, “We’re barbaric.” 

The Fortune Society has won awards and accolades for its work in humanizing the system from the National Institute of Justice, the American Society of Criminology, the U.S. Department of Justice and other governmental and civic organizations. With “prisoner reentry” a big topic these days, the Fortune Society is heralded as a national model. 

The task, however, is daunting. According to Fortune Society statistics, 93,000 men and women return to New York City streets each year after being incarcerated in New York State prisons and New York City jails. Forty percent of them—more than 37,000—are locked up again within three years. Homelessness and joblessness, in particular, are major predictors of recidivism. Therefore, helping former prisoners with these issues are major priorities for Fortune.  

At the organization’s headquarters in Long Island City, the lobby is clean and bright and a whiteboard announces activities like a financial clinic and a session on legal services. A sign near the stairs reads: “The future belongs to anyone who believes in the possibility of the dream.” On the second floor, pictures painted by former prisoners in art therapy line the walls. The Fortune Society relocated here in 2008 from a one-story office in Manhattan, increasing its space from 10,000 to 65,000 square feet. Since JoAnne took over, the staff has grown from 20 to 200 full and part-time employees, 70 percent of whom were formerly incarcerated or have histories of substance abuse or homelessness. But the most dramatic increase at Fortune is in the budget—a jump to $18 million in 2011 from $707,000 in 1989. The rise reflects the growing reach of the group’s programs.

Fortune’s clients can learn reading, writing, math and computer skills and earn a GED. They can attend a two-week job readiness workshop followed by job placement assistance and two years of post-placement support and follow-up. Fortune offers them interpersonal and parenting skills training as well as assistance with custody issues, while the health services available to them include HIV testing and education and a connection to community-based treatment and care. Clients can also receive licensed drug treatment and, as of last year, licensed mental health treatment; a psychiatrist is on the staff.

In addition, a medically supervised program provides clients with substance abuse treatment and individual and group counseling, while a “single stop” reentry program helps with financial and legal issues. 

Castle Gardens

The group’s most visible success story to date, however, is Castle Gardens, a $44 million environmentally friendly building in West Harlem that is Fortune’s first permanent housing complex.  The 11-story building, which opened in 2010, consists of 114 apartments, more than half of which are occupied by people who were formerly incarcerated or homeless; the rest are reserved for low-income residents. The building adjoins Fortune Academy, which has provided emergency and longer-term housing for up to 62 of Fortune Society’s clients since 2002. (The Academy is nicknamed “the Castle” because of its resemblance to one.)

The housing at Castle Gardens is “supportive,” meaning it provides services like counseling, case management and financial planning. The superintendent acts like “the dorm mama” as well as a skilled handyman, JoAnne says. She herself runs community meetings in the building, where Castle Gardens and neighborhood residents can discuss whatever is on their minds. Since the housing complex opened, she said, what began as “huge” community opposition to Castle Gardens has turned to trust in Fortune. 

JoAnne’s determination to provide housing for Fortune’s clients inspired the project, but her dream might not have become a reality without the fundraising and management skills of Betty P. Rauch, Fortune’s chairwoman of the board.  Betty, according to JoAnne, accomplished the feat of raising $43 million in 18 months. 

Betty is a Wellesley graduate and retired marketing professional who first became involved with the Fortune Society as a donor in the late 1960’s.  Outgoing and ebullient, she organized successful benefits for the group before joining the board and being elected chairwoman in 2007. With her upbeat style and a firm grasp of what appeals to contributors, she set out early to change Fortune’s sometimes defensive attitude towards itself and its mission. For starters, she says, she discouraged the practice of vetting potential donors for their liberal credentials—a common habit among social service groups born in the 1960’s. Instead, she urged Fortune Society to “get the money where we can.” Betty also nudged the group away from appeals that played on sympathy and conscience but didn’t present a bigger picture. 

“We’re about rehabilitation, redemption, bringing people back to safe communities, rebuilding families and transforming lives,” she says. “I helped them communicate the mission in a way that’s appealing to liberals and conservatives alike.” 

Working in tandem with JoAnne, Betty drives home the group’s message both in corporate boardrooms and at private get-togethers. Fortune’s cause might lack the cultural cache of the Metropolitan Opera, she says, but “for New Yorkers who want to be in on the cutting edge, it’s a cool thing to support. I’m trying to make it chic,” she adds.

Fortune board members are inevitably asked about recidivism. How effective are Fortune’s programs in keeping the formerly incarcerated from returning to jail? The issue is a complicated one, both JoAnne and Betty say: conducting a good recidivism program is expensive, especially for a group with Fortune’s diversity of services and clients. Fortune is working on creating such a study for its housing program, but “we aren’t there yet,” JoAnne says.

However, statistics across the country support the idea that providing housing for the formerly incarcerated keeps them from returning to prison. One study found that 22 percent of jailed inmates in New York City reported being homeless the night before their arrest. A study of 100 chronically homeless people in Denver showed that supportive housing led to a 76 percent reduction in the number of days they spent in jail. 

Additional supportive housing is therefore on the Fortune Society’s wish list. Despite the economy and the tighter requirements on every dollar that the organization receives these days, Betty regards another building as more than a pipe dream.“Don’t ever put anything past JoAnne Page,” she says.

JoAnne, meanwhile, continues her holistic approach toward helping former inmates achieve a better life. “How do you create an environment that fosters human growth?” she says. “How do you make up for an alcoholic family, abuse and mental health issues? We’re working against overwhelming odds with limited resources. It takes a lot of caring and a lot of undoing.”

 

Roberta Hershenson is an arts journalist whose features, profiles, and news stories have appeared in The New York Times and other publications. She wrote a weekly arts news column for the Westchester section of The Times from 2000 to 2006.