In the Spotlight: A Formerly Incarcerated Person Speaks Out about Successful Reentry
Date:  09-24-2014

The choices you make are yours, so think wisely, advises Starlene Patterson
Those who know Starlene Patterson know that she is a driven, no-nonsense individual deeply grounded in her faith who works tirelessly to help young people in the criminal justice system redirect their lives for a more positive outcome. Patterson is also involved in efforts to guide returning citizens to successful reintegration back into their communities.(Full disclosure,Reentry Central’s managing editor Beatrice Codianni has known Starlene Patterson for approximately 15 years). Patterson exudes a confidence that comes with working her way out of the depths of misery to becoming a highly respected professional in her field. Reentry Central asked Patterson to write an article with the subject of her choosing. She chose reentry. Not everyone in the criminal justice system is as motivated as Patterson, but if they follow her sage advice the recidivism rate would surely be reduced. The following is Star Patterson’s story on her journey through incarceration and successful reintegration.

Successful Re-Entry: If you really want it you can achieve it

by Starlene Patterson

When people who are familiar with the Criminal Justice System hear the term “recidivism” what comes to mind is individuals who returned back to prison after being released from a period of incarceration.

Bureau of Justice Statistics for 30 states through the years 2005 to 2010 show that within three years of release about two-thirds (67.8 %) of released prisoners were rearrested, and within five years about three quarters (76.6 %) were rearrested. Of course there are a variety of reasons why individuals returned to prison (lack of housing and employment opportunities, new crimes being surrounded by negative people, places and things etc). But what about the remaining percentages (3-years 32.2 %, 5-years 23.4%) of individuals who were not re-arrested during both time periods? What is it about them? What can be learned about their transition? I am one of those individuals who have superseded both time periods and have been home almost eight years after spending almost eight years in Federal Prison in Danbury Connecticut.

After a few years of being incarcerated I realized that the re-entry process had begun the moment I was sentenced. How I spent my time in prison was providing me with a glimpse of how I would live when I returned home. Living in a place that housed thirteen-hundred women had its challenges but despite that I worked while I was in prison (just as I worked prior to prison). I earned additional credits (I entered with 70 college credits) through the free college program offered by Marist College. I eventually started working on my attitude, behavior and thought patterns as well as formulating a plan for when I re-entered society.

One year the prison hosted a Career. It was at the Career Fair that I gathered some literature about some re-entry services in New York and no other state.

At the time I was undecided if I was going to return to Norfolk, Virginia where I lived prior to prison or return back to New York City where I was from. It took a few years for me to figure it out but when I reached my last year I decided to return to New York City

Why New York City? Well I weighed the pros and cons of each city and New York City seemed more prepared to assist individuals with re-entering society successfully. It was all about the resources. I wrote several agencies within my last year in prison and all of them vowed to help me when I returned to society.

When I left Danbury on January 10, 2007, I left with the single most important thing, and that was the mindset to never return. I returned to New York to start my new life.

Sure I had a rap sheet with several arrests, two felony convictions, and one misdemeanor conviction. But instead of dwelling on these problems I focused on what I could do and not what society deemed that I could not do. I wasn’t a menace, just a person who made a few mistakes in life. I knew I had to complete my college education and move into my career field of working with the adolescent population.

First stop was the halfway house which was a challenge and featured many limitations. One of the biggest ones was not having a computer to assist us returning citizens with looking for employment. So we had to hit the pavement. Thankfully I had left prison with my resume which was a huge help provided by Danbury’s Education Department.

I had several names and addresses for organizations that provided Re-Entry services. There was Exodus Transitional Services, The Fortune Society, CEO, Woman’s Prison Association, SoBro, Strive, College Initiative and College Community Fellowship. I had to be open-minded and was smart enough to know not to put all my eggs in one basket. I believe all of them had good intentions but only 4 of 6 actually met my different needs, whether it was clothing, transportation, meals, educational assistance etc. Not having any children was a huge plus and made my transition much smoother.

After being home one year I was working full-time, going to college full-times and living in transitional housing where I had to pay rent which made it hard for me to save for my own place. Transitional housing was hard for me because prior to prison I had been living on my own. Transitional housing had strict rules. There was a curfew and I had to submit to random drug tests even though I did not use drugs or drink alcohol. I had swallow my pride and deal with reality. When I went to prison I lost every earthly possession. I was in the rebuilding process of my life, I refused to be a burden on my family but trying to do it on my own was the wrong answer; I had to accept the help that was being provided.

I knew what I needed to do and I did it all while being on federal supervision. That’s what made it easy for me and I received early termination status at the twenty-one month mark out of five years supervision. It didn’t make any logical sense to continue to waste more tax payer’s money when I was doing what was right and not breaking any laws; as each year went by things continuously improved for me.

Fast forward to the present, I can honestly say that if I would have returned to Norfolk, Virginia my life would not be where it is now. I know that New York City is and has been the leading city throughout the nation for Re-entry services for many years. The free book “Connections” provided by the New York City Public Library can attest to that. It is the Bible for Re-entry services. I know so many individuals who have returned to society, have not been rearrested and been home for more than a decade. They are all successful in their own right from CEOs, Executive Vice Presidents, Business Owners, Educators, Clinicians, City Workers etc. I, myself, have graduated with my BSW from Lehman College, earned a MSW from Fordham University and I am a New York State Licensed Master Social Worker. I have consistently worked and given back to my community through my profession.

In conclusion I leave returning citizens with three important words: Reflect, Reassess and Redirect. I believe these are the foundational principles that Re-entry providers must convey to their clients. If people in prison have started this during their incarceration, that’s great. If not, it is something new they must learn:

Reflect and learn from your past so you know where you want to be in the future. Reassess your moral/value system to see if it will prevent successful reentry and Redirect your thoughts; for you cannot arrive at the right destination if you are being guided by wrong thoughts, behaviors and attitudes.

Emphasis should be placed on the importance of returning citizens building upon their foundation with Honesty, Confidence, Positive Attitude, Hard Work, Persistence and Determination. People must also learn their options: learn the laws of their state, learn not be afraid, lose their prideand ask for help. I believe that all the individuals who have successfully not returned to prison will agree with me.

Starlene Patterson has been working in the Criminal Justice Prevention field for that last several years. Currently she works for one of the largest reentry agencies in the nation, The Osborne Association. She works out of their satellite office at the country’s second largest jail, Rikers Island, as a Cognitive Skills Facilitator teaching the adolescent population (16 & 17 year-old) Moral Recognation Therapy (MRT) which is the curriculum for the first ever Social Impact Bond Program geared towards reducing recidivism. Starlene is also a published author of the inspirational book, “Real Talk on a Blessed Day,” and is currently working on her second book “From Prison to Purpose.”