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Where Do We Go from Here: Uncovering a Broken Criminal Justice System By MegAnne Liebsch

This article is part of a three-part series about the U.S. criminal justice system. Part One details mass incarceration through a personal lens. Part Two asks: How can we build a social and criminal justice system that eradicates inequity? In this final installment, I look to the Jesuit network for a vision of community-based justice and healing.

Part Three: "We All Want to Prosper"

Mychal Pagan was preparing to leave prison when the pandemic struck. Transitional services ground to a halt. The prison limited the number of people in the building, so Omar had to wait days to see his counselors. As his release date loomed, Pagan didn’t have anywhere to live.

“Communication was broken down,” he says. “‘Hold up, are they closing down shelters? Are they closing down?’ I wasn't really sure because I couldn't talk to the people I needed to talk to.”

Just days before his release, Pagan found Thrive for Life Prison Project, a prison ministry and re-entry program started by volunteers from Jesuit parishes and institutions. The Project began by offering Ignatian Spiritual Exercises to folks in prison, and in three years, it has expanded to providing resources to people returning from incarceration through its community home in the Bronx, Ignacio House.

Within days of learning about Ignacio House, Pagan arrived at its doorstep.

Zach Presutti, SJ prays with a member of the Thrive for Life.

“I couldn't be more grateful,” he says. “How I lived on the inside was a lot different than how I'm living now.”

Prison was isolating, Pagan says. He sequestered himself in his room. But at Ignacio House, he joined the building crew helping to renovate the backyard. He dove into the work and grew close to the crew.

Courtesy of Thrive for Life

Ignacio House may not seem like a radical alternative to this isolation. The premise is straightforward: Provide formerly incarcerated individuals with housing, resources for healing (counseling), education, job training and accompaniment.

Pagan found holistic support in the community. Staff helped him apply for SNAP benefits — tricky to secure amid the pandemic — and register for online literature classes this fall. But, he also found healing in small moments, sharing dinner with his housemates.

“Being a part of Ignacio House, nobody fights their battles alone,” Pagan says. “The community here is going to help me, and we want to help everybody else to do what they have to do, so we can all thrive at the end of the day. That's like the major link that brings us together, because we all want to prosper.”

The criminal justice system is not designed to create prosperous people. It churns people in and out of correctional facilities over 10 million times per year. People like Pagan return home and find themselves cut off from even basic needs — housing, identification and social security numbers, healthcare, education, stable and well-paying jobs.

One of the founders of Thrive for Life, Zach Presutti, SJ, sees this vicious cycle differently. “It is not so much that they're cut off from us,” he says. “We're cut off from them. We failed them! If you look at the American criminal justice system right now, you don't see failed human beings, you see a country that's failed. A country that's failed over 2.2 million people—7.5 if you include parole and probation.”

This dichotomy, us and them, is constructed. “It doesn't have to be that way,” Presutti says. Ignacio House proves it.

Ignacio House is, first and foremost, a house of studies, according to Presutti. All 24 members are enrolled in an academic program through Columbia University, New York University or Mercy College.

Most prison re-entry programs focus on job training and employment, rather than education. Yet, 70 percent of positions in the U.S. require education beyond high school. Lack of education is a major hurdle for people leaving prison.

Presutti believes “education is the answer to everything.” By providing the students at Ignacio House a safe space to focus on academics, Thrive for Life break down the hurdles to re-entering society and reduce the rate of repeat incarceration.

“We're showing people that formerly incarcerated individuals can be wonderful, contributing, educated leaders in the world,” says Presutti.

This academic focus is what drew Pagan to Thrive for Life. Before being incarcerated, he was an English student.

“I wasn't sure when I was going to be able to pick up the books again,” Pagan says. “Because when you're released, they just basically tell you, ‘You got to get a job. You got to work, you got to generate an income. You got to go focus on all these programs to satisfy parole.’”

Thrive for Life enabled Pagan to defer employment requirements and instead focus on his education. Like Presutti, he sees education as the linchpin for social transformation.

“There's more wars engaged and fought and won in the classroom than anywhere else,” says Pagan. “If we could get out of this habit of thinking of one person in relationship to another, then gradually things will start changing. If you think about racism, it's the white man thinking of himself in relationship to other races. I'm kind of echoing what Virginia Woolf said. You have to stop thinking of people in relationship to people and think of people in relationship to reality.”

Omar DeJesus has lived at Ignacio House for nearly a year. After 12 years in prison, he’s grateful for a “space that isn’t a cell” where he can envision a brighter future.

“Brother Zach, he believes in us,” says DeJesus. “We know that set in the right direction with the right community and the right people in your corner, there isn't nothing in this world that can stop you from thriving.”

DeJesus grew up in poverty. He witnessed domestic violence. His cousin was killed before his eyes. “I have witnessed and experienced things a lot of people would never see,” he says.

The neighborhood of Brooklyn where he grew up is fractured by violence, substance abuse and poverty. Ignacio House has given DeJesus the safety to heal from this trauma.

Courtesy of Thrive for Life

Ignacio House addresses trauma and recovery through five pillars: emotional, intellectual, psychological, physical and spiritual. It’s a holistic approach, says DeJesus, “It's beautiful. You're not going to get that nowhere in New York.”

Now, he wants to bring that healing back to Brooklyn with his own non-profit. At NYU, he has designed a program of study that combines non-profit management with art.

His non-profit will use “art as a form of therapy to heal communities that's been targeted with discrimination, oppression, and many injustices,” DeJesus says.

Students at Thrive for Life are encouraged to use art as therapy. Artist Robert Rivera depicts an incarcerated Christ.

For DeJesus, who watched his community suffer from resource deprivation, justice is rooted in community. “I would like to see a lot of social services being brought back to the community, including education. I don't really think reform helps anything, if anything it hurts. It's only a bandage. It doesn't really change the inside. It just makes the outside look good.”

So, how do we “change the inside?” How do we overhaul the criminal justice system when our political landscape is fractured?

Presutti argues the U.S. needs “a conversion,” a return to the heart of Catholic Social Teaching. I see Thrive for Life as a sort of guiding star for such an interior and societal conversion. Thrive for Life's focus on accompaniment and holistic services has created a vibrant, thriving community. It is a model both for social change and a re-imagined criminal justice system—based on healing, reconciliation, compassion.

Crime harms communities, but the current criminal justice system only compounds that harm. To overhaul this system, the U.S. must seek to repair social bonds. We must ask: What do we owe to all communities? Thrive for Life answers: education, connection and grace.