When a prisoner is released from a New York State correctional facility, they’re sent out the door with a change of clothes, a bus ticket, and 40 dollars in their pocket. Seeking a home in New York City after years in a cell, these returning residents face a grim landscape. The city’s affordable housing crisis especially affects formerly incarcerated people, who often lack the capital (employment, savings, credit, references) necessary to secure housing under the best of circumstances, and frequently face discrimination besides. Family members who live in public housing risk eviction by letting a recently released relative stay; NYCHA’s “permanent exclusion” policy, though inconsistently enforced and sometimes temporarily appealable, remains on the books. Unable to find affordable housing, formerly incarcerated people in urban areas frequently become homeless, which in New York can mean falling prey to drugs and violence in city shelters, privately run three-quarter houses, or the streets. But, if they’re very lucky, they could make a home on West 140th Street, in housing run by The Fortune Society.
The Fortune Society recognizes that stable housing is a bedrock on which to reassemble lives after prison. The 52-year-old organization also provides mental health and counseling services, addiction-recovery treatment, and political advocacy for formerly incarcerated people, but its crowning achievement is housing: Since 2002, thousands of formerly incarcerated people have found a fresh start in 62 beds at The Fortune Society Academy, informally known as the Castle, along with 50 studio apartments at Castle Gardens, next door. (In partnership with developer Jonathan Rose, Castle Gardens opened in 2011, comprising 114 units total of long-term, supportive and affordable housing for formerly homeless and justice-involved people and their families.) A third of the beds at the Castle are reserved for emergency shelter, and the remainder go to people who stay up to a year or longer as necessary. In its “Scattered-Site Housing” program, Fortune acts a mediator, helping formerly incarcerated people find permanent housing with private landlords, and advocating for them throughout their tenancy.
Fortune’s methods run counter to governing consensus about reentry services and affordable housing; anyone who doesn’t pose a present danger, no matter their past or ongoing problems, can make a home at Fortune. “We were told, ‘If you want to run a safe place, don’t take anybody with a violent conviction,’” says Jo-Anne Page, Fortune’s CEO. “But we run one of the safest buildings in New York City.” Even the neighbors are convinced; they picketed the Castle on the day it opened, but now, the building hosts local elections and community board meetings, as well as a neighborhood nutrition program and a Halloween haunted house. For Castle residents, the building represents more than a big construction project, a radically inclusive housing policy, or a hub of necessary services. It’s home.
Brett Story’s acclaimed Prison in Twelve Landscapes mapped incarceration’s presence in spaces and lives beyond prison walls. For UO, Story visits this unique landscape of reentry, where promises of redemption and rehabilitation may be, for once, fulfilled.