David Rothenberg, Founder of The Fortune Society

Fortune Plays The Nurturing Role of Family For Our Clients

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Three events took place during the early days of The Fortune Society that highlighted the significance of familial ties (or the lack thereof) for currently or formerly incarcerated people. On Christmas Eve of 1969, a man appeared at Fortune’s future office. At this time, Fortune was only two years old and consisted of volunteers working from a single-room office. Everyone had already gone home and I was closing up. Prentice Williams, with a broad smile on his face, announced: “I missed all of the 1960’s. There’s only a week left. What can I do?”

He went on to tell me that the only letter he received during his 11-year incarceration was the “form letter” that Fortune started sending to men seeking parole. All we could offer was a handshake, moral support, and some guidance on housing and jobs. Prentice and I had dinner on that memorable Christmas Eve before he returned to the Single Room Occupancy that Parole had provided for him.

I found it difficult to understand or even grasp the reality that Prentice was so isolated while he was incarcerated and that he didn’t even receive mail. I remember thinking at the time that if I traveled all the way to, say, Madagascar, by the time I arrived I would have had mail and packages from both grandmothers, at least three of my aunts, my sister, and my parents. In time, Prentice located a few relatives, but in those crucial first few months, it was the men and women at Fortune who played the nurturing roles of family for him.

The second event involved Bob Brown, who came to Fortune after serving 28 years in prison. Slowly, I learned his story. Born out of wedlock, he was abandoned and left at the New York Foundling Hospital. Raised in a series of state-run institutions, foster families, and orphanages, he told me that he had no memory of being hugged as a child. In his last few years at Wallkill Prison, Bob Brown was one of a handful of men who joined a therapy group headed by a Chaplin, who was also a psychologist.

During those vital sessions, Bob opened up and discussed his fantasies of having a family. Eventually, Bob did become a husband and devoted father. He approached me and asked: “How can I tell my daughter that I once killed a man?” There are no easy answers to such questions. So I called a friend, a child psychologist named Eda Leshan, who invited Bob and me for dinner. Others at Fortune, specifically new parents with few parental guidelines, asked if they could also join us at Eda’s. That first supper lasted hours and everyone insisted that the dinners become weekly sessions. To show you how vital those parenting sessions were, let me share a brief tale.

20 years later, JoAnne Page and I hosted a party at Fortune and invited the children whose parents had participated in Eda’s potluck suppers. None of them knew how hard their parents had strived to give them something they never had. Bob, who initiated the sessions, had died. However, his daughter Phaedra, then in her 20’s, told us that her father was a major positive influence in her life. The other 20-year-olds shared that sentiment as they reflected on their parental guidance.

Bob also recalled an incident that had an enormous impact on him, which occurred in Green Haven prison. He had been locked up for 20 years straight with no outside contact. Not a single person in the world knew or cared where he was. One Sunday, a guard told him that he had a visitor. As he started to comb his hair and wash his face, he became anxious and angry that he had a visitor, interrupting his record of no outside contact.

When he reached the visitor’s room, the guard led Bob (who was white) to an elderly black woman. She looked at the guard and said “that’s not my boy” and Bob was told to return to his cell. He recalled standing there and thinking, “but won’t you visit with me even if I’m not your son?” It was then he realized that he not only wanted family, but that, without one to support him in prison, he had blocked all of his feelings and emotions to survive.

This article was featured in our latest issue of the Fortune News.

Categories: Community, Events, Featured

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