Victor Polanco, Case Manager and Scatter Site Housing employee at The Fortune Society

Overcoming Barriers to Reentry as a Veteran With Justice Involvement

Monday, August 1, 2016

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2011-2012, approximately 181,500 veterans were serving time in correctional facilities. Additionally, incarcerated veterans are more than twice as likely to report PTSD diagnoses as non-veterans. For formerly incarcerated veterans, the challenges of reentry are often compounded by mental health needs and substance use issues that they developed as a result of their experiences as soldiers.

As a former client at The Fortune Society and a veteran from the United States Marine Corps, I understand the struggles that veterans with justice involvement face upon reentry. I joined the Marines at the age of 17 and was stationed in North Carolina for four years as an infantry rifleman. I was deployed to Iraq from 2007 to 2008 and completed my service in 2010.

During my time in the Marine Corps, I developed a strong brotherhood with the men and women I served with. We laughed and cried together, fostering close relationships because of the struggles we faced collectively. When I returned to the civilian world, I felt lost without these bonds and searched for ways to replace them. I gradually became involved in criminal activity, severed ties with my family, and quit my job. This new lifestyle led to my first arrest.

When I arrived at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), I was immediately sent to solitary confinement because I was a veteran with a PTSD diagnosis and substance use history. I spent my first night at MCC in a tiny cell that became flooded with rain water. Numerous times, I requested that the corrections officers relocate me to a different cell, but they instead gave me an extra blanket to throw into the water. I was in solitary for about ten days, and it was during this time that I decided I wanted to change.

In order to change, I knew that I needed to separate myself from the people and community that led me to justice involvement. I made this a priority when I was released and took steps to adjust to a new lifestyle. Fortunately, a federal program through a drug court allowed me to avoid serving a prison sentence.

During the first days after my release, I was overwhelmed with uncertainty and worried about finding employment. After meeting someone who worked at Fortune, I came here as a client in 2014. The staff here soon helped alleviate my worries.

I attended Treatment Services three times a week and participated in Anger Management, Relapse Prevention, and individual counseling services. I also attended group therapy sessions, where I was inspired by individuals coping with similar struggles and learned to open up. With the support of my counselor, I began to develop a positive mentality.

During this time, I became inspired by social workers and their dedication to changing lives. I wanted to do the same for others. Completing a Human Services Certification program helped me develop interest in social work and find opportunities to give back to the community.

Fortune soon offered me a position working for the Justice Involved Supportive Housing (JISH) program, which helps find housing for formerly incarcerated individuals struggling with homelessness or recidivism. Since March 2016, I have worked at our housing unit in West Harlem, The Castle, as a Housing Case Manager. I see each client three times a month, helping them find housing information and assisting them with applications for other services. I also help clients from the supportive housing program, New York/New York III.

Many of my clients struggle with substance use and mental health histories that are worsened by a lack of family support. Some have grown accustomed to justice involvement and begin to lose faith in their progress. Despite these obstacles, many have become successful individuals who work multiple jobs and lead more financially secure lives thanks to our help.

Looking forward, I want to continue helping formerly incarcerated people reenter the community. I currently attend the Borough of Manhattan Community College and plan to obtain my Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work. My main goal is to start a nonprofit that provides services to justice-involved veterans. This population, in particular, needs more access to services and resources, but there are currently few agencies that help them.

I am proud to say that Fortune recognizes the unique needs of veterans with justice system involvement. Our David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy (DRCPP) launched a Reentry Veterans initiative in mid-2014 to develop a deeper understanding of the unique needs of veterans with criminal justice involvement, to expand their access to essential services, to increase awareness of the issues impacting them, and to share the lessons we learned in our research. DRCPP hosted several veterans’ focus groups, facilitated a stakeholder convening, and met with policy-makers to discuss the needs of veterans with justice involvement.  This year, Fortune partnered with Theatre of the Oppressed NYC to cast a theater troupe of justice-involved veterans and develop a performance based on their real life experiences. Together, they created a forum play addressing the neglect, homelessness, and joblessness faced by the NYC veteran community. This performance was hosted at over a handful of diverse NYC venues reaching broad audiences to raise awareness about the challenges faced by our actors and many veterans with justice system involvement.

From providing employment to hosting weekly food distributions, Fortune provides life-changing services to our clients. These services are crucial to both the formerly incarcerated population, including justice-involved veterans, as well as the community at large. I feel humbled to help such a dedicated organization continue to thrive.

Categories: Community, Featured

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