David Rothenberg produces the Off-Broadway play Fortune and Men’s Eyes. The play’s evocative content spurred audience discussion around criminal justice, and eventually led to the founding of The Fortune Society.
Our Education program was founded in 1969 after Fortune participants asked for support in improving their literacy. Volunteer Melanie Johnson, a retired schoolteacher, was the first to give one-on-one tutoring sessions in vocabulary and grammar. Before long, Melanie was tutoring more students than she could handle. The need was clear. To recruit volunteers, David Rothenberg made an announcement on his WBAI radio show and found Lynn Orenstein, also a retired educator. Together, Lynn and Melanie structured the curriculum that later became our Education Program.
Fortune representatives, including founder David Rothenberg, are called to observe the Attica Prison uprising, a major incident in the Incarcerated People’s Rights Movement when individuals incarcerated at Attica Correctional Facility seized control of the prison to demand their fundamental right to human dignity. The uprising resulted in the bloodiest prison massacre in U.S. history and shed light on the injustices individuals with incarceration histories continue to face.
Our Employment Services program was founded in 1971 to support Fortune participants in their search of employment after incarceration. “In the beginning, we would just find jobs for participants, but we found that a lot of people weren’t ready,” says David Rothenberg. To better prepare participants, we built a training program organized around the expectations inherent to professional employment. In addition, we set about challenging barriers and policies hindering formerly incarcerated people from obtaining employment. “Our advocacy challenges both the government and private sector for restricting our people from working,” says David Rothenberg.
JoAnne Page succeeds David Rothenberg as Fortune’s Executive Director. Today, she is the President and CEO.
Though it was clear our participants needed a program that emphasized rehabilitation over punishment, we didn’t have the means to provide for one in our early years. Founder David Rothenberg recalls one of our first Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) participants: a young man sent to Fortune by a judge instead of prison after he was arraigned for gang activity. “He liked being here and we liked him,” David recalls. “He said there was another kid in his gang who could use some help. Within six weeks, we had eighteen members of the gang participating at Fortune.” In 1991, Fortune finally launched its ATI program.
The Substance Use Treatment program is created, empowering individuals with substance use histories and trauma from incarceration to heal and recover.
“People hit enormous discrimination after coming home from incarceration. The other issue is in a city like New York, affordable housing is so scarce…” says JoAnne Page, Fortune’s President and CEO. In the early days of the organization’s history, staff members routinely housed Fortune participants in their homes. “People wouldn’t live in single occupancy hotels because these negative environments were a threat to people’s recovery. I would say ‘you can stay on my couch,'” David Rothenberg explained. To address the lack of safe, affordable housing options for people with justice histories, Fortune opened The Fortune Academy (a.k.a. “the Castle”) in 2002. This emergency and transitional housing development, located in West Harlem, offers a safe and supportive community for people coming home from prison.
In honor of our founder’s tireless efforts to promote the rights and fair treatment of people with histories of justice involvement, Fortune launched the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy (DRCPP) in 2007. Through policy development, advocacy, technical assistance, training, research, and community education, DRCPP works to build an equitable and conscionable criminal justice system, change counterproductive laws and policies, and promote effective program models for people with criminal justice histories.
Fortune’s supportive and affordable housing development, Castle Gardens, opens its doors. In an environmentally sustainable building, complete with a rooftop garden, Castle Gardens is a long-term housing solution for individuals with justice involvement and their families, as well as affordable apartments for the West Harlem community.
The nationwide deinstitutionalization in the early 1970s led to the rapid closing of mental health institutions, but not to the opening of alternative care centers. “They dumped people with mental health needs on the street,” David Rothenberg says, “There were no places for them to go except to places like Fortune.” We needed to respond thoughtfully to this growing issue. “Inevitably, we had to create something to address those needs here.” Our Better Living Center (BLC), an NYS Office of Mental Health-licensed outpatient mental health clinic, opened in 2011 to provide direct clinical services to Fortune participants in need of rehabilitative support and mental health care.
The story of The Fortune Society begins with a play. In 1966, Fortune founder David Rothenberg read the script for Fortune and Men’s Eyes by playwright John Herbert. Deeply moved by the author’s depiction of his own traumatic prison experience, David endeavored to take the play Off-Broadway, where it premiered the following year. After each show, the cast held a talkback session to engage the audience in the real-world issues reflected on stage. David realized, however, that one play wouldn’t be enough to remedy just how little the public knew about the criminal justice system. There had to be a platform for people who had experienced incarceration firsthand. There had to be a movement, with the voices and perspectives of these individuals at the center. Thus, in 1967, The Fortune Society was born.
David, along with individuals impacted by the criminal justice system, soon began giving talks around the country regarding lived experiences with incarceration. Through educating others, they also advocated for the basic human rights of people impacted by the justice system. The group’s breakthrough moment came when they landed an interview on the David Susskind Show in 1968. After the episode aired, David’s Broadway office received over 200 pleas by individuals with justice involvement seeking help. Fortune’s visibility had grown overnight.
Spurred by this newfound exposure, Fortune quickly expanded its reach beyond public education. Within a few years, the organization began providing direct-services for people with justice involvement, while continuing its advocacy work through the publication of The Fortune News, a monthly newsletter containing articles written primarily by authors with justice histories. The Fortune News became so popular among New York’s incarcerated community that prisons tried banning it. They failed, however: A groundbreaking verdict, Fortune v. McGuinness, ruled that prisons could not deny reading literature to individuals who were incarcerated. To this day, The Fortune News continues to be a valuable resource for individuals with justice involvement and continues to circulate through prisons around the country.
In 1971, the Attica Prison uprising, and the state-led massacre that followed awakened the public and led to an influx of interest in Fortune. During the uprising, David was among 30 observers summoned by the protestors with justice involvement at Attica to help facilitate their negotiations with the State of New York. Though the state was ultimately resolute in using lethal force, David returned home from the tragedy to dozens of newly invigorated volunteers—with more individuals joining. The tragedy at Attica, which resulted in the bloodiest prison massacre in U.S history, sparked a movement that Fortune was primed to play a key part in.
As the criminal justice reform movement gained visibility, the number of people affected by the system substantially increased. In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, punitive drug laws swelled the United States’ prison population to a staggering two million individuals, making demand for Fortune’s services higher than ever. Responding to the resulting need, Fortune expanded its service programs to serve as a core resource for people coming home from incarceration. These programs include Employment Services, Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI), and the Substance Use Treatment program.
In recent years, Fortune has continued to increase its array of services and programming. In 2002, The Fortune Academy, also known as “The Castle,” opened in West Harlem to provide transitional housing and onsite services to participants facing housing insecurity. Castle Gardens, a permanent housing facility, followed in 2011. Since their openings, Fortune’s two residences have helped hundreds of people readjust to life after incarceration. In 2007, the opening of The David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy provided additional resources to further Fortune’s criminal justice reform efforts.
Now, with 50 years of experience under its belt, The Fortune Society has become one of the nation’s leading reentry service organizations, serving nearly 7,000 individuals annually. It is also a leading advocate in the fight for criminal justice reform and alternatives to incarceration. Fortune’s program models are recognized both nationally and internationally for their quality and innovation, and continues to inspire and transform a multitude of lives.