(upbeat music) (upbeat music continues) - Hey, y'all.
I'm Kiara Butler, and welcome to Generation Rising where we discuss hard-hitting topics that our diverse communities face every day.
And today's topic is incarceration.
I like to welcome Keith Nunes, student case manager for the program as well.
How are you?
- Thank you for having me.
I'm good and how are you doing?
I'm so happy to have you here today, especially discussing this topic.
- I'm excited to be here.
- And sharing your lived experience.
- Thank you.
- Where do you wanna start?
- Wherever you wanna start.
- All right.
So, can you tell us more about the Youthful Offenders Act?
The Youthful Offender Act was a law that was passed in July of 2021, I believe.
And there's a gentleman in prison right now by the name of Mario Montero.
He came in as a kid, he's from Providence, got involved in gang violence young, and came in as a young kid and received, I believe, a double life sentence.
So, at some point, he began looking into these type of issues and was trying to kind of fight for people in that bracket, for people that came in young because we all know that the psychological evidence shows that the brain doesn't develop until a certain time.
And the way the law stood, it allowed you to keep juveniles incarcerated for a long amount of time.
So, he started looking to that and I believe he got in touch with a representative by the name of Julie Casimiro.
I hope I'm saying that correctly.
And together they started working on this law that would give juveniles a chance of possibly being home on parole within a 20 year timeframe, you know.
Because as it stood before that, if you received a certain type of sentence, a double life sentence or a life plus year sentence, consecutive sentences, that could keep you in prison without having a possibility of parole.
- [Kiara] Wow.
- Longer than 20 years.
So, they began working on that and got it passed in July of 2021.
Myself, a man named Joao Neves, and Pablo Ortega were the first individuals that they took to court.
The ACLU stepped in and took our case, took us to court, and got us all home.
So, I actually came home early, about six months ahead of schedule because of that.
And the other two gentlemen were probably a couple years ahead of schedule because of the law being passed.
- And so, what was that experience like, being sentenced and not necessarily knowing if you were going to come home?
- That is a feeling that's very difficult to explain.
Me personally, to be honest, I have a strong faith.
So, I kind of never felt hopeless at any point, if I'm being honest.
But that being said, it's still a very difficult thing to wrestle with mentally and emotionally.
Because like you said, at times, you feel like, man, wait a minute, I might not make it home, you know?
And the tragedy of that, I'm gonna be honest with you, Kiara, the tragedy of that really is that you come from where you come from, you know, you make the mistakes that you make and you end up in that type of situation.
And I'm telling you that in that situation, you know, the average person will think deeply about their life and will mature and will go through changes and will not be the same person.
So, the ironic tragedy of that is just sitting there thinking, man, you know, I'm nowhere near the same person I was, you know in your mind and in your heart, the positive things you want to do.
And you feel like, man, you know, I'm never gonna get a chance to be the better version of myself.
You know what I mean?
You go through this thing, you go through this punishment, the punishment causes you to think deeply and reflect, causes you to change in a lot of ways and then the irony is, you feel like, man, I'm never gonna get a chance to live that change.
- So, that's kind of something that you wrestle with in that situation, you know.
- After you come out, what's the plan?
You've done seven years in prison, you're a felon, right?
So, it's kind of hard to get a job, right?
- So, it depends.
It's not, I never had an issue finding a job.
- Because I learned the things that I could use, the tools in the community to be able to get a job as a felon.
A lot of people don't pay attention to that stuff.
- So, I know I can go to the temp agency and get hired on immediately and just go to work the next day, work hard for them and then they might want to hire me on, okay, he is a felon but he worked hard for us for three months, you know, we'd like him as a worker.
And I was like, okay, I'll just do that.
But the goal was just to save as much money as possible to put myself into college.
So that I could get a degree in social work to be able to stop at-risk youth from going down the same path I went down.
- 'Cause I was, I put myself in this situation.
I wasn't like, you know, some people were like, oh I'm just a product of my environment.
No, I'm a product of my stupidity.
- What would you say that society should be doing for formerly incarcerated individuals?
- For formerly incarcerated?
- Well, there's a few things.
There's a book entitled "Let's Get Free" by a man named Paul Butler.
And he was a former federal prosecutor in DC.
And he had an incident with the law himself, was treated unfairly, which made him turn around and start looking into injustice and things.
And he did a study regarding our nation's incarceration rate.
And obviously, I think it's a well-known fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate per capita of any country.
I mean, California alone has a higher incarceration rate than five, six countries.
But he looked into the reason that was and there was three main reasons.
The number one reason was that we criminalize non-violent drug offenses.
But the other two reasons had to do with this.
The second reason was that, we keep formally incarcerated individuals on probation or parole for longer than anywhere else after a prison term.
And the third reason was related to that which was you put people back in prison for technical violations, what they call technical violations of the parole rules that ordinarily wouldn't be illegal.
- [Kiara] Yep.
- Drinking, for example.
- [Kiara] Yep.
- So, if a man is on parole or a woman is on parole, you could be over the drinking age of 21.
But if you're on parole, you're not supposed to drink.
You get caught drinking, you could go back to prison for that.
Now, to be fair, not all parole officers will just send you right back to prison, you know, if you got caught having a drink.
A lot of them will work with you, you know.
But that is a problem.
The problem is you could go back to prison for something that ordinarily isn't illegal.
- And this is what Mr. Butler said in his book was one of the main reasons.
So, I think, that should be something that should be addressed.
I think we should be not leaving people on parole or probation for that amount of time after they've been released from prison, especially if they're proving to be doing the things that they're supposed to be doing.
And I think we should visit the issue of the technical violation, especially when it comes to substance abuse or illegal drug use, because people have problems and you shouldn't necessarily go back to prison as opposed to getting some type of treatment for something like that.
How does that work, like, being on parole or probation and needing treatment, trying to get an education, trying to get a job?
Like, how does that work?
- Well, as far as getting treatment for substance abuse, there are programs.
- [Kiara] Okay.
- I wouldn't be aware of the details because me personally, I never wrestled with that particular issue.
- [Kiara] Yeah.
- As far as going to school, for me, it was a challenge for a few reasons.
One, because when you're coming home from a long period of incarceration, you're at the age I'm at, I'm 41 years old.
Obviously, the first order of business is to support yourself.
So, you're trying to work first and foremost.
And right now, I'm currently working three jobs and going to school with a full-time schedule.
- And that's been very challenging.
That's got in the way of the schoolwork, actually.
I was a little bit behind on assignments.
Luckily for me, fortunately for me, I had professors that were very understanding.
I was very honest with them and vulnerable about my situation.
But to their credit, they understood and they were very supportive.
So, I had the extra time to complete the assignments and thankfully, I'm getting everything done.
But when you're trying to work to support yourself, that gets in the way.
And in all actuality, that's part of the reason why James started the program, started the nonprofit, because he was incarcerated himself.
He did a certain amount of college while he was incarcerated.
And when he came home, he wanted to finish what he started but he realized that he was bumping up against those everyday obstacles of trying to support yourself of whatever your other responsibilities are.
So, that's why he started a program so that we could help facilitate that.
So, for me, one of my frequent struggles is the simple things.
Daily things like setting a doctor's appointment and keeping it.
Everything is done technologically.
So, I find that difficult.
I'm a return citizen advocate so I represent men and women coming outta prison.
By the way, ex-convict is sort of dehumanizing or offensive to some people.
So, we try to use and I want to encourage you to use 'returned citizen', 'justice impacted', 'justice involved', 'formally incarcerated'.
These words are less offensive.
So, we'll try to push that out there.
But yeah, definitely the technology.
I wasn't gone for long.
However, even in five years, technology changes so much that when you come out, every place you go to, including doctor's offices, are using technology.
If you don't have a phone, it's almost impossible to set up an appointment.
Another thing would be simply going to the store to get groceries.
Being overwhelmed with, one, all of the people, two, all of the products, the different options and choices to make.
Yeah, that's definitely been a challenge.
- So, the hardest part of getting outta prison for me was restarting.
I had to restart.
Businesses, I had to restart a career, I had to restart relationships.
And I was already established before I went to prison and in my forties.
So, now, everything is like, new and it's hard.
- And so, you mentioned it very briefly and James couldn't be here today, the Reentry Campus Program.
What is that and how did it help you?
The re-entry campus program is a nonprofit that James founded and that he's the executive director of.
And like I said previously, he founded it for those reasons, you know.
People that were incarcerated and were trying to educate themselves.
Number one, there was a lack of access to education in most situations.
So, he wanted to address that.
But also, for the gentleman or for the ladies that did a certain amount of education while they were in prison and wanted to come home and finish, he understood that that was a difficult process when you're trying to readjust to society, especially based on how long you've been incarcerated, when you're trying to work to support yourself, and when you might be unfamiliar with the school process in general, from the registration process to the financial aid process, to the technology.
I had a problem with the technology.
I'm still kind of wrestling with the technology.
I went away when I was a kid.
I was in prison for 23 years.
The technology wasn't what it is now.
So, that's a big challenge.
And he founded a program to address all those issues.
- And then financial aid, was it free to be able to go to school and take courses?
In the state of Rhode Island, the Community College of Rhode Island has a contract and they're inside the prison.
They have been since, I think, the early 2000s.
- So, any individual incarcerated in Rhode Island is able to have some access to CCRI courses.
The Pell Grant used to cover individuals in prison, it stopped doing so, but now, they're in the process of reinstating it for people in prison.
I think, it might be done sometime early next year, you know?
- So, that would definitely provide financial aid for individuals in prison.
Well, that's really good.
It removes a barrier of at least cost.
I know the Reentry Campus Program, they use an acronym to describe their services freedom and each letter represents a service offering or why they provide a service in that type of way.
For you, what does freedom actually mean?
- That's a deep question.
That's a great question.
First of all, when you're in that situation as you mentioned earlier, as a kid with a life sentence, your whole fight, your whole life is to get outta prison.
And it's interesting that you ask that because for years, guys that are in that situation fight so hard just to get outta prison, that you kind of fool yourself into having a mentality that thinks that once you get outta prison, everything will be good.
And I'm not here to complain because I've been incredibly blessed since I've been home with a lot of support.
- But to me, the freedom is when you're free to educate yourself.
When you're free to be aware of what's going on around you in the world, when you're financially secure, you have a certain amount of freedom with that.
So, to me, like I said, I feel incredibly blessed.
But I think I'll feel completely free when I finish my degree, when I have some level of financial security and then I'm able to have more of my time to maybe pursue some of the things that are in my mind and heart.
- And we keep talking about this degree.
What are you getting your degree in?
Tell us more.
I'm in the last stage of bachelor's degree.
I came home through CCRI and then through Reentry Campus Program, I was able to come home at close to 90 credits which is usually the maximum allowable transfer of credits into most universities.
I transferred into Roger Williams University and I'm currently finishing the degree on community development.
What do you plan to do with that?
- Well, to be honest with you, I really love working for a Reentry Campus Program.
I love the mission that they have.
I love what James is doing.
So, I would love to stay there as long as possible.
I do have some ideas in the back of my mind for nonprofits I might like to start.
- But I really love being where I am.
So, I would like to see where that goes first and then take it from there.
- Well, thank you so much for sharing that.
What would you say the process is like for people that don't have access to a program like the Reentry Campus Program if they're trying to navigate education?
Well, like I mentioned, it could be a tricky process for someone who's unfamiliar with it.
So, just the technology alone.
Also, applying for financial aid, obtaining documents you may need, whether it's college transcripts, GED, high school transcripts, things like this.
You'll be surprised that small things like that to men or women that might have been incarcerated for long periods of time and that prior to incarceration might have been living a certain type of life that didn't include those type of pursuits, you know.
So, things like that.
As simple as they may seem to the average person who's very familiar with the process could get a little tricky for someone who's unfamiliar.
And then what happens is, when you're home, and like we mentioned earlier, you're home from prison, you have certain stipulations that you have to meet regarding your parole or probation, you're trying to work to support yourself first and foremost, deal with whatever other family issues or things you got going on.
And when you're in the process of doing that and then you run into difficulties in trying to pursue your education, that could be very discouraging.
It could make people wanna give up and quit and just say, hey, you know what, I'll do that later.
I gotta do this.
I ain't got time for that.
So, if you could help individuals with those basic things, you could encourage them to keep going.
Do you think that that contributes to the data or the research around 67% of formerly incarcerated individuals, they wanna get an education but only about 27% actually do it.
Do you think that those are the reasons why or do you think it's also deeper than that as well?
- I mean, I would assume that it would be a little deeper than that.
I would assume that there could probably be some policies that would help facilitate it and make it easier.
But to be honest, I do believe that's part of it because I'm living it myself right now, you know??
Since I've been home, those different things are discouraging if you let 'em be.
And when I came home, I was a student of RCP first before I became a case manager.
And my case manager, Diana Gonzalez, which anybody that's ever been a student of RCP will sing the praises of Diana Gonzalez.
She's the best, literally.
And if it wasn't for all the help she provided me, I might have got discouraged and wanted to give up.
So, yeah, them small things matter.
(upbeat music) - Okay, y'all.
Jobs after prison with a felony record.
This is my experience.
They'll tell you, go here, go there.
These people will hire you.
They hire felons and all of that.
But that didn't work for me.
I went to all those places, nobody hired me.
Even though I saw plenty of men that were felons that were hired.
I used to get the interview but when that background check hit, nothing.
People from out this country will hire you quicker than people who are from this country.
Like, I work for a Indian felon.
This whole area, all the hotels and stores are mostly ran by people from other country.
Don't need to ask you for the background check.
Can you come to work?
Like, for instance, if I didn't work here, I wouldn't waste my time going nowhere.
But to another place where I knew some other foreign people were more than likely doing a hiring and firing.
Only thing is pay sucks at hotels and like, gas stations and stores.
It's better than nothing.
I shouldn't have committed that crime though.
And I should've stayed free.
That's the message, that's the lesson.
Stay free friends.
- So, for someone that is seeking services through a program like RCP, what would a typical, like, what would I do, how would I approach the organization?
If I did approach the organization, like, tell our viewers more about, like, what that process would be like.
Most of our students are usually individuals that were incarcerated and started with us while they were incarcerated.
- So, it makes the transition very easy.
But we also are there for anyone who is formally incarcerated that is out that we haven't worked with while they were in prison.
And we have a website reentry campus that they could visit.
And when visiting the website, there's a very straightforward questionnaire that they could fill out, which will send it right to me on the other end and then I'll schedule a call to see what they wanna do and then maybe set up an appointment.
Or you could also call me.
The number's (401) 217-9311 and just schedule an appointment and come on down.
- Or you could visit us.
You could come and visit us at 1 Empire Street.
Office hours are from 8 to 4.
Could come right down.
- And if I were to enroll, like, how long would I be in the program?
Or is that based off of like the degree that I'm seeking?
- Well it's also based on the services that you may need.
Some people are more self-sufficient than others, some people might need more help for a longer amount of time.
Some people might start out needing help but then learn what they need to learn very quickly and not necessarily need to use our services that much as they go forward with their education.
It depends on what the student needs.
We're there for you all the way.
All the way.
- And is there a particular demographic of people, like, race, socioeconomic status, any of those things that you could think of that would benefit more from the program or that you see used the program more?
- Well, the program was definitely started to cater to incarcerated and formally incarcerated individuals of all ethnicities.
and races and both genders.
So, yeah, we probably cater to that demographic more simply because that was the purpose when it started.
And there's a great need there.
So, there's usually, I don't wanna say more need than we can handle because James usually rises to the occasion, man.
James is phenomenal.
- And we continue growing in that regard.
And is there anything that I haven't asked you that you want our viewers to know?
- Listen, I firmly believe from my personal experience that education is incredibly powerful.
So, at the end of the day, anybody that has been in the situation that I have been in, that the men and women that are our students have been in, coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may be having some altercations with the law and being incarcerated to, you know, for whatever reason for whatever amount of time, I believe honestly and I know James does too that education is one of the best tools that you could have to better your life and to better your life in every way.
To help you earn a decent living, to better your life financially but also mentally, spiritually, socially.
I can't tell you the amount of people that I've been meeting since I've been home in the college environment and in the nonprofit environment.
- The people I'm meeting are incredible.
I'm very impressed.
So, you could just better yourself in every way with education.
I truly believe that.
And it's definitely been that in my life.
It's definitely been an improvement and a major reason why my life is improving.
So, anybody that would hear that message, I encourage 'em to educate themselves to come on down so we can help you in any way we can.
- It's definitely an amazing program and you're an amazing person.
How can we stay in touch with you, Keith?
- You could stay in touch with me by visiting me at the office, 1 Empire Street, suite 219 on the second floor.
Any student looking to reach out, could reach me at the phone number that I mentioned.
Or you could visit the website.
And what's that website?
- I'm not sure.
I'm sure if you put Reentry Campus Program, you'll find, it'll come up.
- Well, we have run out of time, but you can watch past episodes anytime on watch.ripbs.org and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the the latest updates.
I want to thank today's guest, Keith Nunes for their time and incredible work.
And we have started a tradition, Keith, where you sign our board.
You can leave your mark, let people know that you were here.
So, if you can grab some chalk.
- And head on over.
You can write literally anything, but you do have to find some empty space.
It's been booming here, so we got a lot on the board.
- I can see, I can see.
Probably down here is better off.
- Or maybe over here.
- You know if you can hit that kneel.
You got good knee?
(Keith laughs) - Yes, I do.
- What you writing up there?
(gentle music) (gentle music continues) (gentle music continues)