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Reintegrating the Formerly Incarcerated

By Cross Streets of New York Writers

In the Fall of 2016, Oliver Terrero, 19, was riding the train in a panic, trying to get to Washington Heights. He had felt, as though by intuition, that his grandmother was on the verge of dying, and he was rushing to her apartment in the hopes of saving her. Exiting the subway, he hailed a cab and believed the cab driver was a government agent who had been sent to kill him. The two rode in tense silence, and Oliver crowded close to the driver, preparing to defend himself. The cab driver struck Oliver in the face, and Oliver grabbed the steering wheel, crashing the cab into a parked car. The two wrestled inside until the driver was unconscious. Oliver tried to escape on foot, but was quickly subdued by bystanders who saw the incident.

Oliver was arrested and eventually transferred to Riker’s Island, New York City’s primary jail complex. He spent several days in a cell. It took him a while to realize he had been hallucinating.

“It was a lot of fear. A lot of paranoia,” Oliver says. “Thinking that I was going to have to defend myself. I didn’t know how long I was going to be in the situation. And there was a lot of confusion.”

The night before he was arrested, Oliver had been smoking marijuana with some friends. A drug test revealed the “marijuana” he had shared with friends had actually been K2, a synthetic cannabis linked to episodes of psychosis. After two days in a cell at Rikers, a counselor recommended that Oliver be transferred to Elmhurst Hospital. And after a day in the hospital, Oliver was bailed out by his family.

Although it had happened in a moment of drug-induced psychosis, Oliver was in serious trouble. A family friend put him in touch with the Fortune Society, a Queens based non-profit that assists the formerly-incarcerated with an array of services to help them re-enter society. Through Fortune Society, Oliver was recruited into an Alternatives to Incarceration program, where he takes classes that are designed to prevent recidivism. As long as Oliver completes the requirements of the program as mandated by the court, he will avoid going to prison.

Shortly after he arrived at the Fortune Society, Oliver met John Runowicz, the director of Fortune’s Creative Arts program. An ethnomusicologist who served prison time himself, Runowicz believes that the arts are an important part of reentry for those who have spent time behind bars.

“There’s an aspect to the arts that allows for the processing of emotions that can lead to problematic behavior,” Runowicz says.

In a 2014 study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) called The Prison Arts Resource Project, the authors conducted an evaluation of 48 evidence-based studies that evaluated the impact of arts programs in U.S. prisons. Many of the studies found that inmates who participated in arts programs showed significant increases in motivation, self confidence, self-esteem, and work ethic. Inmates reported that the arts helped them relieve stress and feel happier, which led to better relationships with other inmates and prison staff.

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