Social Action Day Focuses on Ex-Offender Reentry

A group of social work students presents at Social Action Day.

Written by Jordan Corey

The issues surrounding housing reentry for ex-offenders were center stage on Nov. 13 for Social Action Day. Organized by the Social Work Program, the event included student presentations, a panel of ex-offender reentry experts, and a “listening tour” featuring formerly incarcerated individuals.

Social Action Day is an opportunity for junior social work students to address a real-life issue that affects vulnerable populations. In five groups, students worked to educate the audience on housing setbacks faced by former inmates in their lives after prison.

Some of these barriers include finding a steady means of income, obtaining residency in certain areas because of their criminal record and being subjects of racial discrimination. The goal of this year’s Social Action Day was to present an evidence-based housing policy to lawmakers that will help increase housing stability and promote post-release success.

Students discussed re-entry population demographics, re-entry policies utilized in other states and direct actions that Connecticut can use to improve the quality of life for ex-offenders reentering society.

One group shared an interview with caseworkers, who touched on the unmet needs of ex-offender communities, many of them homeless and without proper resources—such as clean clothes — to thrive in a working society. Another presented results from a survey given to 92 Eastern students that reflected the attitudes and understanding of facts surrounding ex-offenders. Student also had Social Action Day attendees take the same survey.

Social Action Day panelists included (left to right): Theresa Severance, coordinator of Eastern’s criminology program; Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, community education and outreach specialist with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center; Steven Hernandez, Esq. interim executive director for the Commission on Equity and Opportunity; Fernando Muniz, chief executive director at Community Solutions, Inc.; State Representative Brandon McGee; Lisa Cato, chief probation officer I of the Court Support Service Division.

Panel members were Fernando Muñiz, Theresa Severance, Lisa Cato-Scott, Brandon McGee, Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, Bruce Bressler and Steven Hernández. They covered a range of subjects, from stigmatization to advocacy, reflecting the diversity of their experiences and knowledge.

One point raised by Muñiz — CEO of Community Solutions, Inc. — was that while incarceration rates have decreased over the years, the population leaving prisons is now older. Many ex-offenders have physical limitations that restrict their work and housing options. “The system hasn’t really shifted to accommodate them.”

Bressler, who is co-chair of the Legislative Housing Re-Entry Working Group and has spent more than 20 years of his life incarcerated, emphasized the importance of mental health and maintaining a motivated mindset as an ex-offender. He talked about changing the value system of the inmate, calling for outsiders to recognize their individuality within a generalized group and for inmates to exhibit positive attitudes. “The past should be something that teaches us,” he said, “not something that holds us hostage.”

Students present to a packed Betty Tipton Room in the Student Center.

McGee, a state representative, encouraged the audience to identify their government representatives and contact them if they want to assist in making changes. “There were, and still are, champions around this work,” he stated. As somebody familiar with the impact of having family in and out of prison, McGee has made an effort to reform social justice issues such as housing for ex-offenders. He explained that not all legislators understand this population — one reason why awareness must be spread on all sides. “Now is the time more than ever. Your voice matters.”

The Legislative Housing Re-Entry Working Group, directed by the Commission on Equity and Opportunity, organized a “listening tour” in partnership with Representative McGee as part of Social Action Day. Members of the post-incarceration community were given the opportunity to speak directly to stakeholders about their experiences obtaining permanent housing in Connecticut.