Newest prisoner re-entry facility opens in Elizabeth

Photo by Rebecca Panico
The new prisoner re-entry program run by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, opened Jan. 19 at 214-A Commerce Place in Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH, NJ — Angel Villafane was just 16 years old when he was first incarcerated for four years on weapons charges.

When he left prison, he didn’t have a high school diploma. He landed in a Hudson County prison again at 25, this time on drug charges. He started using, too. His drug of choice: PCP.

“They just release you,” Villafane, of Jersey City, said in a Feb. 9 phone interview. “The only thing I know in my mind is to continue doing the same thing because that’s all I know.”

Upon leaving prison for the second time, he was sent to a halfway house and in 2016 connected to the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a program in Jersey City run by former Gov. James McGreevey. The program helped him land a job at Blue Apron, the meal kit delivery service.

Villafane utilized one of the first NJRC facilities, which opened in 2015. Now, the same program has come to Elizabeth.

The new facility opened its doors on Jan. 19 at 214-A Commerce Place, a few doors away from the Elizabeth Municipal Court and right across the street from police headquarters.

“I would argue that prisons today in America are not healthy places and not a place that I would seek rehabilitation for the beginning of a healthy lifestyle,” McGreevey said in a Feb. 8 phone interview. “Many prisons in America today are dark places of violence, addiction.”

When people start the NJRC program, they generally attend the facility from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for the first five days. After that, clients use the facility and its services on an as-needed basis, said Jennifer Donnelly, director of the Elizabeth facility.

Clients generally use the program for six to nine months and it teaches people how to write a resume, apply for health care and learn interview skills. The program has about 73 volunteer lawyers to assist people in acquiring a driver’s license, a vital form of identification that helps clients apply for jobs.

Donnelly is a former lawyer herself, but she became the site director in Elizabeth as a way to give back.
“I always knew and believed that the law is supposed to be a helping profession,” she said, adding that her mother had died an addict. “It wasn’t supposed to be a way to make money.”

The recidivism rate of those who go through the NJRC program is about 19 percent, McGreevey said. New Jersey’s overall recidivism rate is about 31 percent, according to state figures cited by the organization.

The state’s recidivism rate has been steadily decreasing and New Jersey is a leader in decreasing the prison population, due in part to its mandatory drug court program.

There are nine facilities statewide that have serviced about 25,000 people, McGreevey said. The six-to-nine month program costs about $2,200 per person, as compared to $54,865 each state prisoner costs annually, according to state Department of Corrections figures cited by the NJRC.

The Jersey City program has helped other clients, like Candido Ortiz, who opened his own restaurant on Martin Luther King Drive in December, The Jersey Journal reported.

The former governor, who is the chairman of the board at the NJRC, previously worked in prisons. He ministered to inmates at a prison in Harlem as part of his seminary training.

Both McGreevey and Donnelly said that while the overarching goal of the current prison system is to rehabilitate, many former inmates are thrown back into society with little or no access to computers or the identification necessary to acquire a job or health care.

Today, Villafane said he currently volunteers at the Most Excellent Way Life Center in Jersey City since his job at Blue Apron relocated to Linden. Without a car, it was too difficult for him to make the commute from Jersey City. Meanwhile he’s studying for his GED and driving test, he said.

“Not everybody wants that help,” he said of the re-entry program. “You have to want it. You have to want that help. Some people come home and they just want everything to come to them.”

There are currently NJRC sites in Bergen, Essex, Middlesex, Monmouth, Passaic and Ocean counties. A new office will open in New Brunswick on Feb. 20, McGreevey said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the per-person cost of the program.