L.A. Parker: Fresh Start at library offers opportunities for success reentry of ex-inmates

Simon & Garfunkel sang it’s all happening at the zoo.

However, in Trenton, all the action seems located at the Trenton Free Public Library which remains alive and kicking with several initiatives underway to impact community.

Tonight, TFPL launches a Fresh Start @ Your Library as part of the state-wide effort of the New Jersey State Library that offers services, resources and referrals to community resources for citizens returning to their local communities after completion of their prison terms.

The two-year program, offered in partnership with the New Jersey State Parole Board and the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development, hopes to offer new opportunities and break cycles of recidivism. And while reentry exists as a current major topic for politicians, government and social outreaches, it’s an old discussion.

“Fresh Start was started at the Long Branch Free Public Library in 2009, as a service to meet the needs of its community and to break the cycles of recidivism. We are proud to launch this scaled-up effort at a statewide level and believe libraries are uniquely positioned as key collaborators in strengthening the work of government agencies and nonprofit organizations that help returning citizens find jobs, secure stable housing and complete other essential tasks,” said Mary Chute, New Jersey State Librarian. Her comments were offered in December as libraries prepared for the 2020 mission.

The New Jersey State Library, an affiliate of Thomas Edison State University, received a National Leadership Grant for $628,774 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to support reentry services in six libraries across the state.

Participating libraries will serve as Reconnection Centers, in partnership with the New Jersey State Parole Board. Onsite social workers will be available in each location to conduct individualized assessments and provide referrals to employment opportunities, library resources and classes, and occupational skills training.

Throughout the duration of the program, participating libraries will host community resource fairs featuring social service organizations, nonprofits, government agencies and businesses interested in hiring returning citizens. Additionally, the grant provides funding for 50 returning citizens at each participating library so they may take the GED exam. GED prep materials and training software will be available for those preparing to take the exam. The grant program will culminate in a statewide job fair for returning citizens.

The State Library’s IMLS proposal, “Reconnecting Returning Citizens with their Communities at Public Libraries,” included the library reentry program founder, Long Branch Free Public Library, as well as the Free Library of Philadelphia, who will join the initiative during year two of the grant. Additional participating libraries include the Paterson Public Library, Newark Public Library, Trenton Public Library, Atlantic City Public Library, and Cumberland County Library.

“Fresh Start @ Your Library is a multi-state model for serving returning citizens through public libraries in diverse communities,” said Peggy Cadigan, NJSL’s Deputy State Librarian and Fresh Start @ Your Library Project Director. “We have an Advisory Committee of librarians and social workers from San Francisco Public Library, Denver Public Library, District of Columbia Public Library, and Monmouth University. We are working to develop a national model of process and a toolkit of best practices for libraries to actively assist in the reentry process and meet the needs of this sizeable target population in their communities across the United States.”

The problem with doing time is that ex-inmates continue doing time despite the fact that they paid their dues to society. Plus, as this wonderful initiative launches, discussions must continue about incarceration, especially regarding people who commit non-violent offense. Better options exist and it’s important that we talk about ways to move forward despite the fact that prisons deliver major financial windfalls to those who invest in putting people behind bars.

Kudos to Tonya Garcia, a progressive, forward-thinking Long Branch library director, who dreamed a fantastic idea that advances the cause of humanity and went back to the drawing board after the Fresh Start program lagged. Frequently, people abandon ideas after lukewarm returns. Often, victory requires reevaluation and willingness to accept ideas from others.

We can build a better society, one that exhibits fairness and support for those who make unwise decisions, serve their time and re-enter our communities. Men and women should not receive life terms for being incarcerated.

Fresh start kicks off tonight from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. at the Trenton Free Public Library. All the best to TFPL Director Rebecca Franco Martin and her staff.

If you attend, take a minute to check out the first-floor renovation that now features a “Young Adult” area. More on this exciting space next week.

About Tiffany McClary

Tiffany McClary is the Director of Communications, Marketing & Outreach for the New Jersey State Library. She coordinates marketing and public relations initiatives in order to enhance the reputation of the State Library, and promote the value of NJ libraries and the services and programs that they provide to residents.