The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has been responsible for operating or managing the major portals of entry into the New York-New Jersey region for more than a century. These are literal portals – seaports, airports, tunnels, bridges, and bus terminals.
Over a lifetime in public service, I’ve learned there are other kinds of portals. These portals are the figurative – and yes – the literal doors of opportunity for individuals who have fallen through cracks in our society, often individuals who have served time in prison, or individuals who have served in the Armed Forces and come back broken or left service without an honorable discharge.
These people are struggling to regain their footing and do not have the strength or the wherewithal to unlock the doors that still separate them from society. Opening these doors is not an aspirational goal; it is a moral imperative.
Sometimes, it takes a personal encounter to remind us. By chance, I recently ran into someone I had known from high school. His first name is Greg and I had not seen him for decades. Back then, he was not doing well. But that was not the man I saw now, and as Greg started to speak with me, I realized he had a story to tell.
As he told it, he started smoking marijuana at age 8. By the time he was in his teens, he had been in and out of rehabs. At age 20, he became a father and, for 8 years, remained sober. And then, he said, he went out one day with a friend for a beer, breaking his sobriety. Within a week, he had spiraled back down the rabbit hole of hard-core drug addiction. Greg told me he lost the next 9 years.
He said he finally “woke up” after trying to steal a truck. By then, Greg had lost his family and his career. But his story didn’t end there. That’s the thing about people. They can surprise you after they surprise themselves and get sober, get help, and get back on their feet.
Today, Greg has a new family. He has repaid all his outstanding debts and fines, of which there were many. He runs a successful business. He counsels recovering addicts. He’s been clean now for 20 years, beating all odds. Happy ending. But happy endings like Greg’s aren’t easy to come by, and, like Greg’s, they often come after sad chapters where the outcome seems bleak. That is where we come in.
Recently, I spent some time with former Governor Jim McGreevey who founded the NJ Reentry Corporation, a non-profit organization committed to helping individuals reenter society, connecting them to medical services, educational opportunities, and jobs, to name just a small number of services they provide. Currently, 17,000 individuals are enrolled in NJRC programs.
In New York City, The Fortune Society, for more than 50 years, has been doing similar work. The need for these organizations is great. According to The Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit, independent research and advocacy organization, 39,000 individuals are incarcerated across New Jersey prisons. In New York, 91,000 individuals are incarcerated.
These are not just numbers; they are people who will need multiple services once they leave prison.
There are obstacles to be sure. Individuals coming out of prison have unique criminal histories that may preclude them from some forms of employment. But those histories should not preclude them from all forms of employment.
With training and guidance, many individuals – particularly low-level offenders who have found themselves caught in a loop they cannot escape because of a prison record, or lack of identification (like a birth certificate), and little formal education – can break the cycle of recidivism.
We must be creative in how we approach the needs of these people, who upon release need to find gainful employment quickly. It is, at its core, a leap of faith all of us who create economic opportunities must take.
As I have begun sharing Greg’s story, which he encouraged me to do, I have heard from others who have taken that leap of faith. Port Authority Commissioner Rossana Rosado, who is also the Commissioner of the NY State Division of Criminal Justice Services, told me she has spent the past 15 years working with individuals who are returning home after prison, and shared with me her deep passion for providing second-chance opportunities for these individuals.
In 2020, the Port Authority established the Office of Second Chance Employment at the Council for Airport Opportunity. Originally focused on employment opportunities at JFK International Airport, it quickly expanded to include LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International airports. The office works with several local community-based organizations based in New York and New Jersey that recruit prospective candidates as referrals for employment to prospective airport employers.
This is a good first start towards expanding job opportunities across state borders and socio-economic lines. But we have more work to do.
All of us have a responsibility to open the locked doors that separate the Gregs from society. For them, a happy ending only is possible after a new beginning.
People will surprise you after they surprise themselves. That was true for Greg. And that is true for us.
I believe in second chances.