LIC site for ex-prisoners stages grand reopening

By Bill Parry

The Fortune Society, an agency that helps former prisoners re-enter society, celebrated the grand reopening of its newly renovated and refurbished headquarters in Long Island City Tuesday.

The 45-year-old organization helps 4,000 released prison inmates a year turn around their lives through education, housing, employment services, substance abuse and mental health treatment, family services and HIV/AIDS services.

Originally founded in Manhattan’s theater district, Fortune Society moved into an office building, at 29-76 Northern Blvd in 2008.

“This place has taken a beating over the years — it was always pretty drab,” Fortune Society Vice President Stanley Richards said. “Now this space matches the hopes and visions of our clients.”

The Robin Hood Foundation provided a $275,000 capital grant and after three months of construction the headquarters boasts a modern reception area and a 6,000-square-foot common area where critical client services and programs are offered. The face-lift included new flooring and some much-needed furniture.

Now the hallways at the agency are abuzz with activity as former inmates work at computer stations and classrooms, finding effective alternatives to incarceration.

Fortune Society President and CEO JoAnne Page, in her 25th year, used her staff as an example that change is possible. Half of the 200 agency employees were incarcerated prisoners, many of them recidivists.

“We’re doing life and death work here. When this space was dingy, it was unwelcoming. Now it says you matter and we are here to help you become all you can be,” Page said. “When you’ve been a menace to society, it’s a big step to change your ways.”

Staff member Donald Gray, a former inmate in the state penitentiary system, said, “When I first got here, I thought I was back in a cell it was so drab. Now it’s brighter and more comfortable. You want to be here to do the work you need to change.”

Velma Donovan is another reformed inmate who now serves as the agency’s reception manager.

“The renovation makes a real difference. The clients feel we’ve made an investment in them,” she said.

A majority of the clients at the Fortune Society are released former prisoners from Rikers Island, where the agency operates an outreach program.

City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), a frequent visitor to Rikers, said, “The conditions are deplorable. Some of the cells have no windows and the cells are full of filth and graffiti. A man died there just last week.”

The inmate, Jason Echevarria, swallowed a ball of soap containing ammonium chloride and later died after his cries for help were ignored, the FBI said. An 18-year veteran of the city Correction Department, Terrance Pendergrass of Howard Beach, was charged with one count of deprivation of rights, according to the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office.

“Its a hard place where substance abuse and mental health issues are not dealt with,” Dromm said. “Fortune offers second, third and fourth chances to stay out of there. They deal with the mental health issues and that’s a service that’s vitally important to everyone in the community, not just the convicts. We can use 10 more Fortune Societies.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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