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Green Haven Think Tank’s Seven Neighborhood Study was first cited in NYT in 1992

“The fact that more than 85 percent of prisoners in the state are black or Latino and — most phenomenal of all — that 75 percent of the state’s entire prison population comes from just seven neighborhoods in New York City,” said Mr. Ellis, citing accepted research data culled by prisoners themselves in a prisoner’s “think tank” at Green Haven prison in Stormville, N.Y.”

(“Ex-Inmates Urge Return To Areas of Crime to Help” by Francis X. Clines, December 23, 1992, New York Times)

New York Times

Ex-Inmates Urge Return To Areas of Crime to Help

By FRANCIS X. CLINES  (Published: December 23, 1992)

After 23 years away, it is the parting image of prison, not the first glimpse of freedom, that lingers now with Eddie Ellis, a pioneer Black Panther and convictedNYT 1992 logo murderer, as he labors back home in Harlem on his hard-won new appreciation of a criminal and his community. The sight that haunts him came on a day last summer when Mr. Ellis was finally being processed back to freedom and walked past a huge hall filled with hundreds of incoming prisoners, all neatly leg-shackled, manacled and seated in two long files of benches, as orderly and sad-eyed, he recalls, as fresh oarsmen on a galley ship.

“Oh yeah,” said Mr. Ellis, wincing at the memory back in Harlem after serving his own long years. “It was the culmination of everything I had done through those 23 years. Summed it all up.” He was speaking of a radical new approach to penology being spawned uninvited by prisoner scholars like Mr. Ellis from within the system, an approach rooted in a hard fact that he never saw more clearly than in that sea of faces on his parting day:

“The fact that more than 85 percent of prisoners in the state are black or Latino and — most phenomenal of all — that 75 percent of the state’s entire prison population comes from just seven neighborhoods in New York City,” said Mr. Ellis, citing accepted research data culled by prisoners themselves in a prisoner’s “think tank” at Green Haven prison in Stormville, N.Y.”

The fact that three out of four prisoners come from, prey upon and return to seven neighborhoods encompassed by just 18 of the state’s 150 Assembly districts, or 12 percent of the population, is at the heart of Mr. Ellis’s new mission as an unaccredited street penologist without portfolio.

Mr. Ellis is one of a handful of gray-bearded model prisoners lately filtering back into freedom bearing the hopes of prisoner study groups they left behind, groups like the blacks’ Resurrection Study Group and the Hispanic inmates’ Conciencia.

These once-captive penologists are intent on urging a new nontraditional outlook and new social, economic and educational programs to tightly relate the 62 state prisons with the seven “symbiotic neighborhoods,” as Mr. Ellis calls them — the Lower East Side, the South Bronx, Harlem, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York and South Jamaica.

In those neighborhoods, Mr. Ellis runs classes to steer teenagers from early bad encounters with the police, stressing how simple, tough backtalk can create a critical moment in a young man’s life. He left behind prison classes meant to help convicts get involved creatively in their community problems once they get back out.

One proposal that he and the other prison-scholars have submitted to the Legislature would require convicts to train for community service in prison and perform specific housing, education or crime-prevention duties as a condition of parole.

Predisposition to Crime

“We began developing a nontraditional approach to the prison problem,” Mr. Ellis related, speaking of a loose network of a few dozen long-term felons who used their time as he did, to earn college degrees and ponder their fate and the causes of the vast shift of prison demographics across two decades to where black and Hispanic prisoners now make up the overwhelming majority of prisoners.

“In our analysis, we found out in detail how symbiotic it is, how prison is heavily influenced by inner-city, underclass subculture in just a few neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s a direct relationship, an umbilical cord.” He argued that the environment of the underclass neighborhoods, from eroded schools to fatherless families, can present young males with a powerful tide of negative self-judgment and a predisposition to crime and social hostility that he himself finds frightening now that he is back on the streets.

Outside life has worsened so during his prison years that Mr. Ellis feels he needs a pistol to visit safely his mother’s block with its youthful criminals, yet he does not carry one for fear of being returned to prison. Rather than talk in broad sociological terms of crime and punishment, Mr. Ellis and his prison colleagues prefer to sketch out a sociological whirlwind: 47 percent prisoner recidivism rooted in an annual traffic of 26,000 prisoners going in and 23,000 coming out — with three-fourths of the cycle churning through their seven targeted neighborhoods.

Out-of-Date Strategies

“The fact that must be faced, then, is that at least 11,000 new crimes are going to be committed by these guys coming out, most of them in their home neighborhoods,” Mr. Ellis stressed. “So what we do in the prisons can’t be done in the abstract, removed from these neighborhoods and their Afrocentric and Latino cultures.” Traditional prison strategies, he argued, are 50 years out of date and geared for the “Jimmy Cagney” days when Italian and Irish prisoners were the white majority in a much smaller, pre-drug-culture prison population.

The study groups within the prisons have crafted room for their activities from the tolerance for reform that followed the Attica prison riot of 1971. The chief groups, sometimes operating with church or civil rights sponsors, meet regularly in Green Haven, Eastern, Sing Sing, Woodbourne, Walkill and Auburn prisons. Each year they sponsor a seminar rooted in their nontraditional approach and attended by outside specialists.

The fourth seminar is scheduled for February at Green Haven and will feature the ideas of prisoners like Juan Rivera, whose mentor in jail house scholarship was George Prendes, who is now back on the street himself. He is working with Mr. Ellis to set up a lobby for the “new experts,” as they call themselves — ex-convicts espousing this nontraditional binding of neighborhood and prison.

Mr. Rivera’s most recent paper, printed in the national Journal of Prisoners on Prisons and footnoted with government statistics and studies, is far removed from run-of-the-mill prison polemics about pervasive racism and criminal-justice conspiracies. Fact-rich and dry, it has a scholarly tone that might be envied by traditional penologists who lack Mr. Rivera’s advantage of direct experience.

“Since approximately 95 percent of the prison population when released return to the communities from which they come, and since 4 out of 10 of these people will return to prison, this suggests that released offenders returning to their communities are contributing to the higher percentage of the overall crime rate in these districts.”

Guides to a Better Way

At its most idealistic, the approach of Mr. Ellis and Mr. Rivera envisions prisoners themselves returning to the targeted neighborhoods to shepherd young men along some better path. A number of the movement’s best proponents are, like Mr. Ellis, graduates or students of the New York Theological Seminary’s special full master’s degree program offered at Sing Sing prison.

As a perpetual immigration funnel, the city and its crime demographics are ever shifting, with, for example, Hispanic inmates now the fastest growing prison population, the way blacks once were. Hispanic inmates account for one-third of the 63,000-prisoner population in comparison to one-tenth of the 18,000 state prisoners in 1979. While the total population has tripled, black prisoners, who accounted for about 60 percent of the inmates in 1979, now are less than 50 percent of the total.

No one, least of all Mr. Ellis or prison administrators, is promising grand things. But the fact that this exercise is taking place at all and that prisoners themselves are its thoughtful initiators is at the least an interesting new chapter in prison scholarship and a practical focus that no white power figure could have identified without stirring controversy.

“If you’re around the system any length of time it becomes obvious you have to attack the problem at its root and get to 7- and 8-year-old kids like these guys are saying,” said Thomas A. Coughlin 3d, the state Corrections Commissioner.

He concedes Mr. Ellis’s point that in the current drug-steeped crime culture, more white people engage in drug abuse than black or Hispanic people. But the commissioner says they are caught less often than other abusers and have better access to treatment and family support. “A black or Hispanic kid doesn’t have these supports and courts look at that at sentencing,” said Mr. Coughlin, who noted there are waiting lists for treatment programs in minority neighborhoods.

Working with fellow prison alumni Mr. Prendes and Warren Henry, Mr. Ellis has formed a new group, the Community Justice Institute, to lobby for their nontraditional outlook. They have various ambitious proposals, from making minority-neighborhood commitments a condition of prisoner parole to realizing a most unlikely dream: a prisoner-run model prison.

But they lay claim to more than academic conceits, contending that various reform ideas enacted by state authorities — like pre-release preparation centers, regular phone calls home and special trailers for weekend family visits — were co-opted, happily, from prisoners’ own proposals.

Thinking Beyond His Plight

Mr. Ellis is a lean, highly articulate individual galvanized by 50 years of a life hard but hopeful. From experience, he knows that change begins with the individual but is best nurtured among like-minded, self-resolved colleagues. From his early days at Attica, where he witnessed — though did not participate in — the watershed riot, Mr. Ellis said he forged a determination to think beyond his plight and get all the higher education he could, from business administration to paralegal aide.

Judged a model prisoner after his years of prison intellectual life, Mr. Ellis was released last summer into a work-release program in which he is serving as a community educator and curriculum developer at Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, a private legal-aid resource for the indigent.

His release allows him to live with his wife but requires him to spend two nights each week for two years under lockup at a Bronx prison. “A terrible experience and at the same time a joyful one,” he says of how this leftover incarceration reminds him of the freedom he lost and regained at the price of almost half his years.

His freedom came two years before he finished serving the minimum of a 25-years-to-life sentence for a fatal shooting in 1969. Mr. Ellis has always maintained his innocence, contending the conviction was a result of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence program against the nascent Black Panthers of a generation ago.

But unlike many convicts, he is less interested in justifying his past than in shaping fresh changes in prison and tapping what he and some prison administrators see as a thoughtful talent pool of first-hand experience residing behind bars. Even more, as he exults in being back on the streets of Harlem, his beloved birthplace, Mr. Ellis keeps his departing galley-ship image of the prison system in mind.

“We’ve had enough textbook penology,” he said, trying to urge an outside world sick of the deepening rut of crime and punishment to consider alternative perspectives from some of the system’s resident experts.

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