Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in July 2021, undergraduate student Henry James (C’22) interviewed Rev. Zachariah Presutti, S.J., the founder of the Ignacio House in the Bronx, New York. In this interview, Fr. Presutti discusses his experience in developing the Ignacio House and the role that it plays in building community for its residents.
The first question I had was why did you decide to make this a house of studies in particular?
Oh, very good question. So, yes, house of studies opposed to, you know, just another reentry house or city shelter or SRO [single room occupancy]. So, the main desire behind having a house of studies is to offer a continuity of care to the brothers behind the walls who are highly committed, highly dedicated to college education, because they've started that good work while they're locked up. And I saw time and time again people starting the good work of college education behind the walls, only to be released into the city shelter system, or couch surfing, to friends and family, and never picking up on this good work that they started while they were locked up.
And I've remained firmly convinced that education is really the key to any type of upward economic mobility. And people that are behind bars are predominantly poor, come from poor backgrounds, poor families [and] are released into a poor context. So a house of studies gives you the opportunity to acquire the skills necessary, and the supporting services necessary, to take the next steps in life that will help with their own flourishing, and consequently help with the flourishing of the community. When one person flourishes, the community flourishes. So it also has a ripple effect.
How did you envision the role of spirituality in this house? Especially given that Thrive for Life’s start was religious retreats in prisons.
Yeah, I think, you know, doing the deep work of introspection and reflection behind the walls with these quality and classical tools for an examined life that are the tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits, I felt like going at a deep level with these folks behind the walls would give them tools for their own life that they could bring into the world upon reentry, ultimately healing for their own lives, but also healing for their friends and family. All with the aim and goal of, you know, never going back to whatever brought them to the prison in the first place.
Do you also aim to introduce those spiritual tools to the residents who came from a referral rather than being introduced to you through the religious retreats?
No, I don't think that the reflection part of the mission of Thrive for Life is disjunctive in the sense that I don't think that reflection is only reserved for behind the walls. I would hope that those tools that we use behind the walls are an integral part of the supportive services that we're offering, or that the accompaniment that we're offering while people are living here, working and going to school, I hope that those tools are part of the supportive services.
Could you tell me a bit about the supportive services here?
Sure. So the supportive services of the individual are three-pronged. One is housing. So we help with the transitioning of an individual, a returning citizen, from prison to Ignacio House, you know, and everything that goes into that reentry or that coming home process. And then after securing the necessary gainful employment, we help with the transition from this transitional supportive living to permanent affordable housing through our real estate partners in the community. So that's crucial. So that's housing. Okay, that's a housing component of the supportive services.
The second component is that of education. So through the partnerships that we've made with local universities, helping our residents access the necessary scholarships to continue their education, whether that be through [New York University, NYU], whether that be through St. Francis College in Brooklyn, Manhattan College, Columbia, whatever it might be, help them access the necessary scholarships to continue their education. Now, that can also mean vocational training for those people who are not interested in higher ed, or college is not a, you know, a fit for them, we want to be able to secure the necessary partnerships within the community to link our residents to that education best fitting their needs.
Third is employment. And that is the job workforce training. We have a partnership through Exodus Transitional Services that offers job workforce training for returning citizens. And then the fourth is reflection, that component that we just talked about. Those tools that are used for an examined life that help not only for healing within my own life, but also healing within relationships. So those four prongs are necessary.
Now, an integral part of the day-to-day routine of the supportive services would be the regular case management with the coordinator of supportive services, and then the enrichment activities that are a part of this house, that build on the five pillars of human growth and development: psychological development, emotional development, spiritual development, intellectual development, physical development. All these necessary components that help make a person whole are what we use to guide the enrichment activities that we plan. Either it is an obstacle course that we're doing upstate, or whether it is a trip to a museum, or whether it is praying with one of the world religions or an outing to the park just to do community: whatever that might be, these enrichment activities help build community within the space of Ignacio House.
Could you talk a little bit about your experience trying to build community among guys who are oftentimes strangers before coming to the house? Have there been any challenges in building community, things you've learned, or real successes?
Yeah, I mean, I think community is a loaded word. And I think that's why we use it a lot. Because many of the brothers that come through these doors to live here have no sense of what it means to be a community. Community is not a word used in prison. You're not forming community in your housing unit. For some of ours, even the home life prior to incarceration was a pithy explanation for what community is. So for some of ours, this is the very first experience that they ever have of community. And at the very least, at the very minimal, I hope that the experience that an individual would have of being a resident here would be the restoration of their own human dignity, that they are a dignified individual, loved by God, that has innate worth and value, despite the worst thing anybody has ever done. I hope that community at a very basic level can foster and restore dignity to the individual that comes through here to be a resident.
Challenges are just that what I explained, but community is not something that is manufactured. It's not a commodity. And it's actually an essential part of living as a human being. We are all connected, one way or another. We're a human family. And the more we can tap into that human connectedness and see ourselves as a part of, and not separate from, or an individual among other individuals, but a necessary component of this whole human family within the world, I think that only helps our neighborhoods, it helps our country, it helps the world. So the more I can come in touch with it, the more I can help restore an individual's dignity, the more susceptible they're going to be to lending themselves to community which takes great trust.
How much of that process do you think is driven by the administration? As opposed to from the guys themselves.
Oh, bottom-up, completely. Bottom-up completely. I think that the ownership and the maneuvering of the life of the community has got to be coming from the residents themselves. But here's the trick. There has to be some type of infrastructure and structure to the community already built in. Because by the very nature of this community, it's transitional. It's transient. This is not a condominium. This is not a co-op. This is a transitional supportive living community.
So, there has to be some already built-in mechanisms of structure and support for people, a way of proceeding, how we do things, and then the enrichment activities and the life of the community takes on the characters of the personalities that are here, which is wonderful, because it's ever-changing. Every time there's a new person that changes the dynamics. Every time someone leaves, the dynamic changes, beautiful. Because there's an opportunity for a new creation, a new innovation.
Have you seen bottom-up community building occur in the first couple years?
Last summer, last summer, we met in the apartment that you're living in, right in that dining room area. I had some sheets of paper up on the walls, I sat down with the individuals, I said, “Here we go. This is how we're doing things now, how are we going to do this together?” And I introduced the five pillars of human growth and development. I talked about enrichment activities, doing things together in community, and they put together a calendar for the year. And we just keep building on that after we've reflected on this past year: How do we build on that for the coming year?
Do you try to cultivate a core group of guys to lead that process?
So built into the structure is a leadership council, and their job is the day-to-day life with the community and also to advise me and support the supportive services coordinator. But those are resident scholars who are trusted, who are our mentors, who are images of what it means to be a contributing, thriving individual within the community.
And you yourself pick those four individuals?
For right now, but I think that as things move forward those people will come forward organically from the community. We’ll see people rising up into those ranks.
How have you navigated challenges in the first couple years? Like you said, a lot of these residents maybe haven't had a lot of experience in community. Are there any examples that come to mind of challenges that arose and how you dealt with them?
I think that's ever-changing, ever-evolving. I think one of the major learnings of this past year has been that this house, this community, this space has a specific mission. And we have a specific purpose. And we have specific aims and goals of what we're trying to achieve here in this community. And that a big part of it is that we have a certain profile, a certain person we're looking for that could be a part of the community. And so instituting those necessary mechanisms within the process that help with the vetting of people coming in here has been absolutely crucial. And part of that has been having the eyes and ears of the residents as part of who was coming in, who's monitoring, and who needs to be asked to move on.
What are some of the mechanisms that have been introduced in that vetting process?
Major one has been that there's the resident leadership council. The final buck stops with them.
So will they do a vote before an individual becomes a part of the community?
They meet with the individual and then they'll advise Sebastian, the supportive services coordinator, and myself whether they think this person would be a good fit for us, and whether it would be a good fit for that individual. You know, we also have to look out for that too. We need to make sure that this space is going to be set up in such a way that it's going to help that individual. And that the gifts and talents that individual is bringing is going to be good for the community.
Sorry to hone in on this, but could you walk me through the steps of the now instituted process of interviewing and vetting somebody, and then their entry into the community?
Yeah, so a lot of it's going to depend upon where the referral came from. Primarily, our referrals come from our retreat programs, or our university partners, okay, both of which are doing the good work behind the walls. So we have previous relationships formed with them while they're incarcerated. So number one, this process, this referral stream, is based on relationships. It's not, just out of the clear blue sky, somebody needs a house to live at. That's not what we're doing.
So the person would inquire through one of those channels, and then we would find out if they were going to parole or when they were being paroled, go through the necessary administrative paperwork of the letters for parole, etc. They would meet with the supportive services coordinator here. They'd write a letter of their intention, of what they're trying to get out of living here. They have a few interviews based upon the core, the four areas of this house: education, employment, housing, and reflection. Looking at those four pillars, and then the leadership team will go over it.
Who is in those interviews, the leadership team, just the services coordinator, and yourself?
All of them.
A broader question I have is about how you balance this vetting process and the need to encourage accountability within the community with the spiritual background of the program, with the radical power of forgiveness. Can you talk a little about your experiences balancing those two things for people reentering society?
Yeah, I mean I think it's all based in—for me, as a priest in the Catholic Church—I think that the whole thing is rooted in the radical hospitality that Jesus is offering in faith, right? So that there is Jesus' notion of hospitality is this radical way of loving. It's just, you know, you don't come across it. There's a Hebrew word for the nature of God's love that comes to the Old Testament called hesed. It's a steadfast love. It's a love that keeps on loving, a love that keeps on keeping on. And I think that the hospitality we want to offer here is rooted in that. But that's not roses and butterflies. A love that keeps on keeping on.
I mean, you look at the scriptures, with love comes a responsibility. It's a covenantal love. It's a love-based relationship. It's not a one-sided love. This isn't a work of charity, you know, let me just give you this. No, no, this is we. Every resident that comes into this house signs a covenant agreement. These are the expectations for you. These are the expectations for us. And this is how we will live together at Ignacio House.
So it's a covenantal relationship. Ingrained within it is not only personal responsibility, but communal responsibilities to one another, which hold each other accountable, and then ultimately build trust with one another.
Charity is toxic. It's toxic. It breeds dependence. It breeds dominance, power dynamics. But when you enter into a covenantal relationship, a love that is, that is rooted in mutuality, and give and take, personal responsibility and accountability, then you can enter into real conversation and dialogue when issues come up because, you know, I'm not running a daycare. You know, this is a community, a community of people who are committed to flourishing and not just flourishing now, but flourishing for life.
You mentioned the covenant they sign when they come in. Is that the main mechanism through which you try to set the tone at the beginning and establish that you’re trying to cultivate this covenantal love?
Exactly. It sets the tone, but it also provides a framework or a structure for the individual as they're coming into the house, right? They realize right up front that they're entering into a very different way of living, post-incarceration. There isn’t much like this, and they know that. They're well aware of that. They'd be the first to tell you this. But with that comes great responsibility. It's mutual, you know, it just is. And how do we go about that? We have to go about it in a covenantal way. We have to go about it in a way that is mutual, that is accountable, because I think that's ultimately how you build trust. This isn't a social service. Nothing against it. I'm a social worker. I mean, it's nothing against it. This isn't an agency.
How do interactions here look different than those in an agency setting?
I hope that in many ways that the people that live here understand a sense of ownership, and they understand their voice. I hope that they understand themselves as being a part of this mission, not as just a recipient of this mission. They're a recipient as well as a giver, which is important because it’s mutual, it’s both ways.
I think they're the experts. They’re the experts on the needs of individuals who are returning citizens, right? I mean, I'm not an expert on it. All I can really do is offer the accompaniment and the structure, hopefully. But they're the experts. Their expertise, their experience lends itself very well to accompany other people as they're getting out. So I hope that they use that experience and expertise and bring that to the planning and processes that we have in place and structures here at the house.
Are there any moments or cases that come to mind as examples of when that has happened?
Yeah, I think last summer, the planning and the structure that we put in place, it's continuing.
How does that ownership play out in the way you deal with problems when they do arise? Or everyday sort of conflicts that might come up?
Yeah. I think it's probably one of the more challenging things we have to face together. And that is, you know, in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, there's a question around the story of Cain and Abel, about who is my keeper? Who is my brother's keeper, right? We're all each other's brother. There's no police here. There's no, you know, there's no warden. The [New York Police Department] doesn't run this place, and I'm not a parole officer. But if we can grow more and more into mutual love and respect for one another, that's how we're going to be able to hold each other accountable. So that it's not “Daddy told me to do this” or “Daddy, you know, no,”: if we're really going to be a community, then we're going to be each other's keeper and we're going to hold each other accountable.
That can be very hard in a context like this. Because there's such a stigma against that in prison. You know, this ratting out is a big part of the stigma of prison. Ratting on someone else, you just be an individual, you don't meddle with other people.
No, but that is the antithesis of life. You are unable to go through life that way on the outside. You don't just stick to yourself. I'm interfacing with people all the time. So it's like the subway right? New York's subway, “If you see something, say something” is the motto of the New York subway. It's not “See something, say something” to rat somebody out. It’s “See something, say something” in order to care for the individual, have the well-being of another individual in mind, have it from a level of care and concern for the dignity of the other individual and also for the dignity of the community.
How do you feel the community, in its current iteration, reflects that ideal?
In process. In process. Not on mark.
How have you thought about the transition from prison culture to what you're trying to build here?
Like chiseling at concrete. Have you ever taken a chisel at concrete? Or like, try to chisel at concrete with a pencil or a pen. You know, see how well you do. Here's the thing: it takes time. It takes time. People have been hurt. People have been wounded. People have been offered a love that cannot be trusted in their lives. And so to enter into a community like this and say, “Okay, we got to start trusting each other.” That's not like a light switch, you know, that's more like a slow dimmer. You know? I mean, it takes time to light up. So you got to go along with the vicissitudes of that, because it's, it's not always an uphill trajectory. It's not always an upward trajectory there. There's setbacks as to that.
How do you think about the balance between the fact this is transitional, not meant to be long-term housing, with the fact that it takes time to chisel away at that concrete?
You know, foundations, grant people, they love metrics. They're into it as practices. I’m not as much into metrics. I’m more into people. And every person is an individual, that, you know, every person is like a world premiere. Think of Broadway, every person is like this world premiere. It takes time to get to know that world premiere. And every person is working at their own pace, and we have to journey with that person along their own pace. And also education takes time. That's not something that you know, just learn a few skills, and then you've got this job. Now this isn't, you know, the market. This is education, is a process as well. And being a part of that just takes time.
So, are we going to have big numbers when we talk about transforming lives? No, but we're going to have big depth. The depth of our impact is what I like to talk about, not the numbers of our impact. I like to talk about the depth of the impact. The people that we accompany here are never going back to prison. They’re just not. There’s no way. People that encounter something like this don't go back. They’ve encountered something radically different. You know, you don't go back to the fire when you’ve experienced the sun. But it takes time to sit in the sun. Whatever analogy you want to use. But the depth of the impact is this, is extremely transformative.
How do you create that love, the sun, while also keeping the notion that this is transitional in the back of your mind?
I mean, oftentimes, I think of this image of God, as, you know, that God is kind of like a mother, right? A mother with an infant. And the mother holds the infant, rocking the infant, and every now and then the infant gets a little crazy, right? Screaming, hollering, drooling. The mother doesn't set them down during those times. The mother keeps rocking the infant. And over time, feeling the chest of the mother, being held by the mother, being rocked by the mother, being lullabied by the mother, being close to the mother, the infant settles down. The infant finds a home in the arms of this mother.
And I oftentimes think of that as an image of God. That our whole lives are really about settling into this whole experience of experience, this reality, of being loved by God. Not by ourselves, not by our parents, not by our boss, not by our spouse, but that we are held by an existence that's far beyond our own self and settling into that. When we settle into that experience, that reality, there's no acting out from that. There's no reason to fuss. We wouldn't want to be in anybody else's arms, but this loving presence of God.
I think that that is community at its best. People can fully be themselves. Can be rocked, cradled back to their original loving nature. Our community at its best is able to deal with the vicissitudes of people's lives. The crime, the tantrums, but also the tears, but also the joys and the sorrows. Because the individual knows that being held by this, this presence is the safest presence that’s around. That's community at its best. We’re far from that. I don't know if it's out there, probably. It probably isn't. But it is definitely the aim and goal you want be going to when you're building, because people can be exactly who they have been created to be.
Are there any timelines that are written in your constitution regarding how long someone can stay in the house?
No. And I don’t want there to be. Probably somebody [who] comes after me will probably do that. Probably the first thing they do. Most places have that. We’re not going to have that right now.
How long did you think, as a general guideline, do you have in your head?
I think that when people finish their education, it's time. You know, secure some gainful employment. We can link them to some permanent affordable housing. And they're ready to take the next steps.
And the ones that are interested in vocational training?
Same thing. And for elders that are among us, who, you know, are advanced in years, it’s securing that necessary gainful employment that will help them for the remainder of their time with us. So they're on a shorter trajectory, but if we can offer them the hospitality, it’s kind of nice to have such an intergenerational community. There's some inspiration that goes on different levels that's very good.
Does the covenantal love you mentioned play out primarily in one-on-one conversations or in communal settings?
I think it's both. On the Sundays, you know, community nights, I hope that, you know, people are able to talk about things that matter. I think also individually, you know, there are just certain things that you want to talk to somebody that you trust, you know, you don't want to, you know, always want to open air everything that's going on. You want to bounce it off of a companion. I hope that the people here are able to find someone that they can do that with.
Are there any mechanisms in place for residents to offer feedback?
Certainly. Evaluation. We do an evaluation of everything that we do. We probably do too many. You know, they…there's feedback about what a certain experience was like. What was helpful? What was a hindrance? We take a lot of surveys on enrichment activities, on what people are looking for.
How often do those go out?
That's a very good question. I think our housing services coordinator would be a good person to ask that.
You know, here's the thing. The pandemic was a blessing for us. I know that sounds wild. But the global health emergency that we experienced in 2020 was a blessing for Ignacio House. Our community was transformed in the pandemic. A dirt pile in the backyard became an urban garden. Three dusty basements became three active communal spaces—one a learning center with state of the art digital technology for distance learning; another a recreation center, with washer and dryers for residents; and the other a dining hall, completely renovated during a pandemic.
People were home. People around them were out of work. So we put them to work, stimulating their pockets in order to increase the value of our own community. The pandemic was a blessing for our community.
I went to bed one night very early on in the pandemic and I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to do. But there was one thing that only rang true for me was to keep my eyes focused on the men here. I knew I couldn't do anything for the people behind the walls. We weren't going back there. But there were a group of people that were living at Ignacio House, that life had let them down so many times. And I was damn sure and committed that we were not going to close down that house and be counted among other people that had let them down.
I was going to do whatever we could to bust our asses to make sure that this house was a stalwart, a rock, a foundation, in the midst of a global health emergency. I was not going to say, “Oh, pause and pivot. Pause and pivot.” No, we were going to go all in because these people mattered deeply. And I wasn't going to be counted among the people that had been letting these folks down. Pandemic was a blessing. A global health emergency became a blessing.
Can you tell me a little bit about the exit process for guys, once they finish education or sufficient vocational training? Is there any structure or basic timeline that you aim to carry out at the end of that process?
I think a year before someone is moving on, I think we need to get things going. A, we've got to make sure the financial resources are secured—you know, good employment, steady employment. And also that they're living in a, in a place that offers a security and necessary living that they need to carry on with their lives. You know, we're not interested in perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
You know, Henry, that was one of my learnings in social work school. I don't think you want to probably talk about this in your paper, but I don’t actually know when to talk about it, and I never talk about it other than with people I trust. But I have a hard time in social work because I don’t see a lot of people getting out of poverty. I see a lot of people getting support, and all kinds of things. But I don't see people getting out of poverty. Out. And I've never met a poor person that likes being poor. I met a lot of poor people who aren't interested in being poor.
So I want to rally all the resources and services that we can get, and I want to pack them into the people we know and love that live among us here. And I want to be able to be a catalyst for them to thrive, to carry on with their lives as they should. They're a human person. They have every right to all the necessary means to flourish in life. Unfortunately, systems rob most of them, it's unfair and unjust. But we don't have to perpetuate that.
What were some of the moments that led you to your belief that education is most important for social mobility?
My own life. I'm a pretty privileged person. I have a lot of education. I’m an educated idiot. That’s what I am. I have too much education. And through my experience in education, I just see how it's ever-widening, ever-deepening, ever-lifegiving. It just is. Your world opens up. The opportunities in life are just immense.
The problem is so many are blocked out from it. So many don't have access. I mean, the lowest part of the ladder, people who are incarcerated. Incarceration can be a great time to start all that. And thanks to God, the Pell Grants are being restored. And so that, that pool will get bigger. All the more need to have Ignacio Houses around to support our folks as they are reentering.
How do you see the interaction between education and spirituality?
I don't think they’re disjunctive. Education is really a reflection, an exercise in reflection. Again, education isn't a commodity. You don’t buy education. Education is a reflection. It’s tools, really, or a lens to understand reality. I think it's an integral part of reflection. Not sure what you would do without it. Well, I know what you do without it. You become your own echo chamber. It’s unhelpful.
And what do you mean by that?
Well, education offers resources for seeing, understanding life and navigating life, really, for good or for ill. I mean, that's what education is all about, right? Some tools you already know about or that you enjoy, and that you’re comfortable with. There are other tools that are going to be offered to you that are educational, that you don't enjoy, that rub. That's where the widening takes place. It's the challenge. It's the invitation of being exposed to something that you didn't already know about. Or you didn't already conceive of. If we always just stay put in what we already know, and of what we conceive of, you’re in a rut. There's no movement, there's no activity, there's no activation. The potential is great, but it's not activated.
Is that what you meant by echo chamber?
Is one of your primary goals in the spiritual retreats to change the sort of reflection that occurs in guys’ lives?
The only goal I have with these retreats are, it's really the aim and goal of St. Ignatius, it's for the salvation of your soul. And what do I mean by that? It’s a very pious way of saying to free you up to be the person you've been created to be. These tools help you give God a chance in your life. That's all these tools do. They help you give God a chance in your life. These tools help you understand God active in your daily life. That you aren't your own God. That there is something beyond you, beyond us, to tap into, that can help us, and you, to live as the loving and generous people we've been created to be. And so these tools help us give God a chance in life, and they free us up. And I think that’s salvation. I really believe that’s salvation. Salvation is when I and we are completely and utterly who we were born to be. Those are moments of salvation.
Are there moments or interactions that come to your mind, with your time in prison, where you felt or saw that expansion take place in the sense that you just described somebody realizing that they're not their own God? Or that they're part of something larger?
Yeah, I mean, I see it in moments of healing. I see it all the time. I see it all the time. We’d be here all day. I mean, I just, I see it all the time. You got to have eyes to see it. But I mean, I see it all the time. That's a grace. I see it all the time, in breakings of the spirit in people's lives. That they’re no longer living for themselves, but they're living for other people. Moments of generosity, moments of selflessness, moments of gratitude, moments of healing, moments of transformation. I see it all the time, behind the walls, beyond the walls. I think the key is we need to remember those moments. We can forget. When you start living out of the old hurt and pain, wounds, and that's how we start adding to the toxicity in the world. But if we remember just how much we're loved, we can be a part of this healing of the world in a way that is quite transformational.
What do you envision as an afterlife of the house in terms of former residents and their potential involvement with the house?
Time for you to pay it forward. No, I believe that. I mean, you saw what this was for you, help the next person. Either you have the financial means, or you have the time, or you have the resources. Whatever it is, it's got to come back. It's got to come back around. You can't hoard these. I mean you don't hoard grace. You don’t hoard gifts. And so people who come through here, I mean, I hope that the alumni base keeps helping and keeps really pushing this forward.
The real estate partners was another question I had. Is that a set list that you have?
It’s just a group of people who have, if they fit our mission, or they're doing the work that, you know, they're compatible with the work that we're doing, they're great collaborators, and they're a great resource for us to offer that permanent, affordable housing.
Do you feel like you have that framework pretty well set in stone?
We have an organization that's actually quite good. I mean, we could use other places. I mean, the more the better, right?
That’s a part of your mission, that situation for anybody who’s ready to move on?
You’ve got to have, that’s a necessary component, or where are they going? Back to the city shelter? Or they're going back to couch surfing? That's what we tried to address at the very beginning. I mean, you can't do that.
Can you tell me a little bit about the living situations that guys end up in?
He owns many houses around New York. They're permanent, affordable housing. Meaning that it's not market rate. And he puts our guys right to the top of the list.
So are those all individual relationships you have?
Right now it’s all individuals, yeah.
Educational partners, you have a set list, right, of colleges you work with?
These are people who are doing good work of college education behind the walls.
Could you just list them so I have them on record?
Yeah. Right now we have memorandums of understanding with St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NYU, Manhattan College, Columbia, and Mercy College.
And how many prisons do you do retreats in before COVID-19?
We're in six different correctional facilities in the New York metropolitan area and New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
You mentioned that you differ a little bit from other organizations, big organizations in that you're not focused on numbers. You're focused on individuals.
And I'm focused on the depth of impact rather than the number of people. And how do you quantitate that? I don’t know. The other thing I'm different about is that I don't really know if I give into this whole reentry thing. I mean, I probably do. But at the end of the day, I probably don't.
What do you mean by that?
I don't know, I just, reentry, you know, whatever that is, I think for me, community is the most important thing. So it's really community organizing, bringing people together, that can live together, grow together, flourish together. I think that's what's the most important. More than the industry behind reentry. Over here to get your driver's license, over here to get this, and then go over here to get a job. No, nobody lives like that. That's not how people live. It’s how you've set this population up to live? Yes. And they're going to fail. I mean because of how this is set up.
So I mean, I think forming community is the most important thing. And I've just learned over the years that housing is the most important. I don't know if you have any credibility, if you're not doing housing. It's the most basic thing you can offer somebody. If you’re not doing housing, I don't take a lot of feedback from people that aren’t doing housing. Come live here, work here, come be here, then you can give me some feedback. But you know, shouting from the cheap seats about how you do housing with returning citizens, I don’t really. Because it's like, you don't really know. You read a book once.
What are things you’ve disregarded?
I've disregarded the fact that some people need to be told they need to move on. Oh yeah. No, you need to move on. You don't belong here. And if you haven't figured that out yourself, I got to help you figure that out. So, you need to move on. You can go somewhere else to live the way you want to live. We don't live that way here. Happens in religious life. You know, if you're a Jesuit, and this is how we live. Well, you know, I don't live this way. I want to do this. Well then this isn't the place for you.
So you’ve had to do that here?
Sure. Yeah. I mean, I don't, I don't really care. I mean, I've had to kind of grow a thick skin over that. But no, this is what we do here. And trust me, if it's not what we do here, we're running a frat house. And I'm not interested. Or an Airbnb, I'm not interested. I am interested in growing and community.
How did those conversations take place? One-on-one with the person?
Yeah. I mean over time I’ve gotten better at it. It’s been rough.
What was that progression like?
I think that there's enough warning and enough conversations that should happen prior to it, that people can decide for themselves. You can give people enough information that they decide for themselves. This isn't for me—instead of me telling you it's not for you, you can decide that. Does that make sense? The discernment is an important part of the process.
It’s a continual dialogue?
Yes. Exactly. But I got to be secure enough in who I am to have those difficult conversations. These are very difficult conversations. Because you know, humans are humans, they'll sway you any way they want to. No, this is what we do. But I'll tell you, this population respects that straight shooting.
Oh, yeah. I have not come across a population that is so into candor. Most people like nuance, you know, let's make everybody feel good. Not people who are coming out of prison—they're very interested in candor. They like it. They know where they stand. They know where you stand. They know they can trust you.
Is that something you’ve learned?
Yeah, but I think I have a little bit of it in my personality as well. I think this is why this is sometimes a good fit. This is why I don't go over well, you know, in a good Jesuit high school or, you know, a college, you know; I would never survive academia.
You mentioned that some people are sitting in the cheap seats, saying this is how you should do something. Are there other things that you think you've really radically said, “No, actually, I'm going to do it this way. And I think it works better.” Are there other things that stand out to you? When somebody offered you advice, unsolicited, that you just disagreed with?
Certainly the house was a major disagreement. I firmly believe that we had to offer housing. I did not think going in prison and telling people how much God loves them was enough. I don't believe it. I just don’t. I fundamentally disagree.
And people disagreed with that?
Yeah, “Why would you want to do that? Just focus on doing your retreats, which are really good, and they really are very good retreats, um, and just focus on that, help link people, you can be a linkage.” No. I’m not interested. I mean no. Fundamentally no. I disagree with you. Sometimes you can't have conversations around that kind of stuff. This is what we're doing. We're looking for property to buy, to go into housing. Because we believe in these people that we've encountered behind the walls so much, that we're not just going to be going behind the walls telling them God loves them. We're going to be with them in that pivotal moment of reentry.
Do you think that separates you from other organizations that you, you're making that belief that everybody maybe talks about, you’re making it tangible by the fact that you're out, you went and found property and that you started the house?
Yeah, I mean, partners, they would, they use lines like, “How did you do it?” There wasn't a miracle. You can do it. You just, I mean, here's another thing. You can’t imagine the number of people that came up to this place and told me don't do it. You know, that's not the place. No. No, this is exactly what we're supposed to be.
And why was that?
I saw the potential for communal space. I saw the potential for a dignified room. And, you know, we don't have to warehouse formerly incarcerated people. They can live like normal human beings. Let’s do that.
And that’s a big part of your vision, right, the living space?
It mirrors how other people live. Everybody in New York lives like this. There's so many people that live in New York, they rent out an apartment, they live with three other people that they don't know. They rent the room. That’s how New Yorkers live. Real estate is so expensive here. People live like this in New York. Nobody lives here any differently than anybody else in New York. So I sleep well at night, because of that. I don't think I could sleep well, if we were, you know, warehousing formerly incarcerated people, or, you know, we were just trying to get numbers in and out. No.
It is the most costly thing you can do. I mean, that is true. Housing and education, they cost the most. They just do.
They're more expensive than, say, just a service-based approach.
Exactly. Like, okay, we're going to have resume building here, or job search, you know, job training, nine to five. I mean, yeah, that doesn't cost a lot of money. I can do that from my basement. I mean, that doesn't cost anything. This is expensive. This is very expensive. So the fundraising part of this is absolutely pivotal. You can’t dance around it. But it's worth it.
My last question is about the condition of the house. I get the sense that the shape the house is in is important to you. Could you talk about that?
I think that environment helps in behavior. And I mean, just basic psychology, I mean, environment helps foster behavior, a sense of meaning and value, work. A clean, bright, light, comfortable place to call home. It's going to help you.