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‘We are only as strong as our weakest link’: prisoner reentry advocate tells civic

Kyle Braunskill discussed the importance of prisoner reentry programs with FRNCA members last night. Photo: Maria Piedrbuena

A visibly moved audience of neighbors and friends listened to a presentation about prisoner reentry programs and youth mentoring and coaching for kids from Safe Harbor’s executive director and founder of New Day, Kyle Braunskill at the Flanders, Riverside, Northampton Community Association monthly meeting last night.

Founded in 2002 by Roy Kirton, Safe Harbor is a nonprofit organization that has focused on helping incarcerated people effectively reenter society by fostering a relationship with them before they are released, a key aspect of their program.

“Reentry cannot start once you get out of prison,” Braunskill said. “Trying to reenter society is like trying to jump from a moving treadmill, the process needs to start before, inside prisons.”

Although going to prison is supposed to be a punishment for whatever crime someone committed and then once you’re released, your life continues, the reality is much more complex, and the consequences of having gone to prison will follow a former inmate for life, said Braunskill.

From being unable to find a job or being denied certain career paths, to not being able to obtain a driver’s license to dealing with emotional, substance abuse and psychological issues that stem from “not being able to cope,” the recidivism rate is unsurprisingly high, he said.

“When somebody is trying to pick up the pieces of their life, it’s very difficult not to go back if you have all of these factors against you,” Braunskill said.

According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, 67.8 percent of the 404,638 state prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states were arrested within 3 years of release, and 76.6 percent were arrested within 5 years of release, figures that organizations like Safe Harbor are working hard to decrease.

“The key is the community,” Braunskill said. “We are only as strong as our weakest link.”

A group that has survived for years on almost no resources, Safe Harbor is a labor of love and time commitment that has built a strong network of about 35 volunteers led by the soft-spoken and charismatic Braunskill, who wants to take the organization to the next level.

Inspired by the work he does with Safe Harbor, Braunskill wants to also include those who may have not yet been incarcerated, but may be at risk. With that in mind, he founded last year A New Day, a nonprofit organization that looks to identify youth in the Flanders, Riverside, Northampton and Riverhead areas and mentor and coach them preventively.

The idea, said Braunskill, was to create a curriculum where they are in constant communication with kids ages eight and up, as well as pair them with coaches who can mentor them and help them “unlearn learned negative behaviors.”

“And who better than the former inmates that have come out and have successfully reentered society,?” he said. “It’s a way to give back and, with our guidance, they are the best mentors the kids can have,” he said.

Safe Harbor and New Day’s programs are being implemented succesfully, something that Braunskill shared with newly elected Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon recently. The sheriff has been supportive of doing reforms regarding reentry, Braunskill said.

“More than anyone since I’ve been here, [Toulon] has been open and trying to work in that direction,” he said.

“Riverhead right now is known for having a correctional facility, but it should also be known for having the infrastructure to help people reenter society.”

Braunskill said that as part of those reforms, reentry can only be successful if programs start soon and a rapport is formed with inmates prior to their release. For example, Safe Harbor will make them fill out a questionnaire to identify what their strengths are and what they will need once they get out.

Some people may need to take a medication, need substance-abuse counseling, some may need financial assistance, while others have professional experience or have a safety net they can rely on.

They work on a case-by-case basis, he said, and spread their work by word of mouth to reach to possible sponsors and employers. Through networking at churches and with other organizations, they have been able to help hundreds get jobs, reconnect with their families, go to 12-step programs, and others.

“We try to teach them how to see their lives differently when they are in prison, and understand the difference between reality and truth, so when they get out they know what to expect,” he said.

Although now a successful businessman and home owner and committed prisoner reentry advocate, as a former inmate himself who successfully reentered society thanks to the help he found in the community, Braunskill learned the hard way how a series of bad decisions can turn a life upside down, and he says, once in prison, it doesn’t get any easier.

A good student growing up with a stable life, Braunskill, suffered through a series of events that led him to make bad decisions while he has in college, he said. His best friend drowned, his house burned down and another friend was convicted of a crime and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Suddenly he said, he was living with nine other people, including siblings and parents, in a two-room trailer.

“I felt I had to do something, I had to be the savior of that situation,” he said — a decision that would lead to his own criminal conviction and 20-year sentence.

“Prison breaks you down,” he said. “You go in because you have trouble with decision-making and once in there, they take the decision-making process away from you. They tell you how to dress, what to eat…. and then when you’re released you have to go out and be self-sufficient and be productive, it’s very hard.”

It’s something that former Southampton Town councilman and newly released convicted felon Brad Bender, who was in the audience last night, knows first-hand.

“After being on the inside, prison does break you down,” he said after thanking Braunskill profusely for his presentation.

Bender said he had prepared financially in advance before being incarcerated for conspiracy to deliver oxycodone two years ago and has worked at being drug-free while in prison and outside of it—and celebrated his two years and four months sobriety last Thursday— but the transition hasn’t been easy

“I take full accountability for what I did, but the return, coming back to my own community, having people turning their backs on me, saying things that aren’t true about you, it makes it the more difficult,” he said.

Listening to Bender and Braunskill, many in the audience couldn’t hold back tears, acknowledging the deep pain caused by substance abuse, crime, incarceration and recidivism.

A tight-knit cluster of neighborhoods, the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton communities have historically walked a tight rope between the more affluent hamlets to the east in the Town of Southampton, of which they are a part, and the community to the north, the Town of Riverhead, with which they share not only a physical border, but also, schools, a library, a zip code — and a sometimes fractured relationship.

Riverside Rediscovered community liaison Siris Barrios said many contributing factors have historically put this area at an economic disadvantage, marginalizing the communities in the northwest corner of Southampton Town.

Flanders resident Kathy Fioto Kruel— who cried as she remembered her nephew Brian who was murdered in 2001—spoke of her experience in the neighborhood, creating a neighborhood watch and dealing with drug dealers and facing guns, as well as “giving local kids a chance.”

“This is the time we need to teach kids there is a whole world off of that corner, we need to tell them ‘step off of it,’ some kids will listen and have good lives, some won’t, they don’t know any better, we need to help so when they come back they feel there are part of the community,” she said.

The FRNCA board and members closed the meeting with a commitment to provide around $600 to Safe Harbor and New Day so they can hire someone to do a website for the nonprofits.

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Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria