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Return on Investment (ROI)—Rochelle commits to finding justice

Return on Investment (ROI) — Rochelle commits to finding justice

Years after we moved to Ossining, I was asked to participate in a community brainstorming about the potential development of a Sing-Sing Prison Museum. It was facilitated by Lord Cultural Resources, a consultancy that specializes in museum planning services. The museum is an idea that!s suffered fits and starts over the years. Some in our community were opposed to bringing any attention to the prison, others on the fence, and I fell into the group that viewed Sing-Sing as an opportunity to bring attention to local history, economic development, the national conversation about criminal justice and how we treat each other. I had a lot to learn, about museum making, criminal and social justice, the history of incarceration in our country, rehabilitation, re- entry and on and on.

Create a safer world: There have been a lot of great people working on this project, and during the brainstorming, which was about addressing the community’s questions and concerns, I asked only one question, How does this project get paid for?” The answer was, From both public and private funding.” As I learned more, I realized I had another question, What is the ROI for creating a Sing-Sing Prison Museum?” I also came to an answer, Creating a safer world.” 

History is about people, what they did and the consequences of their actions. It can also be a powerful teacher. In the case of Sing-Sing, that might be by telling stories from the prison’s past. All of us on the committee believed a museum could provide a place to tell those stories, to learn, reflect on how to create a more equitable criminal justice system and, with that, improve the lives of prisoners and their families, friends, employers, victims, the Sing-Sing staff, our Ossining community and be a model for a safer world. This prison museum might be an opportunity to make real change, and three things from my past drove me to get involved. 

Give with a full heart: My parents came to America in search of a safer world. That need was pounded into my DNA. The Sing-Sing Prison Museum was my chance to give to the world the safety my parents wanted to create for themselves and to, as my father said, give from the heart freely and expect nothing in return. 

Wipe the slate clean: When I was a kid, Dearest Taleisman was a porter in my father’s bakery. He was regularly arrested and thrown into the jail in downtown Brooklyn for drunken and disorderly conduct. Often my father had to go bail him out. 

People coming out of prison find it difficult if not impossible to find jobs. Their prison time is recorded and travels with them through every reference check for the rest of their lives. A huge problem. Seven U.S. states have passed Clean State legislation. It is, according to, a bipartisan policy model that works to update and expand eligibility for arrest and conviction record clearance if a person stays crime-free for a period of time. It’s a proven and successful model to implement commonsense policies that create transformational changes in people’s lives. Clean Slate is rooted in the American Dream — the belief that if you work hard, you should be able to get ahead and provide for your family.” 

My parents were incredibly grateful for the freedom and the life they found in America, and they lived their gratefulness. My father got a chance, and he decided to pay it forward. I watched, as over time, my father taught Dearest to be a baker. In our bakery, my father wiped Dearest’s slate clean. He found a job he loved, he had respect and he stopped getting into trouble. 

Give people a voice: During the 1980’s I served as a screener and then a judge for the National Magazine Awards (the Ellie Awards), co-sponsored by the Columbia School of Journalism and the American Society of Magazine Editors. Several hundred judges worked through thousands of entries in many categories and judged them against editorial objectives. I was on the committee for General Excellence for a circulation of 100,000 and under. One of the entries was a magazine from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, The Angolite. It was submitted by its self-taught editor, Wilbert Rideau. Rideau is black, and until he was appointed by Angola’s warden in 1975, only white prisoners could work on the publication. The Angolite served the prison population and their families, the local department of corrections and the residents of Angola. The magazine told stories, and it raised questions. The content was important for its audience. I voted for The Angolite, but it did not get a nomination. But I am happy to report, since then it has won many journalism awards and Wilbert Rideau was released from prison after serving forty-four years. 

Stop the name calling: Once a prisoner always a prisoner, always an ex-con, a jailbird, a man or woman who has lost their freedom. That’s the way it is in our justice system and society. We talk forgiveness, but our biases toward the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, their families and victims, along with corrections staff stigmatize and limit their and our country’s futures. What if we could change the narrative, the way we talk about and the story we tell about our criminal justice system? Words matter. Prisoner, no. incarcerated, better, less stigmatizing. 

Show some respect: I am not an economist, but I do know that it costs less to rehabilitate than incarcerate. Better yet, to make the investment in prevention by providing the basic needs— food, education, shelter, safety and dignity — and open a path to growth. Nor am I a psychologist, but I do know that Nelson Mandela was right: For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”