Working With Prisoners: An Interview With Simone Ponnet
Walking up Willis Avenue, one of the more desolate thoroughfares of the South Bronx, I was on my way to interview Simone Ponnet of the Little Sisters of the Gospel, who is the executive director of Abraham House. Abraham House (www.abrahamhouse.org) is a residential program for prisoners assigned there by the court as part of their sentence. Its goal is rehabilitation. But that Sunday afternoon, I was also on my way to visit a friend, because Simone and I have known each other for three decades.
Simone came to New York City from Belgium in 1972. Her congregation, whose spirituality is based on that of Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), sent her to explore opportunities for working with and living among the city’s poorest residents. A Jesuit friend introduced us after my ordination the following year, and I periodically celebrated Mass for her and the two sisters who subsequently joined her. At the time I was working as a chaplain at the Men’s House of Detention, the oldest of the facilities on Rikers Island—the huge jail and prison complex near LaGuardia Airport in New York City. In a curious turn of events that solidified our friendship even further, when I left Rikers in 1980 for another assignment in Washington, D.C., it was Simone who took my place as chaplain: the first woman to hold a chaplaincy position in any of the all-male facilities on the island.
“I’d always wanted to work with prisoners,” Simone said, once we were seated in her tiny office in one of the two brownstones that house Abraham House’s activities. “But in the beginning, the other two sisters and I started by taking simple jobs in factories and restaurants. Mine,” she added, “was doing housecleaning in Harlem and accompanying sick people to their doctors’ appointments, as part of a program that a group of Dominican sisters was running.” She soon became aware that many of the Harlem residents she was assisting had relatives behind bars.
After working several years as a volunteer, Simone eventually received her appointment as an official chaplain. Another longtime and mutual friend of both of us—Peter Raphael, a Mission de France priest and former worker priest in his native country—was already on Rikers Island celebrating Mass at several of the institutions, including the Men’s House of Detention. But it was Simone who was at the Men’s House every day, in an environment that had become increasingly harsh since my time there. Over half the cellblocks were by then used for punitive segregation. Reflecting on her chaplaincy experience, Simone said, “I soon found that the criminal justice system doesn’t want to be bothered with trying to do something positive for the prisoners, who were being treated as animals. And when you treat people as animals,” she continued, “they become like animals. On the other hand, when you are a little human with them, they become human again.”
The very fact that Simone is a woman proved helpful. “It was easier for the inmates to speak to me about their wives and children. Sometimes, they’d say, ‘you look like my sister.’ After a few more years, they began saying, ‘you look like my mother.’ Later on, when they began saying I reminded them of their grandmothers,” she concluded with a laugh, “I thought that perhaps it was time for me to move on.” But she remained at Rikers for two decades.
As her work continued, she saw the toll that the revolving-door character of settings like Rikers was taking on the lives of both the inmates and their families. Some joined gangs. “In jails and prison,” Simone said, “the only means of being or having something is by being part of a gang and engaging in violent behavior.” She added that it was not unusual to hear inmates say: “I’m back, but I don’t mind, because at least here I’m somebody.” With each rearrest and return, moreover, she saw that the inmates’ ties with their families were weakened still further, leading to a yet deeper erosion of support on the street.
“During their first stay at Rikers, they still have their families and usually receive visits. But by the second or third time, the kids may stop coming, and the wife might be going out with someone else—and so each time they have less and less support once they do get out.” The gang involvement and the loss of family bonds made clear the need to create ways of helping prisoners achieve a degree of stability after their release.
“I was living with the two other sisters in Brooklyn,” Simone said. “Together with Peter, we began renting apartments nearby for some of the men we had gotten to know well while they were behind bars. This gave them the chance to reunite with their families and to strengthen the bonds with their children, while they were looking for work and trying to put some order back into their lives.” The approach proved effective, but it became clear that more space was needed. A search began for what would later become Abraham House. The name was chosen because it represents links with three faith traditions, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. But the biblical Abraham also serves as a symbol of hope and faith, and Abraham House is very much a place in which hope and faith in the possibility of new life run strong.
“We looked for months in all the New York City boroughs, but everywhere,” Simone said, “we ran into not-in-my-backyard opposition. As soon as we found a likely looking building, and the real estate people or the owner learned that we were going to use it for prison ministry, they told us no.” Finally, however, they heard of an empty brownstone in the South Bronx; it had been used for a drug rehabilitation program that ceased to operate. The Archdiocese of New York, which owned the house, agreed to let Simone and Peter use it. It was little more than a shell, however, all but destroyed by addict squatters who had taken it over. “From downstairs,” said Simone, “you could look up and see the sky through the roof.” Over time, it was renovated through donations and the sweat equity of friends and supporters—including some corrections officers and prisoners on parole who had been living in the Brooklyn apartments. As the renovations continued, Peter stayed at a nearby rectory, and the three sisters rented an apartment over a funeral home a few doors away. By 1993 the building was ready.
Abraham House’s uniqueness lies partly in the interweaving of the components of its program: a residence for up to 10 current or former prisoners, an after-school program for children who have family members behind bars and the active involvement of neighborhood families. Most of the people living in that section of the South Bronx—many of them undocumented—are Mexican and Dominican. “When the neighbors heard that we were trying to assist prisoners,” Simone said, “more and more families began coming to us, begging us to help with their husbands and sons who were involved in the criminal justice system—and this in turn led us to become more involved with the courts.”
One court magistrate in particular, Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder—known for her strictness but also for her willingness to support rehabilitative measures—has shown herself open to releasing some offenders to Abraham House as an alternative to prison. “In accepting a person into the program,” Simone said, “we have to be sure that the person really wants to change, to get his life together in a positive way.” Pressure from the court can lead to a turning point in this process. She gave the example of a young man who entered the program from jail but was not doing well. “I alerted Judge Snyder, who said, ‘Let’s teach him a lesson.’” She remanded him back to Rikers for three weeks. “But when he returned to Abraham House, he still had the same streetwise attitude, so she put him behind bars again, for three more weeks. He came back a changed man,” Simone said. “Even his family has said he’s not the same person.” Sometimes staying at Abraham House can mean spending a longer time under criminal justice supervision. Nevertheless, she observed, “Most prefer to be with us in our program and learn something, instead of just staying in jail, which is really only a school of crime.”
A former resident who had been involved in drug dealing did so well that he is now on the board of Abraham House. After finding steady work and becoming engaged, he asked to be married in its chapel, and it was Peter who celebrated the wedding Mass. Peter also celebrates an ever-growing vigil Mass on Saturdays and another on Sundays. Families fill the chapel—which has already been enlarged twice—to standing-room-only capacity. So in a sense, with its liturgies and religious instruction component for children, Abraham House has taken on aspects of a parish in its own right, with Peter as spiritual director and unofficial pastor.
The residents themselves are very involved in the family component of the program. They spend much of their Saturdays preparing bags of food for needy families. Even as we sat in her office that Sunday afternoon, Simone said that the residents were preparing food donated by City Harvest for the following weekend’s distribution. The residents also assist in the preparation of the hot meal for 150 that is served after the vigil Mass on Saturdays. “Spending time in service to others,” said Simone, “is one of the ways they can give something back to the community.” The residents’ service may include watching over the small children while their mothers study English or speak with the counselors—many in the neighborhood speak only Spanish. The rest of the week, they are involved in job training, with some starting to work.
In an effort to include prevention as part of the program, an attempt was made several years ago to begin a special focus on teenagers, but without success. “They were not ready to change, and many were even proud of going to jail,” Simone said. “As a result, we decided to focus our prevention efforts instead on younger children.” Thus began the after-school program, now headed by a public elementary school teacher named Theresa, originally from Peru. She came to Abraham House because her brother was in trouble with the law, and then—realizing what the program was attempting to accomplish—she enlisted some of her fellow public school teachers who also began to volunteer. Eventually Theresa agreed to be in charge of the after- school component. The program began modestly, with eight children, each with a relative in jail. Now 30 come on weekday afternoons for three and a half hours of concentrated study. The progress of some has earned them scholarships to the nearby Catholic parochial school, and on completing that phase of their education, several have gone on to Catholic high schools with further scholarships.
Theresa’s role at Abraham House is likely to grow. Simone is approaching her mid-60’s, and she has health issues. Theresa, Simone explained, would probably take over the position of executive director, with one of the other teachers becoming director of the afterschool program. “We would stay on to support Theresa. As for myself,” she continued, “I never wanted to be the director—my strong point is simply to be with the people, as a friend.”
A recent report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that recidivism rates have been rising around the nation. In commenting on the report, some criminal justice experts have pointed out that the rise is partly attributable to cutbacks in rehabilitative measures aimed at preparing prisoners for their return to the community. Multilayered community-based efforts like Abraham House, on the other hand, offer hope for addressing precisely this problem of re-entry. Have there been failures? Yes, especially in regard to residents addicted to heavy drug use. Relapses occur. When they do, residents are sent to reliable drug treatment programs. Some refuse to complete the program and are remanded to jail. Nevertheless, success rates among those who, after moving on from Abraham House, do enter into stable patterns of life have been impressive for a program that has been in existence less than 10 years. With the after-school program, moreover, prevention has become an equal priority with rehabilitation. The very fact that the program is small has been an asset. “We don’t want a bigger Abraham House,” Simone said. “We would prefer to see more Abraham Houses in other poor parts of the city, and in this way increase the number of people who could be served.”