A prisoner re-entry program in place for a decade at the Long Branch public library is going statewide due to a nearly $630,000 federal grant received by the New Jersey State Library.

The Fresh Start @ Your Library program is designed to assist people who are released from prison transition back into society by having social workers available to help them find jobs, line up housing and complete other tasks such as getting a driver’s license.

Re-entry centers are being added at the Atlantic City, Newark, Paterson and Trenton public libraries and the Cumberland County Library in Bridgeton. In the program’s second year, it is expected to expand into Philadelphia.

J. Johndi Harrell, the program manager, said the program is a partnership between the State Library, Parole Board and Department of Labor and Workforce Development and works because the assessments of each person’s needs are highly individualized.

“Long Branch has been a model for that,” Harrell said. “We really believe that it cannot only be the model for the local libraries of New Jersey but across the country. This is a very dynamic concept.”

Peggy Cadigan, deputy state librarian for innovation and strategic partnerships, said “libraries are the perfect place to do this” because they serve as a “community anchor.”

“Libraries are providing this kind of service already. We’ve been providing employment help and other social service help for people who need that assistance,” Cadigan said.

“We’re a nonthreatening place. We welcome everyone,” she said. “And I think that there’s no stigma attached with going into a local public library. So we think we’re the perfect place because we’re serving everybody from all walks of life.”

Part of the grant funding will be used to pay for 50 people to complete GED programs, an alternative to a high school diploma.

Also, two social workers are being hired through the grant funding to offer one-on-one counseling sessions. One is Nicole Warren, who will work at the Newark and Paterson libraries.

“Get to know them and what some of their goals are and their strengths are, and then from there we’re able to connect them with educational opportunities, job opportunities, help them with job readiness,” Warren said. “Anything they need to try to get that fresh start and to be able to contribute to their community.”

Warren said former inmates – “returning citizens,” in the parlance of the program – already visit the public libraries to seek the type of help the program will offer, from librarians and library staff who are helpful though not really trained in that kind of work.

“It’s important for the social workers to be in the libraries because they have the training and experience to work with people who may have experienced trauma or some other difficulties in their life,” Warren said.

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Harrell, who served 25 years in federal prison, said a library is a good location for re-entry services.

“Many folks who are coming home from prison are used to going to the library,” Harrell said. “In a prison setting, the library is the intellectual center of the prison, and folks are used to going there for whatever they need. So for them to come home and then go to the library and receive re-entry services is a natural extension of they’ve already been doing.”

The $628,774 grant supporting the program comes from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency. The state is contributing $671,449 toward the program, primarily through in-kind contributions of staffers' time at the State Library and Parole Board and training offered by the labor department.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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