Former NJ inmates now helping others reenter society
Eric Echevarria served seven years behind bars for drug and weapons charges. Today, the Camden County resident runs the addiction treatment program for Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, attempting to reroute the lives of others in need, including ex-convicts.
"I am a walking, talking, breathing example that this process does work if the client is willing to do what it takes," Echevarria told New Jersey 101.5 during an interview at the nonprofit's Collingswood office.
This is the fourth segment of a series examining the re-entry of New Jersey prisoners into mainstream society upon release, and the services to help reduce the number of individuals who re-offend and return to prison. On Thursday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m., New Jersey 101.5 will broadcast a special town hall with a live discussion and simulcast at Facebook.com/NJ1015
Right out of prison, he entered a VOA-provided halfway house and began receiving substance abuse treatment himself. From there, he was encouraged to begin college and later achieved a bachelor's degree, then secured an impressive list of counseling and treatment-related certifications in the years since.
Evecharria said his history helps him empathize with the clients he assists; he understands the barriers they face daily once they're released from lockup. For some individuals, he noted, this is the first time they're attempting to "cope in society without committing a crime."
"We run into clients all the time that are doing well, and they thank you and they send you cards," he said. "It's an overwhelming feeling of pride. It's the ultimate pay-it-forward. It's very rewarding."
- DAY 1: Prisoner rehabilitation starts at intake
- DAY 2: Services for paroled offenders
- DAY 3: How NJ's 'max-outs' survive after prison
In and out of prison for years for drug-related charges, and last released in June 2007, Robert Carter currently serves as director of operations for the New Jersey Reentry Corporation.
The Red Bank resident is the main contact when a client wants to get into treatment for substance abuse disorder as soon as possible.
"The window of willingness for change — sometimes it's in that moment," Carter said. "When I was locked up, a lot of guys came home with habits. They were using inside."
Carter said wraparound services such as the ones available today for released prisoners were not around when he needed them the most. But they've evolved greatly in the years since.
"This would've benefited me, but it especially would've benefited a lot of the guys that I was friends with at the time that didn't stay clean or got discouraged," he said. "A lot of them are dead or in prison."
Carter has been clean for 13 years.
"It all starts with client's willingness," Carter said. "They come through these doors, they finally want to make a change, we've just got to make sure we're here for them and provide that change, or the ability for them to make that change for themselves."
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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at email@example.com.