Guest post provided by Visionary Philanthropy Group

The New Jersey Reentry Corporation Annual Reentry Conference, “Mental Health Is Everybody’s Business”, convened on Holy Thursday, March 28, 2024, under the expert moderation of Governor Jim McGreevey. With an emphasis on mental health reform within the criminal justice system, the event honored the legacy of Andrew J. Washington and featured distinguished speakers such as Governor Phil Murphy,and Attorney General Matthew Platkin. Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archdiocese of Newark, started the conference off with the invocation.

Governor Murphy articulated his administration’s dedication to rehabilitation and second chances within the criminal justice system. He praised New Jersey’s progressive expungement laws and restoration of voting rights for tens of thousands of residents on parole or probation. Moreover, he celebrated the state’s strides in enhancing youth mental health nationwide through initiatives like the National Governor’s Association Chair Initiative during his tenure.

Throughout the conference, panels like “Defining Mental Health & Mental Illness: The Search for Solutions” and “Mental Illness: The Struggle Behind the Wall” provided a platform for medical experts to share insights and personal anecdotes. They emphasized the urgent need for effective diagnosis and treatment within correctional facilities.

Speaking of second chances, Governor McGreevey mentor to Nyene Baker, gave Baker a second chance. Nyene Baker, Founder/CEO of Visionary Philanthropy Group Inc./Nerds with Swag, and Ambassador of Governor McGreevey’s New Jersey Reentry Corporation, reflected on his journey from incarceration to redemption. He shared, “The main thing prison did for me was help me cure my Mental Illness which was not having control of my temper. I was stabbed and ended up forgiving the guy. That was the hardest pill I ever swallowed in my life. Now, I am cured and have self-control.”

Rob Carter, COO of New Jersey Reentry Corporation, acknowledged his battle with addiction and subsequent recovery, stating, “I self-medicated for 10 years and got clean. I learned I was capable of doing things I didn’t know I could do.”

Ulysses McMillan, also from the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, emphasized the psychological toll of incarceration, remarking, “When a person commits a crime and they go to prison, prison within itself is a mental punishment. It’s not a physical one. There’s no physical punishment when you go to prison. It’s created in a fashion where it breaks you psychologically.”

Tamika Reynolds of Hudson Housing & Community underscored her journey of self-discovery and resilience, stating, “I learned so much about myself even before prison because I knew how to stand for me. So when I got in there, I knew how to stand for others. I am a woman that stands on purpose.”

Dr. Chris Pernell, CEO & Founder of the Esther Group, highlighted the importance of systemic accountability in mental health services, stating, “People have individual accountability but more than individuals having accountability, systems have not been accountable.”

Professor Pam Valera of the Rutgers School of Public Health stressed the necessity of federal funding for mental health resources, stating, “In order to have resources developed and created like we talked about, there has to be Federal Funding. We have to make mental health a federal emergency. When you have an emergency, you fund the resources.”

Pastor Steffie Bartley, also a beneficiary of Governor McGreevey’s second chance initiative, shared wisdom on resilience, stating, “When an argument arises in my life, a good run is better than a bad stand.”

The Veterans Panel, featuring Rich Liebler, emphasized the transformative power of mentorship in guiding individuals towards rehabilitation. Liebler noted, “The map for everything is mentorship. We take the individual depending on the charge from where they are at and put them in a different direction. So, what it takes? It takes mentors!”

Attorney General Matthew Platkin delivered a poignant keynote speech, reminding attendees that individuals should not be defined solely by their past mistakes. He asserted, “No person is defined by the worst moment in their life. If we view people from when they made that one mistake, I think we will miss all other factors that contributed to that moment. That’s why focusing on mental health here today is critical.”

A highlight of the Attorney General’s speech was the impressive announcement of Arrive Together, a pilot program started in December 2021, which aims at providing alternative responses to mental health crises. As of December 2023, use of these resources has rose across all 21 counties in New Jersey, marking a major accomplishment in the program’s development. Guests also had the opportunity to hear from a number of other impressive panelists such as General Jack Hammond, Phil Alagia, Chief of Staff of Essex County, Valerie Mielke, Assistant Commissioner, Darren Waller, Pro Football Tight End, and a whole host of other notable guests.

Overall, the conference illuminated the urgent need for mental health reform within the criminal justice system, showcasing personal narratives and expert insights. Also informing the audience and world that  jails are the largest providers in the State if not the country.Governor McGreevey and his team orchestrated a compelling and informative event, uniting stakeholders in a shared commitment to rehabilitation and community reintegration.

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