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[UPDATE: in 2022 the Manhattan District Attorney recently awarded HJN additional funding to continue providing much-needed healthcare and reentry support services. The following text was originally published October 2021]

The U.S. incarcerates more individuals than anywhere in the world, with its prison population tripling to 2.3 million since the 1970s and disproportionally impacting people of color. Persons with criminal legal system involvement (CLSI) face systemic racism and restrictive barriers in accessing healthcare and social service resources to meet basic needs when re-integrating into the community. Many of these individuals struggle with high rates of heart disease, hypertension, behavioral health conditions, and the likelihood of premature mortality.

Recognizing that addressing public health outcomes is an essential part of the creation of a fairer and efficient justice system, the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office funded an innovative pilot program: the New York City Health Justice Network (HJN). Developed and overseen by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the HJN focuses on Northern Manhattan and brings a public health and racial equity approach to the re-entry landscape. The grant is managed and administered by FPHNYC as part of a longstanding partnership with the Department of Health to launch and scale new projects.

HJN offers voluntary, wrap-around health and social services to persons with CLSI, including trauma and resiliency-informed approaches to engagement in healthcare and reentry support services. Community health workers (CHWs) with lived experience of the criminal legal system are paired with participants recently released from incarceration. CHWs, embedded in community-based health and social service organizations, work with participants to identify and address needs by linking them to healthcare and social services and serve as trusted mentors, peers, and coaches along the way.

According to Dorian Bess, a Senior CHW in the HJN, “Having the ability to identify with our participants and their experiences helps us to build a trusting relationship to encourage and support their positive re-entry. Working to build their autonomy and confidence from our first encounter and always meeting them where they are, that is our role as Community Health Workers.”

Participation in the HJN is open to any NYC resident at least 18 years old who has come home from jail or prison in the last three years. Since the program opened for enrollment in September 2019, CHWs have worked with over 750 participants; averaging six interactions with each participant (interactions increased by 50% as the program shifted to remote operations due to COVID).

Preliminary findings show that the HJN has been able to work with participants in meeting self-identified needs. In a review of 417 cases closed between June 2020 through May 2021: 95% of participants (398) had at least 1 need addressed, 70% of participants (291) had 3 or more needs addressed, and 34% of participants (143) had more than 5 needs addressed.

“With re-entry, you can’t take basic things for granted; for example, many participants are released without access to phones which creates barriers to establishing social connections, and to accessing health and social services that are offered online,”

Mari Carlesimo, Senior Director of Transitions to Community at the Health Department’s Bureau of Health Promotion for Justice-Impacted Population.

A core component of the HJN’s mission is to counter the systemic racism and discrimination, which act as barriers to successful community re-entry. As part of the pilot HJN program, a team of six CHWs is available to work with participants. To provide broad community coverage, CHWs are embedded in three well-established community organizations: Osborne Association, Fortune Society, and Center for Court Innovation; and three Federally Qualified Health Centers: Community Healthcare Network, The Institute for Family Health, and the Sydenham Site of Health + Hospitals’ Gotham Health Center.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line and the HJN is that straight line in the re-entry landscape,” says Christina Green, Director of the HJN. “The HJN makes direct connections between health and reentry services and gives our participants the many tools and support to be successful along the way.”

HJN has established an all-participant community advisory board to engage with and learn from the insights of community members impacted by the criminal legal system. Similarly, the HJN has launched a Learning Collaborative to incorporate and share lessons that emerge from the program. By filling key gaps in the re-entry landscape and lowering barriers to successful re-entry, the HJN is emerging as an important model for successfully re-integrating persons with CLSI experience into the community and ultimately enhancing the wellbeing and public health of all New Yorkers. The Department of Health and FPHNYC look forward to securing additional funding to continue this important reentry and public health program.

To hear more about the Health Justice Network you can watch a recording of our Public Health talk on our webinars page.