Group aims to help prisoners after release

Being sentenced to jail is obviously a horrible experience.

But sometimes, being released from jail isn’t a great experience either.

That’s one reason a group of volunteers led by Kyle Braunskill of Flanders has been working both inside and outside the jails with people who have been released and now find it challenging to fit back in with the outside world. 

Mr. Braunskill, executive director of the nonprofit Safe Harbor Mentoring program, spoke Monday before the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association.

His organization, which has been around since 2003, sends volunteers into jails in Riverside, Yaphank and Nassau County once a week to work with inmates and prepare them for life on the outside.

Mr. Braunskill also is the founder of a year-old group called New Age Mentors, in which people who were mentored while they were incarcerated become mentors for at-risk youth once they are released.

“You may have some great things to say, but [the youth] don’t want to hear it from you,” Mr. Braunskill said. “They want to hear it from somebody who’s been through what they’ve been through.”

He said he doesn’t want the kids to “glorify” being in jail.

Mr. Braunskill, now 42, went to jail himself for first-degree armed robbery when he was 18. It came at a time when his nine-member family was living in a two-bedroom house after their previous home burned down and the parents divorced, he said.

“I took matters into my own hands,” he said. His conviction on the Class B felony carried a sentence of up to 25 years in prison, but records show he was out on parole in three.

“Now, I own my own home in Flanders and I have my own business,” he said. “I have a family and I have kids. So I am one of what you would call a success story.

“But a lot of people get out of jail, and a lot of people go back in,” he said.

Having volunteered in jails for about 15 years with Safe Harbor, and having seen how it works from both from inside and outside, Mr. Braunskill said, “It breaks a person down.”

He said trying to re-enter society after being in prison is like “trying to jump on a moving treadmill.” He said the process has to start before individuals are released.

Safe Harbor tries to mentor inmates while they are still in jail to prepare them for the outside world. Mentoring then continues to offer assistance by helping to line up jobs and helping former prisoners blend back into society.

People end up in jail because they made poor decisions and yet, while they’re there, all their decisions are all made for them, he said.

Once they get out, he said, they don’t know how to make decisions for themselves.

He described a jail as being a business rather than a “corrections” institution.

“It’s a billion-dollar business,” Mr. Braunskill said. “So if any business wants to stay viable, it has to have a product, and it’s designed to create a product. If they don’t come back, the prison goes out of business. It’s not designed for you to be there and then go out and have a great life. It’s designed for you to be there and then at some point come back.”

Bender’s story

In the audience Monday was Brad Bender, a former Southampton Town councilman and former FRNCA president who was sentenced to two years in jail in 2015 for conspiracy to illegally distribute the painkiller Oxycodone.

He agreed with Mr. Braunskill’s descriptions of jail.

“I am a newly released convicted felon,” he said. “I’m actually kind of fortunate in that when I came out, I had made some good plans, financial plans, before I went in. I set up a place to stay when I got out. When I was in prison, I wrote letters and I had a job set up when I left. But, like you said, prison is a business.

“It does break you down. Even with the things I put in place to make my transition back out easier, it hasn’t been easy,” he said.

Mr. Bender, who has said he became hooked on painkillers after a back injury, said one of the hardest parts of his rehab was living in a halfway house in Brooklyn.

“Every drug you could imagine was right outside the door,” he said. “The Chinese restaurant down the street sold heroin.”

He said there were more drugs and alcohol in prison than there were on the outside.

“The hardest part was, when I first got indicted, a lot of people turned their backs on me right away,” Mr. Bender said. “To this day, people still see me and they turn and go the other way. And people have spread stories around about my crime that I did not do.”

He said all the Oxycodone he delivered went to the same person. And yet people are saying he was at the schoolyard or dealing drugs at someone’s house.

After his conviction and before he entered prison, Mr. Bender said he sold his house and moved into a sober house in Riverhead as a means of transitioning to institutionalization.

He said it was one of his better decisions.

“The house I was in was well-run and it was clean,” he said. “I was drug tested, I had curfew and there was a bed check at night. I had chores that I had to do around the house.”

Mr. Bender said he is now in a 12-step program, adding that Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and even heroin anonymous programs are available in Riverhead, within walking distance of downtown.

Kathy Kruel of Flanders said kids need to understand that “in the world of drugs, there are no friends.”

Her nephew Brian Fioto was found dead of a gunshot wound in Flanders in 2001 after he got involved in drugs.

“His friends set him up,” Ms. Kruel said. “His friends shot him and left him there like he was nothing.”

[Police called the death a suicide, something Ms. Kruel and other relatives dispute.]

Following Mr. Braunskill’s presentation, FRNCA president Vince Taldone asked what they could do to help. Mr. Braunskill said creating a website is something that could help his organization.

The FRNCA board voted to donate $600 toward that effort.

Photo caption: Kyle Braunskill, executive director of the Safe Harbor Mentoring program, speaks Monday before the Flanders, Riverside & Northampton Community Association. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

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