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The Homecoming: Re-entry and Reintegration of Returnees

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"You can never go home again." At least, that's the way the refrain goes. And many Caribbean immigrants are coming to terms with the realization that they will never be able to return to their adopted hometowns or cities in the United States. Instead, they face repatriation to the country of their birth. As difficult as this process may be, a movement is currently underway to better prepare returnees for the process of reentry and reintegration into respective societies.

When Wintson Ishon Williams was repatriated to Jamaica at the end of June 2007, the welcoming committee that greeted him at the Norman Manley International Airport was comprised of members of the local police force. Mr. Williams was escorted to the central police station to be finger-printed and interviewed; his name was run through a database to ensure there were no warrants out for his arrest in Jamaica. Next stop was Immigration and Customs, first to verify that Mr. Williams was indeed a national of Jamaica, then to get notification from Customs that he was permitted a 90-day window to import $600 worth of merchandise, duty-free, for living and subsistence.

The entire adjustment process proved to be overwhelming to Mr. Williams, who had left Jamaica back in 1974 at the tender age of 13 years. The one saving grace during this period of transition and re-entry into Jamaican society was a social services organization, Family Unification Resettlement Initiative (FURI). Launched in May 2002 by Ms. Carmeta Albarus-Lindo, LCSW, the mission statement of FURI is "leading the way for reintegration of deported persons." One of the rudimentary functions FURI performs is to provide returnees with meals and the opportunity to make phone calls and contact relatives or family members upon arrival in Jamaica.

Mr. Williams was first introduced to FURI during his period of incarceration by the New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS). In a telephone interview earlier this week, Mr. Williams acknowledged he 'came of age' in the penal system, during which time he obtained his General Equivalency Diploma (GED), went on to earn his Bachelor's degree from Syracuse University, and his Master's degree from the New York Theological Seminary (while at Sing Sing prison). Since being deported to Jamaica, Mr. Williams has put his knowledge and skills to use as a Counselor and Public Relations Officer for FURI, appearing on talk shows and participating in lectures aimed at sensitizing the public to the process of detention and deportation, with a focus on reintegration into society.

In the United States, the concept of re-entry dates back roughly a decade or so. As outlined by the Department of Justice, reentry programming is intended to assist offenders in acquiring the life skills needed to succeed in the community and become law-abiding citizens, by providing a variety of options including prerelease programs, drug rehabilitation and vocational training, and work programs.

In Jamaica, the concept of reentry is non-existent, according to Alvin McLean, a Jamaican national currently incarcerated upstate New York and facing deportation upon release. For this reason, in July 2009, Mr. McLean published his proposal, A Comprehensive Reentry & Resettlement Program for Deported Jamaican Nationals, with the goal of having the proposal adopted by the Jamaican government. As Mr. McLean outlined in his proposal:

First, the Government of Jamaica should recognize the rights of deported nationals to reentry and resettlement programs and services through its adoption of the articles spelled out in "The Charter for the Reentry of Jamaican Nationals" which calls for, among other things, the elimination of the derogatory terms "deportee" and "criminal deportees", which dehumanize and promote our social exclusion by placing us in an underclass unworthy of a place in mainstream social life."

Second, the Government of Jamaica should establish 1) the Reentry Facilitation Unit within the Diaspora and Consular Affairs Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and 2) a Division of Reentry Affairs within the office of the Consulate-General of New York to deal specifically with matters related to all Jamaican nationals deported to Jamaica. These two agencies will be in charge of :

  • the administration of the Comprehensive Reentry and Resettlement Program;

  • the identification of all incarcerated nationals and the creation of a database to monitor them;
  • the monitoring of procedures relating to the reentry and resettlement process, the identification of problems and the facilitation of solutions;
  • the promotion of the development of a policy supportive of the interests of incarcerated Jamaican nationals that must include adequate rehabilitation, education and vocational training within the prison systems of the deporting countries;
  • the encouragement and mobilization of Jamaicans in the diaspora in promotion of mutually beneficial relationships with incarcerated Jamaican nationals which will contribute to the security, general welfare, and progress of Jamaicans.
  • Third, the Government of Jamaica should support deported nationals in the establishment and initial funding of the organization named "The Prodigal Sons & Daughters of Jamaica" (PSDJ) - a comprehensive, faith-based reentry organization with an International Co-ordinating Office in New York City and a Reentry Center in Jamaica.

    Fourth, the Government of Jamaica should establish a financial mechanism to pay for the long-term financing of reentry and resettlement programs and services through the creation of a Reentering National Savings Account Program, a Reentering National Investment Fund, and a Jamaican Reentry Program Trust Fund.

    Fifth, the Government of Jamaica should establish a Subsidized Transitional Employment Program (STEP-UP), that will set aside 500 minimum wage government and private sector jobs and training opportunities for deported nationals on an ongoing basis.

    The value of reentry programs cannot be emphasized enough. One of the complaints frequently echoed by returnees is the absence of support programs, which is a contributing factor to individuals reverting to illicit activities. Mr. Williams told me that the impact is felt most "culturally", when a person has to start over in a country or society in which he or she is not familiar. And while Mr. McLean's proposal is directed towards the Goverment of Jamaica, the proposal can easily be adapted and implemented by various other islands throughout the Caribbean. Mr. McLean reminded me that "most returnees want to do better and improve their lot in life. Communities need to participate more in the reentry process, the way FURI has done."