NEW YORK–Stanley Richards is one of the most recent appointments to the New York City Board of Corrections, and he brings an invaluable perspective to the group. Unlike his colleagues, he’s spent his fair share of time locked up.
The 57-year-old was born and raised in the Soundview projects in the Bronx. Back in 1961, the neighborhood was a rather tough area, and it was all Richards knew at the time.
“For all my time there, I thought that that was the world. This project, as a young man, as a kid, seemed so big and it was sort of really isolated from the other parts of the Bronx. It took a bus and a train to get to where I lived, so it was pretty isolated. And so I grew up thinking whatever I saw in that project was happening in the larger world,” Richards told The Epoch Times.
His mother had passed away when he was just 10, and his father fought to keep them together.
Richards joined a gang was he was 11 years old, which was more or less what he expected in his neighborhood at the time.
The young Richards started selling drugs, dropped out of school, and quickly started going to jail. For the longest time, Richards found himself in this regular cycle because he thought it was normal.
The Criminal Justice System
Eventually, Richards was arrested for robbery in 1986 and spent two and a half years on Riker’s Island fighting his case. He was sentenced to nine years at a correctional facility in upstate New York, and ended up serving four and a half years of his sentence.
While Richards was incarcerated, he took an interest in his own education. When he first went into prison, a program committee asked him how he wanted to spend his incarceration time. Richards responded that he wanted to go back to school, but didn’t think he could because he had only reached the ninth grade.
The committee had him take some tests, and told him that he was pretty close to being able to complete his G.E.D. After passing the G.E.D. exam, Richards pursued his Associate’s Degree in Social Sciences.
“I go to college, and I start getting A’s and B’s, and what I realize by reading books and learning that I could, even though I was physically incarcerated, that I could go anywhere in the world through a book,” Richards explained. “And I really enjoyed reading, and learning, and discussing, and that was a new part of who I learned I am.”
Richard graduated Magna Cum Laude with an Associate’s Degree in Social Sciences and a certificate in Forensic Counseling. The achievement and experience changed his life outlook entirely.
“It was at that moment that I realized that I did not have to live that life I was living,” Richards said.
In June 1991, Richards was released on parole.
He had learned during his incarceration who he was, and that he was in charge of his own life. This mindset would help him confront the challenges many recently released inmates face when reentering society such as finding employment and housing.
Richards promised he would never give up on himself, because he knew if he did he would almost certainly return to prison.
Richards worked a variety of odd jobs, and continued to apply for more work undeterred. Initially, like a lot of recently released inmates, Richards faced the prospect of homelessness. He was supposed to stay with his aunt, but she fell ill and needed a live-in home attendant to look after her. Richards had met a woman during his work release, and she offered to let him stay with her. The two have been married now for 27 years.
While he was incarcerated, Richards had worked at the pre-release center helping other inmates prepare to go in front of the parole board, and he had really enjoyed counseling. In December of 1991, The Fortune Society, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated persons reenter society, hired him as a counselor.
Now he is the vice president of the organization and has a profound reason for helping others who have been through the system.
“Because I remember what it felt like when I thought people didn’t care about me. When I thought that I would be chewed up and spit out by the system. When I felt overwhelmed by all of the barriers I had to hop over to get to where I’m at. I remember it like it was yesterday,” Richards said.
A Fresh Perspective
Richards brings an informed and invaluable perspective about the criminal justice system. In 2015, Richards and his colleagues were celebrating The Fortune Society’s founder David Rothenberg’s 83rd birthday when a city councilman named Danny Dromm approached Rothenberg.
Dromm thought there was more to be done in reforming the criminal justice system, and Rothenberg suggested appointing a formerly incarcerated person to the New York City Board of Corrections, and brought up Richards as a candidate.
In 2015, Richards sat in the City Council chamber during a slated meeting, and he was unanimously appointed to the New York City Board of Corrections, making him the first formerly incarcerated person in history to be on the board.
The first thing Richards did when he received his papers, credentials, and shield was visit his old cell at Riker’s Island and he spoke to some of the men who were incarcerated there.
They thought he was just another official from the board, but that’s when Richards told them he was housed in the same area and that his identification number was 2418616336. The room went silent.
He told the group about his experience in the system, and despite his struggles, that he had been appointed to the board. He had entered a room of despair, and left a room full of hope.
Looking Toward the Future
Richards is responsible for making sure correctional facilities are following regulations, looks over a variety of complaints, and makes sure the standards are followed regarding issues ranging from solitary confinement to access to the library. As a result of his diligent work, the Obama administration recognized him as a “Champion for Change.”
“I was just thankful, appreciative, humbled that a African American young kid, who is the same age as the President of the United States, goes from the big house to the White House in recognition of work that is personal,” Richards recalled.
While Richard’s has accomplished so much, he believes there much more to be done in the criminal justice system. Richards has three major priorities which include bail reform, protecting the right to a speedy trial, and examining the crimes that lead to unnecessary incarceration.
His ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of people going through the system while still keeping New York the safest large city in the country. He also wants to close Riker’s Island, and wants to take budget cuts from the criminal justice system and invest that money in the isolated communities he grew up in.
“We don’t really much care what got you into the system. What we care about is who are you today, and what do you want to be tomorrow.”