Legendary entertainer Harry Belafonte speaks at the 10th graduation ceremony of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court.
The following is a transcript.
ROBERT V. WOLF: The 10th graduation of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court featured a special guest.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I was born in Harlem. I grew up in Harlem. I’m in my 82nd year of life and I’m still alive.
WOLF: That was Harry Belafonte, singer, actor, and activist as he congratulated the Reentry Court’s graduates on satisfying the program’s rigorous requirements.
BELAFONTE: And I am grateful, very grateful to be here to meet you for the first time. You bring a gift. It is my responsibility to wrap my arms around your gift, to make this program, this courtroom, all of the people you see here, feel that they have been rewarded in the investment they make to get people to come out of the incarceration system.
WOLF: The Harlem Parole Reentry Court helps parolees returning from incarceration make the transition from life in prison to responsible citizenship. The court, housed in the Harlem Community Justice Center, and operated in cooperation with the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Division of Parole, links parolees to a wide range of social services. To promote increased accountability, participants are required to return to the Justice Center frequently to meet with case managers and parole officers and appear before and administrative law judge who closely monitors their compliance with court orders. Judge Grace Bernstein outlined some of the graduates’ accomplishments.
JUDGE GRACE BERNSTEIN: You have really accomplished major things. At some point within yourself, you have decided that you wanted to move on with your life. You have been able to stay away from the lure of easy money, the lure of drugs—
WOLF: In addition to being a top selling singer, Emmy and Grammy winner, Belafonte’s long been an outspoken advocate for many causes. He was active in the civil rights movement, he served as a Goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, he’s helped to raise money and awareness across Africa about AIDS, poverty, and the needs of children. Closer to home, he makes regular visits to prisoners in Sing Sing.
BELAFONTE: I am very much engaged in the criminal justice system, and I got involved with the politics of America. I got involved with racism and became an activist. And in that activism, I saw what was happening to us in the justice system. So I figured I’d focus on that.
WOLF: Belafonte told those assembled in the courtroom at the Harlem Community Justice Center on 121st Street about some of the hardships he faced growing up in that very neighborhood.
BELAFONTE: I was a high school dropout. I never finished high school. As a matter of fact, when I left high school I could hardly read or write. The compelling circumstances and the opportunity to meet people who are indigenous to my community, who have done a lot with their lives, gave me a chance to see alternatives.
WOLF: Other speakers at the graduation included Program Director John Megawl, who described some of the challenges the reentry court’s graduates had overcome.
JOHN MEGAW: Our ceremony tonight is about 17 men who have made changes and make decisions every day since they were released from prison that will allow them to remain free and enjoy the rest of their freedom. But not everyone who started our program has made it. Some are back upstate thinking about bed-check or writing a letter home. I wish they could be here with us. But for these men, it has meant returning from a series of correctional facilities upstate, often after many years of incarceration, figuring out where to live, how to afford the rent, how to find a job when you have a broken work history, staying away from drugs and alcohol, building relationships with your children, your brothers and sisters, and your mother and father.
WOLF: As they handed out graduation certificates, parole officers Devon Oliver and Carmen Levine spoke movingly about the specific achievements of the participants, including the jobs they’d found, apartments they’d located, and their studious observance of curfews and other rules.
CARMEN LEVINE: This is a special group because a lot of you have shown me that, you know, you’ve taken a lot of initiatives. A lot of you have gotten jobs, a lot of you have gone back to school, which is wonderful.
WOLF: That was the voice of Parole Officer Levine at the 10th graduation ceremony of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court, which took place on September 1, 2009, and I’m Rob Wolf, director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. For more information about the Center for Court Innovation or the Harlem Parole Reentry Court, visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org.