Abraham House has worked with non-violent offenders since 1993
Rodo Rodriguez sat in a cell, scared and unsure of what his next step would be. “I was crying in jail,” Rodriguez recalled.
“All I could think was ‘what can I do now.’”
The year was 2009 when Rodriguez, who came to the U.S. in 1986 from the Dominican Republic, was arrested for a non-violent drug offense. A judge gave him a five-year prison term and five years of probation upon his release. Serving that sentence, he says, would have ruined his life.
But while waiting for his jail term to begin, Rodriguez heard about the Abraham House, a place City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has referred to as an “oasis in the South Bronx.”
Four clergy members, Father Peter Raphael, Sister Simone Ponnet, Sister Amy Henry and Sister Rita Claus, founded the program in 1993. In its twenty-one year run, the organization has provided alternatives to jail time for many who were at a crossroads between a life in the penal system and a turnaround.
The program snatches non-violent offenders from the criminal justice system before they enter, with the goal of teaching them skills to help them establish a career rather than a criminal record. Program representatives say ninety-five percent of its participants, such as Rodriguez, have subsequently stayed out of jail. His sentence was reduced to one year, of which he served 10 months. He now owns his own hair products company.
“If I don’t have this program, maybe I don’t have my own company.” Rodriguez said. “Maybe I go back to the same things I was doing before.”
The organization traces its roots to the time Father Raphael, who was from France, and Sister Ponnet, who was Belgian, spent working with inmates on Rikers Island. Seeing how jail time converted many non-violent offenders into more hardened criminals convinced them to start a program to help that vulnerable population break the cycle. They obtained a site on Willis Avenue from Catholic Charities, their parent organization. Although they returned to Europe in 2012, Abraham House continues to operate with the same philosophy as it did when they were in Mott Haven.
Since its inception Abraham House has added four buildings to its complex so it can house up to ten men at a time. From outside, the buildings could be mistaken for a college dorm. Andre Pabon, the program’s executive director, says residents are responsible for maintaining the facility.
“They prepare the building and they take pride in it,” Pabon said. One of the key objectives of the program, he added, is to instill a sense of community in its residents. “These guys really support one another,” he said. “There was a man who was studying for the GED and another of the participants helped him with his English. When one of the guys was in prison the rest collected funds to help the man’s wife.”
The organization’s holistic approach also helps participants with their family lives, a rehabilitative strategy Pabon says is key in building their sense of trust. “
It’s often about mending fences,” said Pabon. “We have to work with families to make sure they can reunite.”
Another participant in the program, Aridio Martinez, said Abraham House helped him make peace with his kin. “It taught me the value of my family,” Martinez said.
Despite its roots in the Catholic church, the organization is non-denominational and works with people regardless of their beliefs. Rather than relying on religious tenets, the program follows a cognitive behavioral treatment method known as Moral Reconation Therapy which emphasizes personal responsibility. The treatment’s step system, which echoes Alcoholics Anonymous, aims to foster trust and honesty.
Father Raphael’s insistence on applying that mindset helped Rodo Rodriguez turn his life around, he said.
“I remember one day I was talking to him and I had to go to jail,” said Rodriguez. “He said, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, ‘no matter what you can continue doing good.’”