Spotlight on: Terrence Coffie, Educate Don’t Incarcerate

How one New York City-based grassroots organization is working to change policies around incarceration and the treatment of formerly incarcerated individuals

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinAdam Musser
Oct 19, 2021

Around 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States at any given time ( Sawyer & Wagner, 2020; Vera Institute, 2021). When they are released, most of those people will face “invisible punishment” ( Travis, 2002) such as community supervision requirements, fines, and denial of voting rights. Unfortunately, news media coverage of the difficulties of reentry has some major gaps. To fill these gaps, the Kendeda Fund is supporting PBS NewsHour’s Searching for Justice series – and Knology’s independent work to convene experts who are providing formative feedback on the series. We’re amplifying those experts’ voices and their work through a series of brief profiles.

Professor Terrence Coffie wants Americans to understand two things.

First, experience is expertise. Rather than learning about prison and parole from journalists or researchers who haven’t been through those things, he wants you to hear from people who have. Coffie’s grassroots organization, Educate Don’t Incarcerate (EDI), brings together formerly incarcerated people to effect policy change, amplifying their voices and stories as Credible Messengers through a national campaign.

Second, incarceration is part of a larger carceral ecosystem. You might think that psychiatric hospitals, homeless shelters, and prisons and jails are different institutions – but a lot of the same people cycle through all three and never have their needs met. The first 72 hours after leaving prison are the most critical, and someone without family to take them in is likely to end up in a shelter, without the resources to look for a job that would allow them a more stable home. Professor Coffie wants to see every person who is released embraced through a continuum-of-care approach that brings together various types of support into a tightly woven network so that nobody can slip through the cracks.

In New York City, where Coffie is based, a fairly robust non-profit sector aims to support formerly incarcerated people and systems-impacted youth. Unfortunately, those organizations must compete for limited funding. The funding structures also promote silos: formerly incarcerated people may need to work with multiple organizations to meet basic needs such as housing, healthcare, and job training. Coffie’s goal is to create an integrated network -- and to get there, he sees strategic communication through podcasts, internet radio, and social media as a necessary first step. That’s how EDI can help create dialogue between the people who run the system and the people who’ve lived through it.

To learn more about EDI’s work and how to support their efforts, please visit their website and their YouTube Channel. You can also join them every Thursday at 4pm on FeteLifeStation.com for a live broadcast.

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