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  • Writer's pictureKaren Barnes Kaplan

Ivelisse Gilestra Looks Back, and Forward

Ivelisse Gilestra grew up in Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. at the age of 17, “looking for what was missing” in her life. Displaced and with limited English, she ended up in survival mode--which eventually led to a prison sentence. From learning English to double-majoring in sociology and social work, with a minor in women’s studies, Ivelisse has met each challenge with focus, determination and perseverance. Now a community organizer and change leader with the College and Community Fellowship, Ivelisse recently retraced her path for us, with a special focus on her challenges with housing while earning her degree.

I am at a place now that I didn’t think would be possible within six years. On a daily basis now, I have meetings with State Senators and Assembly members, on issues and the proposed bills to address them. I’m looking at bills and seeing what the messaging is: how do I frame my message according to the person I’m delivering it to, so that I can persuade them and push the bill over the finish line? I do policy work that entails amplifying an issue, which usually is at the intersection of criminal justice reform and education. Our frame is through the pillars of educational equity, racial justice, and strengthening democracy.

I also do training for women impacted by the Criminal Justice/Legal system, once a week. The training covers policy, digital organizing,and the basics of processes behind policy. I want them to understand political history, and the history of organizing. But I go more into strategy and power mapping. I changed the whole curriculum, asking myself, “What was it I would have liked to know when I first got into the social justice movement?” I work with Survivors of the System --SOS--and we now have 84 survivors, people who are formerly incarcerated. In particular, we have a lot of men who have done over 30 years. I also founded the New York chapter of All of Us or None.*

So, I’m a community organizer by training and passion. I also do policy work because it is necessary to get our issues amplified and exposed. And let’s face it: politicians need to be educated on these issues!.

Tia and I were released from Edna Mahan Correctional Facility (EMCF) just two weeks apart. I was released from the gates -- I was not given the opportunity to go to a halfway house or community release. So I was released from the gate, and that kind of release is an overload to senses. It’s a lot all at once. I went back to living with my mother, in [public] housing. My step-father lived there, too. The transition was difficult. Incarceration infantilizes adults; it’s a very paternalistic environment. They tell you when to eat, where to work; your day is very structured. And yet there’s always a lot of tension. It’s not conducive to any type of transformation.

So, once released, I was entering society for the first time. I did not go through “re-entry”: I entered for the first time. I was not part of the socio-economic system before, so I’m entering now. Those first five months after release, I was so committed to making it, because we saw so many folks come back. And it was hard. I didn’t have the support that some people had.

I received my Associate degree while at EMCF, and I knew I wanted to continue my studies at Rutgers. So, every day, I took a bus, two trains, and a walk from Penn Station Newark to the Rutgers-Newark campus. I was on full-time work/study. I was also cleaning banks for a few hours a day, and I had a second job at a book-printing plant, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. This is within months of my release: All I do is work, and I was exhausted. But I was also determined. Resilience is an act of resistance. It would have been way easier and familiar to go back to old, maladaptive behaviors. But my thinking shifted: I saw that this hamster wheel is designed for me to become entrapped in the disruptive cycle, and I refused.

After a few months, my parole officer (I was released on parole) told me I was being investigated. It turns out my step-father was being investigated, and they see a formerly-incarcerated person living there too of course they’re going to focus on me. I later learned they looked at my bank account; they could see I was broke, so there was nothing dubious going on that I was involved in..

When my P.O. initially told me I was being investigated, I was outraged. I don’t think I have ever done anything with such commitment, at a level beyond normal standards as I did while following parole guidelines -- I was doing everything to make it outside. And then to hear I was being investigated? I said to myself, I’m not going to get caught up in this. Obviously, I had a conversation with my step-father; my mother had no clue. I knew I had to get out of there. And my P.O. said, yes, you need to get out of there. I had bought a cheap car, so I could get to both jobs. So I slept in the car. I wasn’t even a year out. I went to school and work, just as a way to get it together. And then I used part of my student loans to secure housing, on my own.

People don’t always recognize that housing is the solid foundation of stability. Sometimes we ask of people who are being released, you need to do this, take care of that--job, education-- when the foundation is not even laid, or secured.

Once I had housing, and also a partner who provided some economic support, Rutgers became my home for 3 years. I went to campus in the morning and left at eight or nine at night. NJ-STEP provided the community I needed. My second year out, I had already secured an internship; I had a place to live; things were looking open to possibility. It was promising.

I think back, and I feel very empathetic and recognize the struggles most people have, especially when that foundation of housing is not being provided. I am cognizant of how the dominant society operates in the U.S., how entities and systems have failed us while exacerbating the deficits that create those pathways to prison. It is an entrenched and insidious scheme. I can honestly say that I can engage in a critique from that "outsider" lens just as I now also engage as a full participant. I have learned to inhabit, negotiate and challenge different worlds.One current common denominator among folks that enter carceral spaces is poverty, and coming from marginalized communities. When someone has been removed by exclusionary policies, one views the world through a different lens--expansive vision, I call it. .

The pathway to prison doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And there’s entrenched exclusion when it comes to education. Most of us who’ve been incarcerated, have been failed by the very systems that were supposed to impart the social capital needed to have a sustainable life. A life where living doesn’t resemble survival. The more resources you have from the community, including education, the more you are designated for unlimited mobility. Education controls mobility; with poor education comes entrapment into behaviors that become maladaptive -- because you have to survive. There are lifetime consequences,or what folks call collateral damage.

Education serves as a disrupter to that. It allows you to craft a path. It’s not the only solution, it may not be for everybody. But it’s one path to that upward mobility. And it disrupts the cyclical patterns we see concentrated in poverty that are also cross-generational. So now, my nephew wants to go to college, because I did it. My brother too: he enrolled as soon as he was released. You can see the ripple effect within my family. I have seen it with me and Tia -- we witnessed what others did with their lives through education. It gave us a different way to claim our dignity, and to put together the pieces in a way that enabled a critical analysis of the world we, too, inhabit.

To people who are supporting FORTE House: I want you to know that providing a stable house after coming from a hostile environment, a home that offers community and safety--it is life-saving. It determines what path I can craft. If I’ve only been out in the world a year and I’m not being guided intentionally by my transformation -- the old maladaptive behaviors will come back in a second, because that’s how I know how to survive.

Of course, I don’t want prisons to exist. But while they’re here, I would like to see programs that will give people tools to help them navigate the world that we live in. Living sustainable lives -- not surviving or struggling. Freedom doesn’t look like that. We need to envision how we will define a sustainable life, individually and collectively.

*All of Us or None is a grassroots civil & human rights organization fighting for the rights of formerly-and currently-incarcerated people & their families. Ivelisse founded the New York City chapter; Tia Ryans founded the Northern NJ chapter.

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