AT&T and CCA Partner to Create New Technology and Digital Literacy Program for Formerly Incarcerated CNY Citizens

Freedom Commons provides more than Housing; an opportunity for re-entry as AT&T and Center for Community Alternatives come together to provide supportive services

Syracuse, NY, Dec. 21, 2020 AT&T and Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) have teamed up to create a new innovative technology and digital literacy education program for formerly incarcerated Central New York citizens returning to the community. The program is part of AT&T’s commitment to working with organizations across the country to advance social and racial justice, while creating economic opportunities to foster upward mobility for Black, Brown and underserved communities that have faced long-standing social inequities and higher unemployment. The first-of-its-kind program is being funded by a $50,000 contribution from AT&T.

The new trainer-led technology and digital literacy program will be offered as part of CCA’s Reentry and Reintegration services in Central New York including Syracuse, Onondaga County and surrounding areas. Many people returning to the community after lengthy terms of incarceration struggle with accessing and using new technology. This program will provide support to these individuals, including technology education to help participants better navigate our increasingly digital world while also equipping them with the computer skills necessary for employment and everyday life.

The program, which will be offered in group and one-on-one settings, will focus on understanding computer basics, using word processing software, navigating the Internet, using search engines and email, operating hardware and devices, staying safe online, and learning the benefits of mobile technology such as smartphones and tablets. The program will also provide digital literacy and technology training to more than 25 CCA staff members, many of whom are former CCA participants, to help them in their career development and so they can provide additional digital literacy support to participants in other CCA programs.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with AT&T to offer people returning to our central New York communities the tools and skills necessary to thrive in our increasingly digital society,” said CCA Deputy Director Kelly Gonzalez. “This program will not only enhance CCA’s ability to deliver services to those returning home from incarceration, but also position our participants for personal and professional success.”

Individuals returning to the community after lengthy terms of incarceration often struggle accessing and using new technology. This inhibits their ability to fully engage in CCA programs and other community services, secure employment, advance in their career, and access education opportunities. This new program will enhance the lives of so many CCA participants who are not yet comfortable with or trained in using mobile devices, computer programs, and other ubiquitous technologies. Offering the program within CCA also provides the added benefit of a trusting and nonjudgmental environment in which to learn, ensuring a much higher participation rate.

Samuel J., CCA Freedom Commons Academy Participant, discussed the importance of the digital literacy program for those returning home from incarceration.

“They limit us in prison, there’s only so much we can do. We’re inmates. Technology they keep those things away from us.” As part of his reentry Samuel J. has an environment where he can obtain new digital skills.

SamuelJ., “It would change my life in a positive way. I’ll be able to do things I need to do with no problem. That’s the key right there, even at my age I like to learn things. It’s like a challenge to me. I’m happy to get the opportunity to do that. I’m happy that I got the opportunity to get out of jail.

I have several skills, with the new technologies now. You got to know some type of computer, I don’t care what kind of job you have, you can be a restaurant cook whatever, you still have to use these technologies.”

While incarcerated Samuel J. was teaching recovery classes. According to Kelly Gonzalez, CCA Deputy Director, “so many of our programs are peer-to-peer driven in learning and strength based.  When someone like Samuel J. moves comes to live in Freedom Commons Academy, he comes in with incredible life experience and strength. If he wants to teach some recovery class, we can set him up on a Chromebook now and he can be doing that via Zoom with our participants in the Cuse Recovery Center, as a peer-to-peer model of training. So much of what we have to do now because of the pandemic, we had to go to remote learning. Rather than coming together in a space sometimes we’re doing our classes via Zoom.”

Samuel J. continues, “Even inside the prison, a lot of people want to know what happened to me, especially when I go before the parole board. They want to know if I made it. They’ll be the first to know. I give them hope. They’ll come behind me. The same thing out here, they’re behind the wall but they’re keeping tabs on what’s goin’ on with me. They wanna know; I made it out here, they come out here and they can make it too.  It’s not just about me, it’s bigger than me, I give other people hope and that’s a blessing to me.”

New York State Secretary of State & Chair of the New York State Council on Community Re-Entry Rossana Rosado said, “New York leads the way in helping justice-involved people successfully return to their communities by removing barriers and providing opportunities. At this critical time, I am proud of New York’s private sector partners for stepping up to support New Yorkers as they reintegrate into society and make positive change. By providing resources and building partnerships with community-based organizations, AT&T is setting an example for other companies to follow and delivering a second chance to people across the state.”

Assemblywoman Pamela J. Hunter added, “We have long known that reduced access to education correlates to higher rates of incarceration. Providing resources to improve literacy rates among those who were formerly incarcerated seems like a commonsense approach for reducing recidivism. I commend the Center for Community Alternatives for working with AT&T to provide such resources.”

“Increasing access by bridging the digital divide is one of the key ways to help Syracuse residents. With technology training and resources, formerly incarcerated individuals can overcome existing barriers to employment,” said Mayor Ben Walsh. “This new partnership between AT&T and the Center for Community Alternatives is a great way to open doors for those looking for a second chance to grow their careers.”

The program will be offered in one of CCA’s three computer labs located in its main office and at Freedom Commons. Broadband enabled devices have been purchased to establish a loaning program to help with the distancing constraints caused by the COVID pandemic and to ensure participants’ safety. The new devices will be made available to program participants and learning will take place virtually until larger class instruction can be done safely.

Additionally, the devices will facilitate participants’ reentry process as they will be able to conduct more effective job searches, access telehealth services, maintain contact with peer supports and family, and engage in other CCA programming during the pandemic. With much of CCA staff working remotely, the devices will help participants stay connected. Participants will also receive stipends while taking part in the program to incentivize participation and provide a source of income while they seek employment after release. This is often referred to as an “earn as you learn” model.

“Because our society needs to address racial inequities and social justice, AT&T is committed to supporting meaningful and equitable change in communities across our state and across our nation.  This is why AT&T is proud to collaborate with CCA to deliver digital literacy skills critical for reintegration into today’s innovation economy,” said Amy Kramer, President, AT&T New York. “Governor Cuomo, Secretary of State Rosado, and the NYS Council on Community Reintegration and Reentry have been leaders in the struggle to aide formally incarcerated members of our community and we applaud them for their incredible work in this critical area.”

This support is part of AT&T BelievesSM, which harnesses employees’ generosity, supports it with company resources and joins with collaborators to make an even bigger impact on local communities and society at large.

The Center for Community Alternatives is a leader in community-based alternatives to incarceration and policy advocacy to reduce reliance on incarceration. CCA provides direct services to communities in New York City, Syracuse, and Rochester, and engages approximately 2,500 youth and adults annually who would otherwise be incarcerated. The great majority of CCA participants are African-American or Latino/a and come from poor or low-income communities.

In addition to direct services, CCA aims to bring about a more just and humane criminal justice system and has achieved success in persuading the New York State Legislature to adopt “reintegration” as a goal of sentencing, to reform New York’s drug laws, and to realign New York’s juvenile justice system so that more youth are placed in programs in their home communities, rather than incarcerated or placed in detention facilities. In an average year, CCA successfully diverts 100 adults and as many juveniles from costly incarceration, saving New York State millions of dollars.