With the advent of Black History Month, many observe this time by celebrating Black visionaries who endure as symbols of resilience and hope. While the work of many Black advocates remains unsung, one such barrier-breaker stands as a testament of the efficacy of humane, criminal justice reform efforts. As the new CEO of the Fortune Society, Stanley Richards, a formerly incarcerated man of color, brings 30 years of experience leading reintegration efforts across the city.
Founded in 1967, the Fortune Society remains one of New York City’s most prominent organizations advocating for the humane reentry of formerly incarcerated individuals. Offering a holistic, “one-stop model” of treatment services, the organization has led the fight to close the Rikers Island jail complex. Among the Fortune Society’s leading legislative priorities, the Fair Chance for Housing Act, which went into law this January, stands as a milestone for combating housing discrimination experienced by formerly incarcerated individuals. The bill makes it unlawful for most of the city’s housing providers to conduct “unfettered criminal background checks, prohibiting consideration of convictions past certain time periods.” In doing so, the bill aims to end cycles of homelessness and instability faced by justice-involved individuals, who struggle with a host of barriers preventing reintegration.
To fight these stigmas, advocates like Richards urge policymakers to fold prisons and jails into community-based supervision programs, and deploy mental health and substance-use treatment programs across disenfranchised communities. New York Nonprofit Media spoke to Richards about his experience in criminal justice reform spaces and his role leading the Fortune Society in the fight to close Rikers Island.
I would really love to learn about your background with the Fortune Society, and some of your lived experience that sets you apart from leaders in the criminal justice reform space?
I was born and raised in the Bronx projects. And I grew up believing that my life was destined to be on the streets – selling drugs, committing crimes, being on a corner and cycling in-and-out of jails and prisons. Early on, when I was 10, I lost my mother and my father fought to raise the four of us: two boys and two girls. But I found my way to the streets. I was involved in gangs in the 70s. And so I thought that was going to be my life. And in a strange way, I learned how to live that life. I learned how to be on the streets and hustle. I learned that when I got arrested how to survive in jail. Starting as a teenager, going into adulthood, and my last incarceration was in 1986. During that time, I was addicted to drugs: heroin, crack. And in my last incarceration in 1986, I was sentenced to nine years and I served four and a half years, two of those years on Rikers Island from 1986 to 1988, and I came home in 1991. And during my incarceration, I went to school and obtained my GED and went to college and graduated, and what I began to learn was that I was not what I heard about who I was. What I realized through education was that I have choices. I could make different decisions and have a different life. And when I discovered that, it was transformative for me, I began to understand that I had some degree of control over my life. And I wanted to help others see that they didn't have to live that life. So I came home, and Fortune was the organization that, for me, really walked the walk. They hired me as a counselor in 1991 and I had the privilege of being connected to this organization ever since. I came back to Fortune in 2001 and had a series of promotions, and then I left Fortune again in 2021 to go serve as the first Deputy Commissioner of Programs and Operations in the New York City Department of Corrections, as the first formerly incarcerated person in that position. (Richards returned to Fortune in 2022 and became CEO in January 2024)
So my career has always been about trying to give back and help people see that their life could be different. It doesn't have to be the life that they've always lived. And I understand that it starts with hope. And that's what my career has been about. It’s about trying to help people to see the best in themselves and to provide hope.
In addition to hope, what lessons have helped guide your journey, and your resilience towards leading the Fortune Society?
I think it's about creating connections beyond the transactional connection. Part of what we say at Fortune is that, in addition to helping people get jobs and access to supportive and affordable housing, substance use treatment and education – besides all those concrete things – part of our job is to see the best in people and to hold the truth about that until they can begin to see it. There's something powerful when you engage with people, and your engagement is centered on their humanity – not what they did, not their circumstances, but just the connection on a human level. Besides doing all of the things that help people build new lives, we have to let people know that they matter. And if they matter, everything we do, should be in furtherance of elevating the humanity of our work.
I'm curious to learn more about the organization's “one-stop” model. What kind of holistic wraparound services do you offer to justice-involved Individuals?
We created this model that we defined as “no wrong door for entry.” And what that is a very low threshold model. Come in, get access to our community, get access to a meal, peers and engage in services. Our model is about saying welcome home to people. So our model is multiple points of entry, varying levels of engagement depending on need and desire and lifetime commitment, because we understand that sometimes it's two steps forward and one step back. And we never want someone who relapses to feel the burden of shame that prevents them from accessing our community. We see about 11,000 people a year and house about 800 people. And we don't divide it by eligibility of where you live, how long you've been out, whether you're on parole or probation. If you have a touch point with the criminal justice system, you can get access to our services and our community.
Your ascension, if you will, comes at a really important time given widespread efforts to close Rikers, among other New York state prisons. How do you intend to make the most of this moment to lead criminal justice reform efforts towards lasting change?
When I was incarcerated, there were about 20,000 people incarcerated in New York city jails, with 150,000 people cycling through and about 72,000 people incarcerated in New York state prisons. And today while the numbers are going in the wrong direction, we see about 6,000 people detained in New York City jails, in a city of over 8 million. We have about 32,000 people incarcerated in New York state prisons. We closed 12 prisons, and the government is committed to closing another five prisons. So we've seen over time, the reduction in our incarceration footprint in New York City and New York state, and there are some lessons that we have learned. One is that we ought to be listening to the people who are most impacted by problems: the problems of poverty, hopelessness, homelessness, mental illness, substance use disorder and interruptions in education. What does it take for us to solve some of these entrenched problems? And so, as president and CEO, as a man of color and formerly incarcerated person, my job is to continue to elevate those voices, making sure those voices are informing our government partners and political leaders, that they make policy, not based on fear and fear mongering, and fear of the unknown or fear of change – but policy that really dismantles mass incarceration, isolation and poverty, all underlying causes of incarceration. And so I'm going to continue to do that, as an organization in coalition with other advocacy organizations. We're going to chip away at a very entrenched problem. But I feel hopeful. Because when I look back at where we've been and where we're at now, I derive a deep sense of hope that one day my great grandchildren will grow up in a city where for black and brown people, for communities of color, their pathway out of those communities doesn't start with incarceration. That it starts with a solid educational footprint. It builds on college and opportunity, where we are seen as equal partners in a society where we all contribute our gifts and our talents.
Would you mind telling me a bit more about the Fortune Society’s legislative priorities?
The number one priority is closing Rikers. I've been reappointed to The Independent Rikers Commission 2.0, so I'm really excited about engaging in that work in assessing the changing landscape of our original plan and to offer the city and our partners a revised and modified plan to close Rikers Island. That is the North Star. And we then look at what it takes to do that? What does it take to safely reduce the population by making sure that people who could be safely managed into communities are processed swiftly so that cases can be adjudicated, which will bring down the numbers. We're going to make sure we're doing as much diversion as we can for people who need mental health treatment as opposed to incarceration. And then we're going to look at what it takes to build out the borough-based jails and expedite procurement, while making sure that we're not building replacement facilities for Rikers Island. And so we're going to assess the entire landscape and offer some options about closing Rikers. We just need to close Rikers.
Does the city have the resources to implement these sweeping changes?
I think the city has the resources, the skills and capacity to fundamentally change the way we do business in the criminal legal system. It is all sustainability, focus, and commitment. What we're going to propose is a set of recommendations that pull on each of those items. But we all need to be pulling in the same direction. I want to live in a safe city. I want my family to be raised in a safe city. This false choice about whether we have to choose safety: community safety versus incarceration, was a false choice that we have been using for decades which devastated Black and brown communities and individuals who end up being chewed up in the system. What we've learned over the decades is that we can do both. We can bring down the number of people who have touchpoints without the criminal legal system, and have safe cities and safe communities. But it takes investment. It takes commitment and consistency. And it takes clarity of purpose.
What are some of the recommendations that you intend to propose to the commission?
One of the things we have always talked about in this criminal justice movement is how do you reinvest and recreate opportunities for communities and people impacted by the criminal legal system? How do we replace [incarceration] with something else that the community could lead and create, to provide economic opportunities? So the commission put together a process by which the state and those local communities could work together to do just that. So as we close prisons, we are thinking about how we apply the process for the prisons we just closed to others in the future? And we're hoping that what we propose is a model for this nation – as you close prisons, how do you redevelop those communities? It’s a similar conversation about how we redevelop opportunities here in New York City when we close Rikers Island and reduce spending on incarceration. How do we reinvest those resources?
I'm curious to learn about the Fair Chance for Housing Act backed by the Fortune Society, and some of the outcomes that you hope to see following this bill?
I think this is landmark legislation and I want to thank the city council members for this bill. What we know is that when people don't have a safe place to live, their ability to hold a job, maintain sobriety and consistency with mental health medications, is all thrown up in the air. We all know what it feels like when we finish work, or school, and we can go home and have a warm and safe place to live. That applies to people who are caught up in the criminal legal system as well. We know that when we provide that level of stability that is a seed that bears fruit. And so Fair Chance is about giving people a fair chance to access housing, to not judge them based on what they did 10- 20 years ago, to not judge them for the worst moment in their life and use that as a factor [for tenancy]. Fair Chance is going to provide the opportunity for people to have access to affordable and low-income housing without being discriminated against based on a conviction. And we're going to educate landlords and this is a win-win for everyone. Landlords don't want vacant apartments, they want to have good tenants and people need housing. So you judge people and you evaluate people based on your ability to pay them rent and to keep the commitments of the lease and not based on their record. So Fair Chances is a major milestone in our fight for justice.
How do you envision the Fortune Society evolving under your leadership?
I define it as building on our success. We have been very successful as an organization, both in terms of growing and being able to meet the needs of the people who walk through our doors. So we're going to continue to do that. I think the next phase of Fortune is continuing to build out our advocacy and policy platform, because there's just not enough to be the safety net after all the damage of incarceration has caused. We have to be more preventive so we have to fight for policies that will reduce the number of people who have touch points with the criminal legal system. And I think that's the next phase of our engagement to broaden our policy, working to ensure that we create a truly fair and humane system to invite partners and stakeholders from around the country to join Fortune and support our work. So that we continue to be an organization where there's truly no wrong door for entry, lifetime commitment to services, and doing the kind of devotion work that we need to do. And Fortune will be a centerpiece in sharing our lessons learned with other providers, so that we're creating the support necessary for people to build new lives and dismantling the system that disproportionately impacts so many Black and brown people.