Abraham House history pieces (Part 2 of 3)
Images and texts from newsletters and brochures: 1986 - 2004

. . . I was going nowhere if I remained the same. I would be killed in prison
. . .
--- From first issue of "News From Abraham House"

News From

Summer 1995 - Vol. 1/No. 1 - Pages 1, 2, 3 (excerpts)

In a decade as an acting Supreme Court justice Leslie Crocker Snyder has emerged as Manhattan's chief drug judge, primarily dealing with gang-related and organized crime narcotics felonies.

As an assistant district attorney under Frank Hogan and Robert Morgenthau, she was the first woman to try felonies and the first and only woman in the homicide bureau. Later she founded and was chief of the first Sex Crimes Prosecution Bureau in the U.S. and co-authored New York's Rape Shield Law and other sex-crimes legislation.

Judge Snyder has a reputation for handing down heavy sentences to the A-1 felons in her court. Yet even there, where crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life, she encounters people on the periphery, caught up in crime, who she believes can be rehabilitated. In such a case, she first met Sr. Simone Ponnet of Abraham House. Judge Snyder explains:

Two News From Abraham House images

Above is a reduced version of the nameplate from the first issue of News From Abraham House. Below is a photo from the newsletter's Winter 2004 issue showing Sr. Simone welcoming retired Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, left, to the Abraham House annual dinner.

Sr. Simone is a very impressive woman. I think she never expected me to consider Abraham House as an alternative to a prison term. But she runs a good program. And it is important that she is realistic. If she felt she could rehabilitate a double murderer, she would lose all credibility.

She has been able to succeed in the few cases that I have been able to give her. There are not many equivalent programs in the city

When I see someone with potential, someone who is non-violent, who needs drug treatment and job training, I am open to an alternative to prison. And other judges are as well. People having hard times need support and when someone like Sr. Simone, with a good reputation, is willing to provide that, I will listen.

Because of overcrowding in New York State prisons, it appears that the laws on mandatory sentencing in lesser felonies and lesser drug cases soon may be relaxed. Judges will have the opportunity to use alternatives.

It is a particularly good time for Abraham House to proselytize, to get its program better known.

In 1980 Fiber Roa was arrested for aiding and abetting a murder. He was sent to Rikers Island where he spent 18 months before being sentenced to a 45-year term and sent to prison upstate. During the 15 years he spent in jail, before he was paroled four months ago, he kept in touch with Fr. Peter and Sr. Simone whom he met at Rikers. On his release, he appeared at Abraham House. Roa, now 41, tells his story and explains why counseling, teaching responsibility, and education are vital if the staggering rates of recidivism - close to 80% - are to be reversed:

A friend wanted to collect a debt owed him. I went with him, there was a dispute and my friend killed the man. I was unarmed, but because we ran away together, I was convicted as an aider and abetter and given the same sentence as the murderer - just as if I had pulled the trigger. At the time, I was 25 and no angel, but I went home believing I had done nothing wrong. They arrested me there.

I was very bitter and angry. I felt it was unjust. I appealed. The only thing on my mind then was to get out - by any means. Several times - from Rikers Island and upstate - I tried to escape. But I was unsuccessful. I alternated between seeking solace in religion and being rebellious. Maybe it was the tension between the two that kept me sane.

For three years I fought the system and got beat up by the correction officers - you see the scar on my face? I spent six months in The Box [solitary confinement]. It was there I found myself. I began to analyze my life and decided I was going nowhere if I remained the same. I would be killed in prison or drugged, which is what happens when you become too aggressive or violent.

I started to read. I was allowed three books in The Box: The Bible, Captains and Kings, and The Count of Monte Cristo. I began to understand things in a different way. I looked back on the retreats for prisoners that Fr. Peter and Sr. Simone had had at Rikers. They sent letters of support, and their dedication - the fact that they were role models of goodness and gave unconditionally -- helped provide the impetus for change. I decided to become strong. I had a wife and a child. I would show them that they could be proud of me.

Two Abraham House images

Above and below are uncaptioned images from the "Abraham House: An Alternative to Incarceration" brochure. They are used here because the first "News From Abraham House" newsletter contained no photo images.

Above: An Abraham House resident welcomes one of his family members. Below: Another resident cleans his room.

Before I went to prison, I had a job as a photographer, but in 15 years the technology would be far different. After getting out of The Box I studied to become a law clerk and then began to work in the library assisting other inmates. I worked five hours a day at this and became a certified paralegal.

Among prisoners there is a lot of boasting about the lives they have led. In the yard all you talk about is crime. How to do this and that. If I hadn't faced a minimum of 15 years, I would have come out and tried some of those things. And I could have ended back in jail.

You need to get to first-time offenders before they catch this sickness. I saw men in for short terms come back time after time. The majority of inmates are illiterate. They cannot get or hold a job. There is no place in society for them.

In prison I got a B.A. degree, majoring in psychology, so that I would be able to counsel others. Instead of three hours recreation at night, I took courses given at the prison by Marist College. But those education programs have now been cut.

I became a promiscuous reader, studying philosophy and all religions. I read Ghandi and Mandela. I decided to make something positive out of prison and became a significant person there. I thought of prison as a kind of monastery.

Since being released, I have looked for a job as a counselor in a rehab center. I do not indicate on my application that I was 15 years in prison, but when I am asked what I did in that time, I tell the person. I have decided to tell the truth, no matter what. Then I see a veil drop over the interviewer's face, and it is apparent I have no chance.

I knew the process of reintegration would be hard, but I did not expect the discrimination. Abraham House is the only place that has welcomed me with love and respect.

Eventually, I will get a job. I will make it.

The author, William Sutton, served as a correction officer at Rikers Island for more than 21 years. He is one of the founding fathers of Abraham House and serves, along with his wife Flo, on its Board.

I watched prisoners return, over and over, and actually saw these men grow old in jail. I labeled it the revolving door syndrome.

A News From Abraham House image

Above is an image from the Winter 2004 issue of News From Abraham House. Used here because the first newsletter contained no photo images, it shows the author of this article, retired C.O. William Sutton, addressing the annual dinner after receiving Abraham House Justice and Compassion Award.

I was the officer in charge of work details, and it was my responsibility to interview and assign inmates to jobs. Because of this, I had access to personal infornation about these men. The records showed most returned to jail because of a "lack of direction." Many only needed a little support in changing their lifestyles, but those programs, which could be so productive, do not exist in prison.

It was normal that I wanted to reach out to prisoners who needed help to lead a different life. Fr. Peter and Sr. Simone approached correction and community-oriented people to develop a sound program. Abraham House has not changed its goal and purpose. To raise funds, it would be far easier to get contributions if we were warehousing the homeless. But we have remained steadfast in holding to our true vision, which can be summed up in the Chinese proverb:

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for one meal.
Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.


I cannot help thinking that Abraham House is now mature enough to be a part of a solution in the prison world. . . . I am overwhelmed by the growth of Abraham House, which was so evident at our 10th Anniversary Mass and the daylong celebration. . . . --- Fr. Raphael in the Winter 2003/04 "News From Abraham House"

News From

Winter 2003-04 - Vol. 7/Issue 2 - Pages 1, 3 (excerpts)

Margaret Mead once said, "Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world. Indeed, they are the only ones who ever have.

This year's Abraham House Justice and Compassion Award winners -- William Sutton and Sr. Catherine Quinn -- stood by us in the bleakest days as we sought to set up a program for prison families in the 1980s.

News From Abraham House
5 images & single caption in
Winter 2003/4 issue:

The day of our 10th anniversary
celebration was a most joyous one,
with friends new and old coming from
as far away as Franceto share this time
with us. To all who have helped
make Abraham House a reality,
our heartfelt thanks.

As Fr. Peter Raphael puts it: Building Abraham House took years. We had nothing on which we could rely. Sr. Simone and I had foreign accents. We were not Americans. We did not come from big religious congregations. We were strangers here who did not speak the language correctly. And on top of that, we wanted to help prisoners!

William Sutton, then on the Department of Corrections staff and charged with Sanitation at Rikers Island, says:

Fr. Peter, Sr. Simone and I worked together on special problems and had similar thoughts on the revolving door system. I wasn't at the prison to change guys. I recognized that many prisoners should not have been at Rikers, but that was the system. There was no alternative.

You'd see men who couldn't read or write. They did things to help their families survive and got caught. They were thrown in with others who should have been behind bars.

The people I was interested in were intelligent young, men whowere in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because of the stigma of prison, on release they could not get a job or find a program or money to avail themselves of an education. They then began repeating in prison. Father and Sister came to my office one day to talk about an idea they had and I thought it would be a great program.

Sutton recognized what states are learning: for some offenders, prison is counterproductive.

Mr. Sutton's wife, Flo, who comes from seven generations of people committed to reaching down and helping those in need, adds, "The vision at the heart of Abraham House is so good, others should be scattered through the five boroughs by now."

The Surtons and Corrections officers James Washington and Robert Jones took up our cause, using skills and wisdom gleaned as participants in the civil rights movement in the rural South. They criss-crossed the state talking with bureaucrats and clergy and found themselves sent on wild goose chases when they got too close to substantive financial support. At one rectory, they were told "I will receive you if you come with money."

The journey at times was bitter. Yet they still hold fast to the validity of the vision. "The city has a lot of prisoners," Flo says. "By now the idea of Abraham House should have mushroomed. Too many people say to Father and Sister, 'You have to compromise to meet our rules.' But they should not compromise. The prisoner part of the program needs funding. It has made such a great step forward and this part of the program particularly is in need."

Sr. Catherine Quinn of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Staten Island grew up in the 1940s a few blocks from what is now Abraham House and at 16 became a typist for New York Life. Two years later she entered her order, which even in 1950s terms was small (115 nuns) and now has just 19 women. Sr. Catherine is their Congregation Leader.

In 1981 Sr. Catherine was summoned by Terence Cardinal Cooke from her high school classroom (in 30 years she had ranged from kindergarten to teaching banking and the stock market to 12th graders). He wanted Sr. Catherine to become the Vicar for Religious, representing him in dealing with the men and women of religious communities throughout the Archdiocese. She held that job for 17 years and would have been impressed for longer if the subsequent Cardinal (John O'Connor) had his way. His Eminence lost that argument.

News From Abraham House
image & caption in
Winter 2003/4 issue.

By making a Christmas donation to an
AH family in Cardinal Egan's honor,
Quinn got his attention.

Early on, as Vicar, Sr. Catherine accompanied Fr. Peter and Sr. Simone on a Mother's Day visit to Rikers Island. "The place really got to me," Sr. Catherine says. "There was something very beautiful about these people whose single wish that day was to have a card to send to their wives or mothers. The men had to stand on line like kindergarteners; just to go to the toilet.

"Simone told me fellows she thought would make out fine on release would soon come back. She asked, 'Could you find us a place where we can work with prisoners and their families?'

Sr. Catherine heard about 342 Willis from Catholic Charities. A nun had been murdered there and the social program shuttered. "When I suggested the place, I did not know the building was falling down and all the pipes stripped and sold. But Simone was so pleased. 'We will do something with it,' she promised.'"

Subsequently, Sr. Catherine joined the Abraham House Board and quietly and persistently introduced both Cardinal O'Connor and Cardinal Edward Egan to Abraham House.

"Cardinal O'Connor saw we were not simply band-aiding something but building a support system. Everyone coming here is respected, supported and loved for whom they are, I remember Cardinal O'Connor on the sidewalk after his visit, looking up at our poor place. He said, 'Sr. Catherine, now I know what you mean.'"


NYCHS presents these image and text excerpts from Abraham House and "pre-Abraham House" newsletters and brochures by permission. Abraham House's rights are reserved and retained. For more information, contact Sister Simone or Fr. Raphael at Abraham House where he is spiritual director and she is executive director.
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Rev. Jared Curtis
First Prison
in the U.S.
The Prison and
the Theological
1869 NYS Prison
Chaplain Reports:
Auburn, Sing
Sing, Clinton
Finding the
'Lost Chapel'
Rikers Island