NEW YORK — Stanley Richards long faced the label of “formerly incarcerated person.”
But for decades, he’s also worked to help others return home from jails and prisons. He’s served on a oversight board for New York City’s jail system, and the Obama administration named him a “champion of change.”
“None of us are the worst things that we’ve ever done,” Richards said.
On Wednesday, Richards will be appointed to the city’s Department of Correction leadership — the first person on senior staff who was formerly incarcerated in its jails. As first deputy commissioner, Richards will oversee Department of Correction programs and operations at a crucial time when the city is moving toward closing the notorious Rikers Island.
In an interview with USA TODAY on Tuesday, Richards said he was excited to get to work on engaging both the correction officers and the jail’s population. He also sees all his work as part of the larger plan to close Rikers.
“I am, by my nature, very hopeful. But I’m not naïve. I know this is going to be a massive undertaking,” he said.
“I liken it to turning a cruise ship in the middle of the Hudson. It’s going to take a number of turns, and you have to take your time. But nonetheless, I’m excited to be leading this effort as First Deputy Commissioner for Programs and Operations.”
A Bronx native, Richards spent two and a half years on Rikers in the 1980s before serving four and a half years of a nine year prison sentence. During his time in the criminal justice system, he said he never imagined he’d later be working in the city’s Department of Correction.
“The circumstances in which we live – projects, poverty – those are real, those experiences are real, they’re painful, but they don’t define who you are,” he said.
The city plans to close Rikers by 2027 and open smaller jails in the city’s boroughs. Another step in that process comes Wednesday as the Department of Correction hands control of a facility in which Richards was housed on the island to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.
In his new role, Richards will oversee the jail system’s programs for incarcerated people, day-to day operations, an assistance program for correctional staff and their families and the borough-based jail initiative.
In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Richards has been “at the forefront of criminal justice reform for decades.”
“His lived experience makes him uniquely qualified to transform our jails and create a system that focuses on rehabilitation. I’m confident that he will move us forward in our work to create a jail system that is smaller, safer and more humane,” he said.
Richards’ appointment comes as the city continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, crime has seen recent spikes and a new mayor will take office in less than a year. Changes to state bail laws have also stirred controversy in recent months.
Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, who took over as the department’s head in June, told USA TODAY that part of Richards’ work will be rebooting Rikers’ programs and in-person visits that were shutdown during the pandemic.
Schiraldi also sees Richards continuing his work specializing in reentry programs. Richards is currently executive vice president of the Fortune Society, a New York City nonprofit focusing on service for incarcerated and formerly incarcerating individuals as they return home.
About two-thirds of people housed in Rikers return home when they are released, rather than being transferred to state prison, Schiraldi said.
“For us, we need to have a very serious flow, a very serious handoff between what goes on inside and what goes on outside,” he said. “So we want Stanley and his team to make sure that we’re doing the kinds of things inside that will help people reacclimate when they get out.”
Richards began working at the Fortune Society in 1991. He also served as deputy director of client intervention at the Hunter College Center on AIDS, Drugs, and Community Health, but later returned to the Fortune Society, rising to the group’s senior leadership.
He was part of de Blasio’s task force that crafted a plan to close Rikers. He was the first formerly incarcerated person to serve on the Board of Correction, an oversight body for the Department of Correction.
In 2014, Richards’ work earned him acknowledgement from President Barack Obama as a “champion of change” for reentry and employment.
“When I came home from prison, the only thing I wanted to do was to help people see that they could be something different,” Richards said.
Schiraldi noted that Richards making history as the first formerly incarcerated person taking a leadership role in the department does not define him.
“Like anybody else, when formerly incarcerated people now start to break barriers, too often they’ll get defined by being formerly incarcerated people,” Schiraldi said. “He’s not just good for a formerly incarcerated person. He’s just good.”
Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller