Last week the Fortune Society hosted its Third Annual Spring Soiree at the Bowery Hotel. The non-profit, which helps previously incarcerated men and women re-enter their communities, operates its program out of a castle in Harlem. Yep, a castle. Big names in attendance included designer Charlotte Ronson, former Fugee-turned-inmate-turned-solo-artist John Forte, and Director Eugene Jarecki.
Jarecki’s 2012 Sundance hit “The House I Live In,” a film about the war on drugs and its impact on poor Americans, “particularly Americans of color,” was honored with the Foundation’s Spotlight Award. In the spirit of the movie, everyone seemed interested in keeping the spotlight on the campaign for drug law reform.
“Drugs are cheaper and more widely used by young people than ever before. The people we put away are nonviolent nobodies, poor young people who get addicted, have no money, get a strike on their record, and can only work in the underground economy—then we punish them for it. That’s the disgrace here,” Jarecki said. “The Fortune Society is a long distance runner for justice. They help rebuild lives shattered by these inappropriate laws.”
In addition to providing substance abuse, mental health, and HIV/AIDS treatment, career development and job retention programs, and family services to 3,000 people each year, the organization actively participates in the movement to change drug sentencing laws. “I grew up in a white suburban community and none of my friends got arrested or spent time in prison,” said Fortune Society president and CEO JoAnne Page.
Majority opinion at the event was that the ‘drug problem’ is a public health issue and, therefore, should be dealt with through the health system. Both Page and Jarecki would like to see sentences dealt with “a little more even-handedly.”
“We’re seeing young black and Hispanic kids on Rikers Island for a joint,” she said. Jarecki echoed her statement with his own personal convictions. “We don’t put away big-time drug dealers. We never have. Should we? Yeah, probably,” he said, adding that he’s lost family members, “particularly lately,” to addiction. “I want proper approaches to it led by treatment and compassion, not by punishment,” he finished. According to Jarecki, who has also gained praise for his films, “Why We Fight,” “Reagan” and “The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” his new project has played a role in changing laws in several states. “What we’ve seen in Colorado, Washington, and California was echoed today in Vermont, which decriminalized marijuana,” Jarecki said. “Connecticut is planning to revisit the sentences of people incarcerated as minors for adult sentences, and we expect the governor of Oklahoma to revisit sentences of lifers.”
John Forte, who performed at last year’s Soiree, recently joined the Fortune Society’s board in order to “help spread the message.” After living what some might consider a charmed life, he was busted with 31 pounds of liquid cocaine at Newark Airport, which he calls, “ a very unfortunate mistake.” That mistake came at a price: a 14-year prison sentence. However, that’s not what he ultimately served, because former president George W. Bush redacted seven years from his sentence.
“I am about the second chance, because people believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Forte said.
Why was it important for designer Charlotte Ronson to be involved? “John Forte is an old, old, old, old family friend of mine,” she answered. When pressed for a more specific reason to be involved with the cause, she said, “Because every little bit counts. Surely, she knows all about the Society’s work and was just being shy.
One of the event’s sponsors, Runa, a beverage company that supports roughly 2,000 indigenous farming families in Ecuador through their Guayasa leaf tea, got involved with the cause because “drug policy affects America daily and is one of the greatest injustices we face.”
“If you’re not causing harm to others, you should be able to ingest what you want,” said Dan MacCombie, co-founder of Runa. “Our criminal justice system is broken. We need a comprehensive reform of how we look at certain crimes, if they should be crimes, and how we make prisons into effective tools of solving society’s needs, instead of just locking people up and assuming the problem is solved.”
He went on to say that since the “system isn’t changing tomorrow,” the Fortune Society’s work is essential for those who have gone through it and want to get back on their feet.
Towards the end of the night, three ladies huddled together in one stall of the women’s bathroom, and were joined by two men soon after; all were escorted out of the lavatory, but not asked to leave. They apparently fit the profile of the type who never gets arrested.
On a brighter note, the event raised $100,000 for the Fortune Society—legally.
“We struggle to get restricted funds because the level of need greatly exceeds resources we have,” said Page. “This usually isn’t the type of crowd we get for our events, normally, so I’m thankful for this party!”