The coronavirus pandemic has left incarcerated people at particular risk, navigating increased exposure with scant resources for protection. Due to the risks of contamination, those transitioning out of prison face distinct challenges as well, often lacking basic necessities to navigate the difficulties of day-to-day life even when there isn’t a pandemic.
A married couple devoted to criminal justice causes has called to support this vulnerable group through Be a Good Neighbor, an initiative soliciting donations to help charitable organizations in New York provide basic necessities for people recently released from prison.
Be a Good Neighbor was started by Publicis Sapient senior director of global communications Ashish Prashar and freelance product and experience strategist Mary Rinaldi—who also serves as mentor-in-residence for creative technologists at the New Museum of New York’s artist incubator New Inc.
Prashar also serves as a board member for one of those organizations, Exodus Transitional Community, which has helped get 160 inmates released from prison in New York during the pandemic. Additionally, the city has released 1,100 jailed parole violators. But what happens to those individuals as they attempt to transition back into their communities?
The pandemic has made this transition particularly difficult, with access to clothing and amenities such as soap and other hygiene products difficult to come by, particularly given high levels of unemployment.
“We were coming off a week where bail reform had been rolled back in the middle of the night, feeling tired and discouraged. Among leaders there was this antipathy to the plight of people who were incarcerated for reasons that were deeply unfair,” Rinaldi said, noting that some were being held for minor infractions such as missing a court hearing. “We both felt really strongly that we didn’t want discouragement and antipathy to affect us.”
Prashar said the pandemic underlined the problems of mass incarceration. He explained that he had already seen how much suffering the pandemic caused among vulnerable people throughout the city, with a potentially bleaker outlook for those who were incarcerated, especially when some of those individuals had not been found guilty, but were being held for reasons such as not being able to afford bail.
“A couple of hundred people were released but have no economic resources. We knew there was a desire from our community in the ad world to do something,” Prashar said. “On a basic level, it was about providing them with a sense of safety and agency they [otherwise] wouldn’t get. A job, housing, Exodus has provided all that. They don’t have to be out there and potentially die.”
The industry responds
Over the course of several weeks, Prashar and Rinaldi helped raise over $15,000 in cash and $5,000 in clothing and other items through an Amazon Wishlist set up for Exodus. About six weeks into fundraising, the couple had already surpassed their $5,000 goal.
Prashar and Rinaldi said they were blown away by the donations and support from around the ad industry, which included a LinkedIn post from Publicis Sapient CMO Teresa Barreira.
Other agency leaders also expressed support for Be a Good Neighbor. Robert Harwood-Matthews, president and global client lead for Samsung Mobile at Publicis, said in a statement that the program is “exactly the [type] of project we should be supporting right now, often invisible without the work of people like Mary and Ash.”
Meanwhile, R/GA chief strategy officer Tom Morton said in a statement that “deaths behind bars aren’t inevitable” during the pandemic “when more humane measures can lower the toll.”
“This inspires me to give to the campaign,” he said. “It’s the type of humane project we should get behind now. Prisons aren’t as closed off from society as people think. It’s time to start acting like fellow human beings.”
Another R/GA staffer, creative director Gio Serrano, said donating to the effort is her “tiny way to help a giant problem in our society.”
“Under normal circumstances, resources for newly released prisoners are unconscionably thin,” she said. “Now they’re just nonexistent.”
Connecting on a human level
In a way, the pandemic helped highlight the need for Be a Good Neighbor, Rinaldi explained. Most people used to take basic necessities, such as soap and toothpaste, for granted before the pandemic, making it easy for people to connect with the cause.
Prashar said this presented a rare opportunity for relative consensus in a politically divided landscape.
“Most people believe that the criminal justice system needs to be reformed. It was a very easy connecting point. It doesn’t get into the bigger policy issues, which is where you can lose people,” he said. “It’s not a right or left issue; it’s a human rights issue.”
Rinaldi said that while creating Be a Good Neighbor, she and Prashar talked with many people who have family or friends who had been through the criminal justice system.
Prashar himself was sentenced to a year at a young offender institute in the U.K. at the age of 17 and experienced the prison system’s process of dehumanization firsthand. He went on to receive a degree from the University of Westminster in London and pursued a career in politics, handling communications for the Conservative Party and working for former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well as the 2008 and 2012 campaigns of London Mayor Boris Johnson, and Barack Obama’s 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.
When he’s not handling communications for Publicis Sapient, Prashar is usually engaged in issues around criminal justice reform, serving as a board member for Exodus as well as Getting Out and Staying Out and Leap Confronting Conflict.
In addition to her work as a freelance product and experience strategist and as a mentor-in-residence for creative technologists at New Inc, Rinaldi also co-founded Medium’s Simone, a startup that addressed workplace issues and solutions (which wrapped up its run last December), and created Psst, “a newsletter about work, for the rest of us.”
“Both of us do this all the time now,” Prashar said. “My passion is this work.”