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Elena Kilcullen '19 is turning a family tragedy into a positive for herself and the community. Partnering with the Albany County Sheriff's Office and the Albany County Correctional Facility, Kilcullen
recently launched a unique independent study project called New Beginnings, a reentry preparedness program that removes inmates' barriers to success, thereby reducing recidivism.
For Kilcullen, it's personal: Her cousin is serving a life sentence in Florida. She considered dropping out—her cousin was convicted in 2015, during Kilcullen's first semester of law school—due to the emotional toll it took on her; if not for the counsel of Associate Dean for Student Affairs Rosemary Queenan, the project may have never come to pass.
"It was such a traumatic experience for me that I went to our Dean of Students and told her, 'I don't think I can be a student here under this stress,'" Kilcullen said. "Dean Queenan said that I should take this stress and do something with it—use it as motivation toward what I want to do here."
Kilcullen started what would become New Beginnings while interning at Prisoners' Legal Services of New York. Kilcullen's supervisor, Albany Law School alumna Samantha Howell '10, asked her to create a reentry manual—a repository of available resources, such as housing, food, social, mental health, and addiction services, in Albany, Schenectady, and Rensselaer Counties—that an individual could use as a reference when transitioning back into the community. Fast-forward a year: Kilcullen, whose work on the manual continued past her internship, began brainstorming ways to distribute the document to as many people as possible. Professor Sarah Rogerson suggested reaching out to Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple—already a partner in several Albany Law School initiatives—who saw the potential in using Kilcullen's reentry manual at the Albany County Correctional Facility.
Kilcullen and Sheriff Apple officially announced the New Beginnings program at a press conference January 23 at the county jail. Kilcullen explained that the reentry manual had been transcribed onto tablets, which will be made available to inmates ahead of their release dates. On the tablets, inmates can look up the resources relating to their needs—what they feel are their personal barriers to success—and click on hyperlinks to get more information and contact relevant service providers in the Albany area.
As part of the initiative, Kilcullen interacts with inmates to identify the types of resources that are most important to them. By interviewing inmates, she gains feedback on what the program may be missing or where it needs improvement—input that is crucial as she works toward her goal: reducing recidivism.
"I firmly believe that, for most people who are incarcerated, having a system in place could have made a difference," she said. "A system could have caught whatever behaviors they were displaying long before they ever committed a crime."
Kilcullen hopes that with programs like New Beginnings, jails can become more like the ideal: effective in correcting behaviors and preparing inmates for life after incarceration, instead of places that, in some cases, carry the stigma of releasing individuals back into society more broken than when they came in.
"I wouldn't be working with the Sheriff if I didn't come to this school," Kilcullen said. "I am really grateful for Dean Queenan, Professor Rogerson, and staff members who consistently push me to do things and help me find connections—and have motivated me not to give up."
Kilcullen, a dual degree candidate, also credits the instruction she has received at the University at Albany, where she's working simultaneously toward a Master of Social Work. Kilcullen regularly uses her social work skills, communicating with inmates and corrections officers or brainstorming different ways to benefit the jail and the individuals within it.
"During the meetings I always tell the administration, they have a really nice skeleton but what I am here to do is add the meat to the skeleton," she said, "and make sure it is a full program."
Kilcullen chose Albany Law School because of the opportunity to earn dual J.D./M.S.W. degrees. She looked as far as California, Florida, and Louisiana. But when she visited Albany, she knew it was the perfect fit.
"I figured that Albany, being the capital of our state, would give me a good 'in' on trying to make the most effective change," she said.