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Image by Mathew Schwartz

Programs -> Albany

New Beginnings Program at

Albany County Correctional and 
Rehabilitative Services Center

(the county jail for Albany County)

The information on this page was gathered in interviews with Elena Kilcullen done by Darby Larkin. Anything in quotes is a quote from Elena in that interview. Go to this page to read about the research methodology.


Words that are bold, blue, and underlined are links that will scroll to another place on this webpage, open another page of this website in another tab, or open an external webpage in another tab.

**A note from the author: Part of my purpose in creating this website is to recognize that anyone can be involved in reentry work, and get involved in the criminal justice system through reentry programs. This ESPECIALLY means people with current or past justice-involvement. I hope sharing this information about the many forms of reentry programs and the many ways to build them helps other people to build and expand programs for folks with justice-involvement and heal our communities from the pain of mass incarceration. This information is meant to be adapted to each local context and resources.**

Overview of Two Reentry Programs in Albany
These are the two programs in Albany that I researched, and where on this website to read about them.

Reentry Services for Inmates in Albany Correctional Facility

Everyone incarcerated at Albany County Correctional and Rehabilitative Services Center is assessed for reentry needs immediately after booking. Then, they work with a case worker and their counselors to plan for their release from jail. This program is called New Beginnings.

These reentry services, and the individual reentry plans for every single person, are overseen by Elena Kilcullen, Assistant Director of Programs at the jail.

She built this program from the ground-up while attending graduate school. She combined her own life experience, extensive research, and an inside look at Albany's existing programs to create New Beginnings with the support of the Albany County Sheriff and some of her professors. Her journey to build it is explained throughout the page below!

S.H.I.P. - Sheriff's Homeless Improvement Program

Albany County Sheriff Apple turned an empty wing of the correctional facility into a transitional housing program for homeless men who experience difficulty accessing other housing resources.


 SHIP offers a clean, safe, and independent living environment with support for accessing services and resources in the community and a successful transition into their own permanent housing. 


New Beginnings Program in Albany Correctional Facility

Built by Elena Kilcullen in 2019

Elena built the reentry infrastructure that offers comprehensive, holistic reentry planning to every inmate in Albany County jail from the ground up. I call this 'reentry infrastructure' because the New Beginnings program is a part of the jail now - Elena has changed how the jail operates by focusing incarceration on reentry. At every step while someone is incarcerated at the jail, they are encouraged to think about and plan for their reentry and given tools and assistance to do that. 

New Beginnings
Image by Rob Martinez

Elena Kilcullen - Assistant Director of Programs
at Albany Correctional Facility

Meet the person changing reentry and corrections in Albany county. She's the hub in Albany County that connects all the services and programs in the area together. Anyone can go to her looking for any kind of services, and she can point them in the right direction.


“I consider myself like a go-to person for services. Like I might not directly provide you with the service, but I'm going to ask you a million questions and I'm going to get you somebody that you absolutely do need to provide you those services. That you probably would not know where to find on your own.” 

Elena's journey to build New Beginnings was heavily influenced by her college experience as well as her childhood growing up in New York City with her parents.

Click the + for more information!

Elena Kilcullen


"ISU": Inmate Services Unit - this is the team of clinical staff that Elena oversees in the jail


"New Beginnings": The name of the reentry program in Albany jail, which Elena Kilcullen created


"Out date": Release date - the estimated date you will be released from jail


"DOCCS": Department of Corrections and Community Supervision - the New York State government department that controls all the state prisons and parole.


"DSS": Department of Social Services - in New York State, the agency in each county state-mandated to provide government benefits and programs like Temporary Assistance (including federal welfare), SNAP, Medicaid, Child Support Collection and Enforcement, and Adult and Child Protective Services. 


"Aggregate": The 'whole' - information that is 'aggregated' takes individual information and makes it anonymous and about an entire population. For example, surveys about individuals' drinking habits become statistics about the drinking habits of the whole population.

"Inmate": Throughout this website, I use the terms 'inmate', 'currently or formerly incarcerated person/folks', and 'justice-involved individual', but will not use the terms 'convict', 'felon', etc. A lot of changing is happening in New York State to recognize that people should not be defined by justice-involvement, and terms like 'justice-involved individual' are becoming more common. I still use the word 'inmate' occasionally in this website to match the most common language in many counties in Upstate New York to refer to currently incarcerated folks while they are incarcerated, and the population of incarcerated folks in a jail. However, I want to recognize the humanity and the value of these individuals far outside of what the term 'inmate' conveys.


Overview of the New Beginnings Program

New Beginnings is revolutionary in several ways.


The program is active, instead of reactive - at every step during incarceration, people in Albany County jail are offered services, offered assistance to plan for their reentry, offered tools and options to make healthier, better choices. Everything is explained, including the different types of services they may qualify for and the differences between them. Elena and the staff at the Inmate Services Unit (ISU) connect with each person one-on-one and really get to know them. For some incarcerated folks this may be the only positive person in their life and the only person advocating for them to make healthier choices. Jail services are the only lifeline for many people, and Elena makes sure that opportunity is not wasted.


The program is also in-house - Elena works inside the jail with a team at the ISU to connect with each person consistently throughout their incarceration. This transforms incarceration from a punishment, a time to sit and do nothing (as it is in many jails across the country), into a dynamic time to address the things preventing someone from being successful and plan for their reentry to the community with active help.


New Beginnings changes individuals' lives as well as the jail institution and local criminal justice system - Elena drew a lot from the Risk Needs Responsivity model in Criminology and Criminal Justice. This model changes the institution/system according to the needs of the people it serves, in real time. Her ISU Consultation allows Elena and the jail to respond to changing needs in the incarcerated population, as well as report out that information on an aggregate level for the jail, the government, and the community to change how they respond to crime and social problems.


This includes several components:


First,comprehensive assessment is done for every new person booked into the jail, known as the "ISU Consultation". The assessment not only seeks information about what that person will need when they're released and macro-level information for the jail about the changing needs of the local justice-involved population in real time, but also helps focus every single person and the entire jail on preparing for reentry to the community


Next, Elena does some strategic info-gathering before she meets with a person. She reads all their paper files, their rap sheet, and any paperwork the jail may have on them. She's looking for anything in the person's life that "screams instability", anything that may harm their chances of success. Anything she finds, she'll talk with the incarcerated person about and see if there are any services, programs, or options that could help. 


Then, she can meet with the person and start building a reentry plan. She uses the New Beginnings Pre-Release Assessment, a tool she created to outline the major areas of need and risk factors for recidivism. This ensures that every person at least discusses how they'll meet each need - housing, mental health, addiction, clothing, and transportation are some of the categories. Elena helps the person develop a plan for each need using her extensive knowledge of all the resources in the area.


Based on the reentry plan, Elena can start setting up services for people to work with once they're released. This includes making appointments, connecting people with service providers or agencies even while they're incarcerated, and helping them with applications. If someone is not interested in services or is blunt about wanting to return to an unhealthy or criminal lifestyle, she switches to harm reduction. That way the person is still provided as many healthy options and ideas as possible, in the hopes it will make them more likely to choose a healthier path.


New Beginnings even has a plan if someone comes back to jail. They can pick up right where they left off with Elena and the ISU, hopefully continuously making progress toward healthier choices, reducing barriers to success, and ultimately a more successful lifestyle. The jail staff get to know people "forward, backward, and sideways" and know what they've tried in the past, what's worked, what has not worked, and what a person may be open to trying.


Jail providers are often the only medical, mental health, addiction, and life skills providers a person sees - and the only person rooting for them to be successful. Elena has made full use of this opportunity, and led the ISU to actively help folks make healthier, safer choices and remove the barriers to their succe.

Below find more information about each step and each component of New Beginnings!
Inmate Services Unit

Elena runs the Inmate Services Unit - a team of clinical staff who provide services to all the inmates in the jail.
"[I] help to oversee our caseworkers and specialists who have basically every single inmate on their caseloads"

She helps those caseworkers to create reentry plans for every inmate in the jail. While those caseworkers track very specific information for their clients to help make a personalized reentry plan, Elena tracks the services available in the area and what's needed to connect with them - for example the insurance restrictions, if they're taking new clients, and what type of clients they serve. Just tracking services and finding out where to go for different needs is a huge job in any community - Elena explains why she helps alleviate this burden for her clients.
“Who is even taking new patients at this point??... if I want to give up finding a psychiatrist, I can only imagine…the [stress of that] for one of my clients”

Image by Austin Neill

New Beginnings Resource Guide

The Resource Guide lists all the agencies, services, resources, and programs available in Albany County and beyond, and helps explain what they are and how to access them. It's given to everyone incarcerated at Albany County in the form of a tablet program that Elena created. It's a way everyone can plan for their reentry and get ideas for what they might need and want anytime during their incarceration, and even directly contact them (the tablet program has working links and contact options!!). It even includes the services provided in-house at the jail for people to read about. 

The idea for New Beginnings started while Elena was in grad school. She realized what Albany was missing most was a 'hub' of resources and services. Someone or something that could connect everything together and help people find and connect with the things that might help them.


"We have a lot of agencies that provide services, but what we don't have is a connecting network, so that people can navigate that...the problem is that no one's ever really sat down and was like, how do we bring access to these resources that already exist in our community? So that's where I come in."


And the Resource Guide was just the beginning.

Resource Guide
Image by Austin Neill

How did Elena build the Resource Guide,
and how did it help her develop the idea for New Beginnings?

Click the + for more information!

Creating a hub

How does New Beginnings work?


At Albany County jail, reentry is a focus throughout someone's entire stay at the jail. To give all the details of the full program, I've written out below the journey of someone being incarcerated at Albany's jail from booking to release. Click on the '+' on the right to expand the box and read more about what happens during each step and the work Elena and the clinical staff do to prepare people for reentry.

First, someone is brought to the jail...


First, you get booked into the facility. You go through typical booking procedures common to all NYS jails - security staff (COs) ask if you're sick and need medical attention, you get a TB test, and they decide your security classification.

Either at the end of that day or the next day, an Inmate Services Unit (ISU) worker will meet with you and perform a consultation.

Next, all the consultation information is logged into the jail's records system so Elena and the counselors and caseworkers who work with you can access it.

Now, the process of building a reentry plan begins.

This meeting isn't just checking off a list though - Elena talks with you about each category. 

"If you don't need this, do you have housing? What kind of housing is it? Is it a safe and stable place for you to live? Or is it housing where you're surrounded by toxic people or domestic violence? And these are now questions that we ask already to get it in their heads that hmm, maybe I don't need to go back to my house with my abusive partner. Or my partner that I cannot stop putting my hands on."

New Beginnings Resource Guide on Tablets

You can also plan for your own reentry by using the New Beginnings Resource Guide shown earlier on this page! Thanks to Elena, this entire guide is available for everyone in the jail on the tablets that the jail provides. It's in the form of a giant Powerpoint organized by the different types of services, with working links to go to the webpages of different organizations. That way you can take a look on your own and really think about what you might want.

Image by Austin Neill
Image by Austin Neill

How did Elena create the tablet program?

Click the + for more information!

Now Elena starts setting up services for the client based on all the information gathered.

Sometimes, clients will work with Elena or their case worker to make a reentry plan, but don't seem committed to following it. Or sometimes, people are blunt about wanting to return to the behaviors and choices that got them in jail in the first place and have no interest in creating a reentry plan.


Elena still does whatever she can to help the person stay safe.

Despite best efforts with reentry planning, a lot of people do come back to jail. But Elena has built a really unique and impactful system at Albany county jail so that when people do come back, they can pick up right where they left off with her, their counselors, and their case worker. The information she tracks allows jail staff to track clients' progress, or decline, and intervene when necessary.

ISU consultation
Steps of program
How did Elena create this program??
(after creating the Resource Guide tablet program as an intern)

After intensively working on it 24/7 for months, Elena finished the tablet program. The professor who had originally gotten Elena connected with the jail asked the Sheriff what he was going to do next, and he hires Elena per diem.


Elena’s professor said "okay [Sheriff Apple], what are we going to do now? She's done, she's not going to get compensated from this anymore [with class credits]...and he goes ‘well, we could pay her part-time or per diem or something.’"

And finally, when Elena graduated with her Master's in Social Work and her J.D., the jail officially hired her full-time and she began officially running the program as she does now. The structure of the program she designed back in school hasn't changed too much - that was the beauty of the model she chose. Through extensive research and diving into the Albany community, both in the reentry manual and when she interned at the jail, she was able to really develop the best possible model. Plus, with the Risk Needs Responsivity model foundation, the assessments she uses track changes in the population in real-time. New Beginnings is designed to shift and change based on the responses to that assessment.

Why This Program Works and What It Works For

What success looks like in Albany's New Beginnings Program

Success in a reentry program is much more than just reducing recidivism rates. Recidivism is such a complicated thing - measured differently by different agencies, heavily affected by the services and benefits available in a community, and often not really meaning what we think it means. Parole violations, which include tons of things that are not crimes such as being late to an appointment or missing a curfew, make up a huge portion of recidivism. Violations make up an even larger portion in New York State. In 2019 New York State parole actually sent more people to prison for technical parole violations (specifically not new crimes) than any other state in the country, with parole violations making up 40% of prison admissions (Columbia Justice Lab). Many reentry programs try to have an impact on recidivism, and they do help many aspects of life that affect recidivism (like substance abuse and mental health), but most do not have an impact on the practices of parole as an institution. Many studies have also shown that what someone experiences during incarceration, like violence or high levels of stress, has an impact on mental health and readjustment post-release (Boxer et al. 2009, Schappell et al. 2016, Morin 2016, Wolff et al. 2007). Many reentry programs, like ABLE, do not have any control over what happens in the jail. In addition, the gaps in services, the poverty rate, shortages in affordable housing and housing services, inability to access government benefits, and high unemployment all affect recidivism. None of these things are really in the control of the reentry program - even a program designed to reduce homelessness will fail if there simply are no housing options or shelters. It may not be fair or accurate to use recidivism as the measure of success for a reentry program. Plus, a reduction in recidivism doesn't necessarily mean an improvement in quality of life. Not going back to jail doesn't mean someone got a job, or they got their kids back from Child Protective Services, or that they found somewhere to live instead of bouncing between emergency shelters.

In addition, a lot of reentry programs have common-sense positive impacts. Having a person who knows about the community and the services in the community to help you navigate release from jail will inevitably have a positive impact, even if it's not being measured. There's a quality of life improvement when someone commits to stand by folks as they navigate incarceration release, and a major culture shift in the surrounding community. There's tons of research at the national level proving there's a positive impact when someone is provided MAT, or able to talk honestly about what they're going through, or are provided tools to be more successful than they could be on their own. The reentry programs I researched had a variety of things to say when I asked how they thought about success.

Elena explained it's very hard to measure success because the information she has access to is very limited once people get back into the community. Usually after someone is released she will follow-up with the service providers, agencies, and appointments she set them up with to check if they made it to the appointment. Elena says this is a success, if the person makes it to the appointment. 

But beyond this, Elena's New Beginnings program and the work she does in Albany teaches us new things about the potential impacts of reentry programs.

Elena’s journey to build an entire reentry infrastructure in Albany County jail is a perfect example of how young people, and people new to the field, can launch into a career in reentry – and how we can revolutionize corrections and the infrastructure of jails through reentry. I believe in local, concrete change as a grassroots, ground-up approach to criminal justice reform. We can re-envision incarceration, punishment, and criminal justice with the people who run these deeply-embedded institutions through programs like New Beginnings. Elena is redefining the purpose of incarceration by weaving reentry into every stage of the incarceration process. Shouldn’t successful reentry be the true purpose of incarceration? Successfully moving back into the community, making healthy and safe decisions, and not going back to jail? Elena is making that a big focus.


There are many aspects of her program that could be adopted by any jail, at any time, as they often weave into existing processes required by New York State. This includes the comprehensive reentry assessment done at booking, which requires the jail to not only acknowledge and track the needs of the people they incarcerate, but to change what they do based on those needs. It also alerts other agencies to this situation - lots of social science research has shown the criminal justice system treats people who are poor, homeless, not Caucasian, and have mental health or substance use issues more harshly, and that social problems like poverty, homelessness, and addiction contribute to crime. Now Albany County jail has a system to track and measure this in their own community, proving the need for everything from government investment in housing and addiction programs to increasing Alternative to Incarceration programs. Criminology and social science research has questioned the structure and purpose of our criminal justice system for decades, and now Albany is using similar research done on a local scale to change the societal response to crime.


The stories she told me of specific people she’s worked with in the jail tell me that her and her program, now institutionalized into the jail, are disrupting generational cycles - from addiction and homelessness, to abuse, to basic lack of self-love and awareness of one’s own behavior. Through New Beginnings, everyone in the jail connects with someone on a one-on-one level to ask 'what do you need to be successful?' If they're ready, New Beginnings then helps them get there.


With the agencies she can connect people to, because of her special knowledge of the community and individual people’s lives from her position at the jail, she’s contributing to improvements in how community members interact and how the community as a whole heals. This, to me, is the potential of reentry in jails – you can gather information from one of the most vulnerable and harmed populations in the community, and develop or encourage targeted interventions based on what you learn inside the jail. Elena is able to gather information about what’s happening in the parts of the community that other social services or government agencies do not reach through her comprehensive assessments after Booking. Then she can develop targeted interventions both in individual people’s lives, like bringing in 518SNUG to a specific person affected by gun violence, and into the community. This opportunity for positive change is specifically relevant to jail reentry in NYS, because most people are being released back to the surrounding community – whereas those being released from prison are most likely not staying in the area.

She’s supporting new empathy-based community responses to conflict, violence, social problems, and crime at the community level from inside the jail system.

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