When Keith Hunter was released from prison in 2020, it took him two-and-a-half years to secure the keys to his own apartment.

Having a stable roof over his head gave Hunter, whose criminal record includes a slew of robbery convictions, a sense of stability after spending more than half of his life in the prison system.

But for several months, he felt unsettled, unable to furnish his Brooklyn apartment with little more than the single bed and two nightstands that came with the unit. Then, he connected with the nonprofit organization Gift It Away, which provides furniture donations for formerly incarcerated people. 

With the organization's help, Hunter was able to fill his apartment with donated items — including a couch, futon, dresser and coffee table — to make it feel like a home.

Now, for the first time, the 64-year-old says he has everything he needs to successfully stay out of prison.

“Finally, I came home from jail and I had help instead of just throwing me to the wolves,” he said. "As long as I have somewhere I can lay my head, and to have keys to an apartment that I never had when I was in prison, I have peace here.”

'Furniture poverty'

Gift It Away was started by Vanessa Santiago in 2022. Santiago, who served 22 years in prison herself for a second-degree murder conviction, now spends her free time arranging furniture donation pickups and drop-offs for other people who have recently been released from prison, to help them avoid what she calls “furniture poverty.”

The bare trappings of a sink, toilet and mattress can often remind formerly incarcerated people of their prison cells, the 42-year-old said. 

“When you have an empty apartment, it makes you feel almost like you're in prison again,” she said. 

Having a furnished home allows those who are reentering society from the criminal justice system to invite people over and rebuild social ties — a vital element of reintegration that benefits their mental health and well-being, Santiago said.  

“When you bring furniture into your home, it feels like a homely place — you belong here, you don’t belong in a cell,” she said. 

When Santiago was released from prison in 2020, she struggled to find stable housing. 

After leaving a domestic violence situation and living in a shelter for three months, she was finally able to secure housing on her own in Queens.

But her road to rehabilitation was still a steep, uphill climb from there. Without the funds to furnish her new apartment with more than an inflatable mattress on the floor, her mental health took a hit, she said.

She said rebuilding social ties was hard when she felt she couldn’t host anyone in her home.

“You're embarrassed,” she said. “It brings embarrassment. It brings shame.”

She first came up with the idea for Gift It Away not long after she was released in 2020. Working as a case manager for senior citizens, she said she kept receiving calls about furniture people wanted to donate, but the organization she worked for did not have the capacity to do anything with it. 

That’s when she decided to rent a truck and take action on her own. Her first delivery was last September.

An aging prison population

Hunter secured his apartment through The Osborne Association, a statewide advocacy organization that provides resources and programming for people involved in the criminal justice system. 

The organization owns 52 units in a building on Chester Place in Brooklyn, and usually provides each resident with a bed, mattress and nightstand. 

But filling the rest of the home with furniture can often be costly. And for older people who are struggling to find work or have physical ailments that make it difficult to carry furniture up and down stairs, the obstacles are even steeper, Santiago said.

“What happens is, when you lack the necessary things, you can't sleep properly, you can't function, can’t go to work the right way if you have a job,” she said. “But for the elderly, it’s even harder.” 

Most of the people who receive furniture from Gift It Away have served long sentences and are over the age of 50. The state comptroller's office and many advocates consider that age range elderly because prison conditions accelerate the aging process.

People who have been incarcerated are at higher risk for chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, than the general population, according to a City Council report released earlier this year.

Also, a 2021 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that spending time in jail or prison can speed up the aging process by an average of 11 months past someone’s actual age.

In February, the City Council held a hearing focused on formerly incarcerated people above the age of 55. At the hearing, members of the Committees on Aging and Criminal Justice called on the state to pass two bills that would bring changes to the parole system.

The Fair and Timely Parole Act, an iteration of which was first introduced in 2017, would allow the parole board to release a person from prison based on behavior and merit. 

And the Elder Parole Act would make anyone over the age of 55 who has served 15 years in prison eligible for a parole hearing. The state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision considers incarcerated people “older” when they turn 55.

Currently, a majority of those who are eligible for parole in New York are denied. In 2019, 40% among those eligible were granted parole in New York, according to the Vera Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization.

In 2020, it was 41%, the organization said. 

By the time prisoners are released, many are older and further removed from the social networks and communities they left behind. 

“When you have somebody incarcerated for that amount of time, when they come out, they're at such a disadvantage,” Brooklyn Councilmember Crystal Hudson, who chairs the Committee on Aging, said. 

That can make successful reintegration even more difficult.

Formerly incarcerated people often have steep learning curves when it comes to using smartphones and computers, and their large gaps in work history can become barriers as they try to land new employment, advocates say.

Each year over the past decade, roughly 800 to 1,100 people returned to New York City after serving time in the prison system, according to a City Council report. And that city is often a much different landscape than the one they left decades ago.

“You're just dropped in New York City, of all places, and expected to just fend for yourself with essentially nothing — no money, no place to go, no secure housing, no job — and you're told to just figure it out and make it all happen,” Hudson said.

That’s why rebuilding social ties after being isolated for so long is a major part of successfully reintegrating, according to criminal justice experts. And the ability to host people in a home that has more than a bed and a nightstand can make a big impact.

Hunter, who first went into the prison system at 29, said his new home makes him feel like a full “citizen” again, equipped to fully reintegrate back into society.

“I can feel good about seeing my family coming here and spending time. They were happy to sit on the futon,” he said. “It gives you something to live for.”

A commitment to give back

Santiago started working part-time for Release Aging People in Prison about a year and a half ago. The grassroots advocacy organization is made up of formerly incarcerated people and family members of people in prison who advocate for the release of incarcerated elders.

Director Jose Saldana said Santiago’s commitment to giving back to others stood out to him. 

“She survived everything, including imprisonment, and now she wants to help others make the same transition back to society,” Saldana said. “That spoke volumes for me.”

“I think she's gonna go far as a community leader in our society,” he added.

Gift It Away is entirely volunteer-run and donation-based. Currently, she owns a single van to transport furniture but she’s hoping to raise enough funds to lease out a storage space.

Santiago credits her transformation to the college programs offered in prison that allowed her to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. 

The various classes offered, including art, public speaking and theater “opened up my mind and helped me see a different world than the one I was living in,” she said.

It’s why she decided to devote her life to giving back to others.

“I’m not just giving back to just anybody — it’s the people that I know went through the same things I went through,” she added. “I strongly believe people have endured traumas in their lives that led them to become criminals.”