Portrait

6x8 Portrait is a research project that will explore the impact of mass incarceration on families in the New York City metropolitan area in a way that aims to trigger a national conversation on the topic. 

After years of addiction, Christopher Kennedy transforming into the ‘person of his dreams’

After years of addiction, Christopher Kennedy transforming into the ‘person of his dreams’

Christopher Kennedy, a bodybuilder and veteran, knows what it’s like to “do the time.” The 26-year-old has spent two of his birthdays in rehab and multiple nights in various county jails. After his 33-day sentence at Ulster County Jail, he decided to “get [his] life back” following years of battling depression and alcoholism while homeless or behind bars.

“I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror,” Kennedy said. “The last time I was in jail, I was like, this is it. I can’t do this anymore, my life is more important and this is not who I want to be.”

Kennedy was raised in the northern New York City suburbs of New Rochelle and Peekskill. His parents separated when he was two, and his mother raised him and his three brothers. He enlisted in the army when he was 17 and left for the military right after he graduated high school.

While there, he had a seizure and his mental health began to suffer. Kennedy became depressed and started to drink, use cocaine and smoke weed. He was still in the military at this time but wanted out, so he turned himself in for drug use. Six months after his seizure, he was released. Kennedy was just 20 years old.

“I was no longer in the Army, and I was happy but I was also very sad,” Kennedy said. “I felt like what I had set out to do was totally incomplete. I felt like a failure. Knowing there were people [in the army] that I knew that died, there was nothing I could do and I wasn’t there. Still feel guilty for it to this day. That was one of the main reasons why I turned to drinking.”

Kennedy said he became a full-blown alcoholic at age 22, resulting in him becoming homeless. He was frequently getting arrested for drinking in public, fighting, civilian misconduct and resisting arrest. He went to jail multiple times, typically for 24-hour periods.

“I’m talking to my girlfriend’s mom at the time, and she’s like, ‘We hadn’t heard from you, I just assumed you were in jail,’” Kennedy said. “I was like, what? I don’t want people thinking that if they don’t hear from me I’m locked up somewhere. I’ll never forget that, that she said that to me.”

When he got out of Ulster County Jail after his month-long sentence, Kennedy put himself in rehab at Samaritan Village, a facility in New York City that assists veterans. He was there for 17 months and left in December 2016.

“That summer [in 2017] was the first summer that I’ve had since I turned 21,” Kennedy said. “It kind of hit me, like, I’m free! I’m not in jail, I’m not in rehab.”

Kennedy met Derek Drescher, who later became his best friend, at Samaritan Village. Drescher introduced Kennedy to ConBody, a gym that hires formerly incarcerated individuals to teach fitness classes. Kennedy soon began working there as a personal trainer and found a solid support system through Drescher and other co-workers.

“I’ve gotten so much guidance [at ConBody],” Kennedy said. “Everybody here has had my back. If I ever needed to talk to anybody they were always there.”

Nicole Elias, a professor at John Jay College and Faculty Partner with the Prisoner Reentry Institute, teaches an independent study with formerly incarcerated students. Elias said that having a support system is vital for many people navigating reentry.”

Even though the momentum within the justice system is shifting toward a “rehabilitation perspective,” Elias said, the system needs incremental change toward deeper reform, which would include equipping individuals with basic resources and support systems they need while they are still in prison.

Kennedy said he is thankful for his job at ConBody and considers it “a ConBody family.” His rehabilitation hasn’t been easy, but he said he’s been able to overcome his addiction and encourage others who are in similar situations.

“I feel like it’s in my blood to be positive,” Kennedy said. “This is who I am. We can all do this, we can all make it. All I’m trying to do now is stay focused, I wanna be the person of my dreams.”

Recidivism is multi-faceted and depends largely on individual experience, said Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College in New York. Beyond simply reentry, Jacobs said that as a society, we need to examine why certain people get locked up.

“We think it’s in our common interest to talk about who we lock up,” Jacobs said. “We should see how you can keep someone in the community and partner with them to help their life rather than lock them up. That should be our first default.”

Kennedy said he admits that some of his arrests were him “being a knucklehead, fighting and being drunk and resisting arrest.” Other times, however, he felt the judges and cops didn’t give him a chance to explain his side of the story. In one instance, the judge kept raising the price of his bail every time he tried to speak.

“I spent over a month in county jail for nothing practically, because of the high bail,” he said. “I refuse to play the victim though. Justice is faulty. It’s definitely not always served. I think the whole system needs a reform, personally.”

Even though the momentum within the justice system is shifting toward a “rehabilitation perspective,” Elias said the system needs incremental change toward deeper reform, which would include equipping individuals with basic resources and support systems they need while they are still in jail.

“The first step is not waiting until reentry occurs,” Elias said. “The whole model of our prison system should be reconsidered for reentry.”

Kennedy said he is hoping to pursue his career as model and one day have a family. He has spoken at schools and on panels about his life story, respecting others and thinking positively. He said he is constantly working to “repair any bridges if they are broken, because you never know” if someone may need him as a supporter and friend.

“I never want to be behind a cell again,” Kennedy added. “Even when I was down, I still felt like, I’m going to be somebody someday. It finally started to happen. Here I am today.”


Interview by Madison Peace

Written by Cassidy Klein

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