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Inside A Haunted House Hosted By Former Inmates

Journey into a haunted house where former inmates are the ones bringing the frights.

Last updated on October 31, 2017, at 7:49 p.m. ET

Posted on October 31, 2017, at 7:49 p.m. ET

Fortune Academy staff package candy to give away at their annual haunted house in Harlem.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Fortune Academy staff package candy to give away at their annual haunted house in Harlem.

In Harlem, New York, a rehabilitation program aimed at assimilating former inmates into society has found a unique (and spooky) way to help bridge the gap between incarceration and the community. For the last 15 years, the Fortune Academy has hosted a haunted house to ensure that not only its residents feel comfortable outside of prison, but that the community of Harlem feels safe living among the formerly incarcerated.

New York–based photographer Gabriela Bhaskar was there this Halloween to document the event and show firsthand what it's like to enter a haunted house organized by former inmates. Here, Bhaskar speaks to BuzzFeed News about the program and what it means for its residents.

These pictures reveal how inclusive community-building and adequate resources can positively impact formerly incarcerated people's reestablishment into society and the community at large.

While working on a long-term story about access to housing for women post-incarceration, the haunted house was something someone mentioned in passing that really exemplified a lot of things I have been reporting. To me, it shows how a feeling of inclusion really builds safe, secure communities.

Residents of the Fortune Academy joke together as they decorate the exterior of the building.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Residents of the Fortune Academy joke together as they decorate the exterior of the building.

Faux gravestones are placed in the garden outside of the building.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Faux gravestones are placed in the garden outside of the building.

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The Fortune Academy, a nonprofit halfway house, opened in 2002 and is home to 60 formerly incarcerated people, providing a safe, secure, and permanent housing option with supportive programs to reestablish its residents into society. But before the organization was allowed to open, it was met with opposition from existing neighbors who worried about living in proximity to people they saw as criminals. In response, the Fortune Society has worked to ensure that nearby residents feel safe and secure in the neighborhood.

One of these efforts is the yearly haunted house they host that puts candy into the hands of more than a thousand children. Not only has Fortune Academy proven to neighbors that its residents can be trusted, this has also been an opportunity for its tenants who were recently released. Patricia Howard, who was just released from Taconic State Prison in September, says she feels connected to a community, instead of shunned. This positive relationship, she and other residents have said, is vital to their assimilation.

Fortune Academy staff members package candy to give away at the annual haunted house in Harlem.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Fortune Academy staff members package candy to give away at the annual haunted house in Harlem.

In years past, between 1,100 and 1,200 kids have come to visit the Haunted House on Halloween. I was surprised at how many people attend this event! The home's residents are often demonized and feared, but somehow the Fortune Academy, or "the Castle" as it's fondly called, has built solid and trusting relationships with its neighbors.

The road can be long for many of the formerly incarcerated, and it can have bumps along the way. Many of the residents I’ve met ultimately want to lead productive lives and feel fulfilled but they don’t have the resources to do it alone. I hope people will realize that these are people first, that being incarcerated is a demoralizing and isolating experience, and that with adequate support, reentry and rehabilitation are much more successful, impactful, and beneficial to our whole community.

Patricia Howard, who was released from the Taconic Correctional Facility in September, prepares for the Fortune Academy haunted house by hanging decorations.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Patricia Howard, who was released from the Taconic Correctional Facility in September, prepares for the Fortune Academy haunted house by hanging decorations.

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A glow-in-the-dark spider is hidden among the decorations.
Gabriela Bhaskar

A glow-in-the-dark spider is hidden among the decorations.

Left: Howard blacks out the walls before the children arrive. Right: Decorations including spider webs and the Grim Reaper are placed throughout the building.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Left: Howard blacks out the walls before the children arrive. Right: Decorations including spider webs and the Grim Reaper are placed throughout the building.

Howard (right) and fellow resident Greg discuss plans for the haunted house decorations.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Howard (right) and fellow resident Greg discuss plans for the haunted house decorations.

A decorative spider hangs from the walls of the haunted house.
Gabriela Bhaskar

A decorative spider hangs from the walls of the haunted house.

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Howard unfurls a ghost decoration to be hung outside the building.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Howard unfurls a ghost decoration to be hung outside the building.

Decorations are set up in the gardens outside the building.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Decorations are set up in the gardens outside the building.

Residents, and children of the staff get into position before the Haunted House opens at The Fortune Academy.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Residents, and children of the staff get into position before the Haunted House opens at The Fortune Academy.

Leos Cisse, 2, holding his grandmother's hand in line to enter the Fortune Academy's Haunted House.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Leos Cisse, 2, holding his grandmother's hand in line to enter the Fortune Academy's Haunted House.

Kids from the neighborhood lining up for their turn in the Haunted House at the Fortune Academy in Harlem, New York.
Gabriela Bhaskar

Kids from the neighborhood lining up for their turn in the Haunted House at the Fortune Academy in Harlem, New York.

To see more of Gabriela Bhaskar's work, visit her website here. To learn more about the Fortune Academy, visit its website here.


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