Christmas came early for more than 50 children and their parents or guardians flown in from New Jersey on the New England Patriots’ private jet to attend Saturday’s game against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium.
Billed as a “holiday VIP experience,” the day’s activities were hosted by Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Michael Rubin, executive chairman of the online sports retailer Fanatics and Philadelphia 76ers part-owner. They are two of the founding partners of the REFORM Alliance, an initiative focused on overhauling what the organization calls a “broken” probation and parole system, and on freeing those they believe are unfairly behind bars.
All of the children -- ages 5 to 17 -- who attended have a parent or guardian who is or was in prison for technical probation violations, or had their probations extended due to technical probation violations.
“Seeing the smiles on their faces is wonderful. It’s beyond what I could have hoped for and is just really rewarding,” Kraft said after posing for pictures with the kids as they watched the teams practice on the field prior to the 4:30 p.m. kickoff.
He said it is “unfair” – especially during the holiday season – that children are separated from parents when oftentimes it was a technicality that landed the parents in jail in the first place.
The children who attended Saturday’s game started the day by being bused from their homes in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Harlem, and various cities in New Jersey to the NBA Store in New York City, where they were each given $500 to spend on merchandise and met with Rubin and fellow REFORM Alliance founding partners rapper Meek Mill (whose case sparked public outrage when he was imprisoned for nearly six months for a minor parole violation) and Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai. DJ Khaled and Brooklyn Nets player Caris LeVert were also on hand.
From there, the kids were whisked to Newark Liberty International Airport, where they boarded the Patriots jet and flew to Providence’s T.F. Green Airport. Team buses met them there and brought them (with a police escort) to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, where they gathered in the Patriots auditorium and met with Rubin and Kraft, who said that he was pretty certain that, since they were from other states, they were not Patriots fans, but “maybe the Patriots will be your second team.” (They were all given Patriots hats, scarfs, and other gear to wear.)
The Patriots owner said that he and the REFORM Alliance are “really committed to changing that system.”
“What I saw with Meek and have realized [happens too often] is that instead of letting people be productive members of society and earn money, pay taxes, etc., we are keeping them unjustly in prison,” Kraft said.
Also taking part in the day’s activities was Rachael Rollins, Suffolk County district attorney and REFORM Alliance advocate. Andre Tippett, the Patriots’ executive director of community affairs and Pro Football Hall of Fame member, was also on hand.
The kids and their parents/guardians – more than 100 in total – viewed the game from the field-level Optum Lounge, where they were served food and drinks as they watched the Patriots beat the Bills 24-17, to clinch the AFC East title for the 11th year in a row.
Jada Akins, 11, who lives in Philadelphia, had never been on an airplane prior to Saturday. “I was excited, but it was scary, too, because I don’t like heights,” said the sixth-grader. “I had never been to a game, either. I watched games on TV with my grandpa – he likes the Eagles – but being here is really cool.”
Akins attended the game with her younger sister, Trinydae, 8, and their father, Douglas, 32, who said an electronic glitch when trying to reach a probation representative added a month to his 2½-month sentence for drug possession.
“The work REFORM Alliance is doing is really important because a lot of the guys who are locked up haven’t done anything wrong,” he said, adding that Saturday’s event was “really special – especially right before Christmas.”
Rubin said the alliance was formed in the aftermath of Mill’s controversial prison sentence. He stressed the importance of educating people about the unfairness of the criminal justice system and the need to change laws.
Earlier this year, Rubin and Mill proposed a bill in the Pennsylvania Legislature to address issues relating to technical probation violations and revise some of the harsh penalties people receive while on probation. Rubin said he expects a vote on the bill by the end of January.
“This is long overdue,” he said. “We need to change the laws [regarding] the criminal justice system – especially when it comes to probation and parole.”