Tribute For Vanee Sykes, Ex-Prisoner Who Helped Others Rejoin Society, Dies at 53


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Vanee Sykes was at a crossroads in 2014. She was 47 and had just been released from a federal prison after serving a term for her involvement in a scheme to steal food stamps.

During her time in prison, her husband of 20 years, James Sykes, a social worker, died of an unexpected illness. Her three children were making the transition from childhood to adolescence without a parent.

But Ms. Sykes was thankful for a family to go home to. Many of her fellow prisoners, she knew, had to face the stark challenges of re-entry on their own. She decided to help.

She and Topeka K. Sam, a friend she had met in jail, received a gift from a generous donor to open a halfway house in the Bronx for single women who were newly released from prison. They called it Hope House, with space for five women, and it provided Ms. Sykes with a new career helping others.

She died on May 24 at a hospital in Oceanside, N.Y., on Long Island. She was 53. Family members said the cause was Covid-19.

Vanee Sykes was born in Brooklyn on Jan. 17, 1967, to Aron and Ethel Abrams. Her mother was a schoolteacher, her father a dental technician. Ms. Sykes earned a bachelor’s degree from the American College of Applied Arts in Atlanta, where she studied marketing and fashion.

After graduation she found a job at New York City’s Department of Human Resources, which administers antipoverty programs.

In 2010, while she was an administrator at the agency, the federal authorities accused her and three others of running an operation that converted food stamps into cash, reaping $8 million. Ms. Sykes pleaded guilty. She was sentenced to 63 months in prison and ordered to pay $6.6 million in restitution; court officials said she had repaid $6,530,980.

Ms. Sykes had remained involved in the lives of her children from inside the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., speaking to all three of them daily, her mother said.

In addition to her mother, Ms. Sykes is survived by two sons, Jeffrey, who is in the real estate business, and James IV, a teacher working with special-needs children; and a daughter, Alexis, who won a basketball scholarship to the University of South Alabama before transferring to Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

After her experience with Hope House, Ms. Sykes was hired as the director of outreach for a prison reform organization, Witness to Mass Incarceration.

Part of her job was working on the Suitcase Project, which provides women and gay and transgender people newly released from prison with a suitcase of essentials: clothing, shoes, a cellphone with a year’s service, hygiene and beauty products, and a laptop computer.

At her death Ms. Sykes was working with others on plans to create another halfway house, this one big enough for a dozen women, in Brooklyn.

Evie Litwok, who founded the Witness to Mass Incarceration project, estimated that Ms. Sykes had helped 100 former prisoners find lodging and support.

Michelle Miles, a former inmate mentored by Ms. Sykes, remembered her with emotion. “When she came into your presence,” she said, “you felt her compassion.”



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