Our Brothers’ Keepers in cooperation with Lutheran Prisoner & Family Ministry provide a holistic, multi-faceted approach that supports a returning citizens’ transition back into the community. Full integration in the community is demonstrated by a stable lifestyle whichincludes the necessary identification, dignified housing, and employment with reliable income, possession of life skills, a willingness to be sober / addiction free, and strong family and faith-based relationships. We have heard of many success stories through our work in this reentry ministry and will share some of these that we have been involved with.
Re-entry Program is ‘an Outlet for Good’ Ivan Carmona Interview at OBK/LSSI Reentry Opening
By Christopher Orlet, Editor of Messenger, Belleville Diocese
“If it weren’t for the re-entry program I’d be back in jail,” Ivan Carmona says.
Carmona spent seven years behind bars at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling. After his release he prayed he wouldn’t have to return to the streets of south Chicago. “I knew if I went back to Chicago I’d be right back in the same chaos,” he says.
Carmona’s prayers were answered. A social worker hooked him up with a re-entry program in Marion, Lutheran Prisoner and Family Ministry. The result has been life changing.
During those seven years of incarceration, Carmona studied botany and grew vegetables on the prison grounds. Now he grows food for local public schools and food pantries in the food deserts around Cairo as part of a green reentry opportunities program.
Carmona was one of those in attendance May 11 at the opening of a cooperative program that provides reentry services for ex-offenders. The new criminal justice ministry, sponsored by Our Brothers’ Keepers, which organizes re-entry services for the Diocese of Belleville; Lutheran Social Services, and New Life Community Church in East St. Louis, where the program is housed, is an example of three local religious groups coming together to make a difference.
“How fitting that these services are offered at a place called New Life,” says Father Christian Reuter, OFM, who along with Bishop Stanley G. Schlarman, started Our Brothers Keepers.
According to Lou Slapshak, OBK secretary, the new ministry connects ex-offenders with vital services that promote successful reintegration back into their community. Ideally, the services will give ex-offenders jobs skills and experience, a support system and a stable life.
“Without these things nearly all who are incarcerated will return to their communities without the necessary help and about half will be locked up within three to five years,” Slapshak says.
According to organizers, ex-offenders meet regularly with an outreach worker to create a plan for their future. All of their life needs are addressed, including employment, education, housing, personal needs and family relations. Services include a 23-day, computer-based program that covers all aspects of employment training, from resume writing to interview skills.
Father Reuter calls prisoner reentry–from death in confinement to freedom in society–one of the pathways to new life. “Reentry ministry makes us midwives for rebirth,” he says.
Meanwhile, Slapshak says Our Brothers Keepers is moving forward with plans to build a re-entry home in East St. Louis that will house six ex-offenders who will live as a family. “We’re providing the services first, but we will continue the search for the home,” he says.
Carmona, who has two young daughters, says the program “gave me an outlet to put my energies to something good.”
Personal Testimony from John Steve a Returning Citizen
Presented to the East St. Louis Planning Commission November, 2017
Lutheran Social Services of Illinois through their Prisoner and Family Ministry has provided housing for me and others when I had nowhere else to go. Prisoner and Family Ministry gave me affordable housing. At the time I was very grateful that they gave me a chance that others didn’t. To house someone in need who is trying to relocate is very critical so that they can restart their lives. Many doors/opportunities probably would not have opened if I had to return back to the South side of Chicago (Back to the Yards).
I had the opportunity and privilege to not only as a resident but be a mentor to those who were lost and or confused about what they wanted in life. I was able to form relationships and help them by guiding/leading them along with the support of Prisoner and Family Ministry.
I then learned to share hope, strength, and experience with someone who was in the same position such as me. It was not only worthwhile, but intended for me. It gave me encouragement, inspiration and strength to keep my eye on the prize. My best experience from the housing program I took with me was knowing that because of the program, people received a chance, received a job, made the decision to start school, help others, restore relationships with love ones and most of all with themselves!
Columbia man credits prison ministry for getting life on track
Story Credit: Belleville Messenger
For most of his adult life John Woods was known as Prisoner No. B27737.
Woods, 45, has been in and out of the Illinois and Missouri prison systems since the early 90s.
“I would always end up back behind bars within a month or two for using drugs or committing burglaries,” he said.
However, on a recent chilly February morning Woods was marking his 64th day of freedom. He was paroled from Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center in East St. Louis (the former Assumption Catholic High School) in October.
“This is the longest I’ve been out and not used drugs or done anything illegal since 1993,” he said.
Woods said he owes it all to the Office of Prison Ministry, one of the ministries supported by The Catholic Service and Ministry Appeal. Prison Ministry brings Catholic service and perspective to those affected by incarceration in the 28 counties in the Diocese of Belleville, including their families, victims and communities.
“John is a good example of when prison ministry works,” said Father Christian Reuter, OFM, Prison Ministry coordinator.
Woods recently got a job driving a truck for a glass company in Missouri and on Sundays he attends Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Columbia where he lives with his mother. “I’ve been getting lots of compliments from my family and from old friends who are also working hard to straighten out their lives,” he said.
Woods was raised a Roman Catholic and attended grade school at St. Catherine Laboure in Cahokia, but had to leave because he required special schooling which could only be had at the public school.
In his teens he got involved with the wrong crowd, began using drugs and committing burglaries to pay for the drugs.
That was pretty much his life story until one day when he found himself locked in a dorm with 24 other prisoners in a prison. “I had a problem with a guy and for some reason I started praying. I said ‘God, if you leave this guy in this room I’m going to put my hands on him.’
Soon after that they called his name and took him to another housing unit.”
It was a wake up call for Woods. He started attending Mass and Bible study.
Soon after that he began volunteering to help out at Mass and served as the unofficial sacristan and lector at the regular Masses celebrated each Wednesday.
“He was highly regarded by every priest, deacon and lay volunteer who were a part of our rotating ministry schedule at the correctional center,” said Father Reuter.
In October Woods was confirmed at SWICC by Bishop Stanley Schlarman.
“I knew my mom would like it,” he said. “I was looking for another way to live, for a meaning to life. Suddenly everything changed for the good. I came to the understanding that I don’t need chemicals to live, that I am still a person even though I have a past. Father Reuter and the deacons and lay ministers really opened my eyes and my mind to a better way of living. From here to there it’s a whole other world.”
“Every one has his own path as to how they do this,” Father Reuter said.
On a recent day, John’s mother texted him: “This is the John I always prayed for.”
“Me too,” he texted back.
My life has been a complete 360 journey … A full circle!
I am Dar Bryant and my story traces a path from being a young Christian man, to being a pariah in my home town, to being one of the most wanted criminals in the state of Arizona, and journeying back again from the pits of hell. My life has been a complete 360 journey .. A full circle.
My story is about drugs, prison, and a relationship with Jesus. At one time I had a $300 drug habit, manufactured meth and dealt with coyotes, counterfiters and drug dealers. My life came to a halt when the Federal authorities caught up with me and I was looking at 25 years. I was lucky that some of the sentences ran concurrent and I got 7 years. I was at a prison in Arizona and began to talk to God and made a lots of promises that I would change my life.
However, when I got out in 31/2 years I fogot about God and had a good 5 years clean, but later when I got the opportunity to get high I ended up back in prison for 1 year. When I got out they told me that they would be watching me and if I get caught again with 3 strikes & out I would go away for a long time.
I decided to come back to Illinois and my sister invited me to live in a rural community. I bean to attend the local church called the River of Life and all welcomed me, but they did not really know about my past. One Sunday at church they sang Amazing Grace and I was overwhelmed with emotion and cried. Three weeks later I came back to church and they sang the Revelation Song and I was again overwhelmed by a water shed of tears.
The Pastor of River of Life Family Church (Alton, Illinois) came to me and said that God had sent me to pray for you, God loves you and has never given up on you. I have went through the garbage & junk of life so today I can share my story – all things work for God. I should be dead, but the holy Spirit never left me. Now I look at the photos of my family and see my blessings in the church, my wife and many friends that I have made in this short time. I remember most my Grandma who never gave up on me and would invite ladies to her house to pray for me.
I have come from the pits of hell and rescued by God so that I could share my story of making a 360 turnaround and this could only have occurred through the guidance of a loving Father (God).
Make Good Choices – Don’t Let Your Past Define Your Future
I am Victor Gaskins and work at St. Leonard’s Ministry (Chicago, IL) as the program director for St. Leonard’s House. St. Leonard’s House is a residential housing facility providing services and programs for formerly incarcerated men leaving the Illinois prison system and returning to the community. The goal of the program is to help participants rebuild their lives and reshape their future.
My story is about having the opportunity to make good choices about my future, but instead living in Chicago involved with a gang, I made bad choices. My choice of not telling on someone (being a snitch) caused me to spend 23 years in prison. Early on in prison I came to the decision that I would not come out an angry man with the idea that society owed me something, instead I promised myself to leave prison a better person then when I entered.
I must admit that making good choices is really hard when you grow up in a crime ridden city, no jobs, gangs, drugs, and single parent homes. In this environment, these bad choices look like good choices. I can sell drugs to get money to feed my family and I don’t force anyone to buy them.
Remember that our past does not define who we are or our future. It was up to me to make the good choices that would lead me to a new way of life.
Currently I am a member of the Advisory Board of Our Brothers’ Keepers of Southern Illinois and able to assist OBK in housing protocols, screening methods and reentry operational needs.
Video by Victor Gaskins (St. Leonard’s Ministry)
Inmates Helping Inmates to Read
This success story is about a program develop by Poverty Services of the Diocese of Belleville, IL to provide inmates with reading skills necessary to continue their education. Inmates that are able to read are trained in the reading lesson plans by reading teachers from the local community college. Working with the adult eduction staff at Centralia Correctional Center, inmates who are not able to read at a satisfactory reading level are able to work with trained inmates to assist them to read. The success of the program was realized by Centralia achieving the highest percentage of inmates leaning to read in the State of Illinois. The success of the program is related to the peer to peer trust between the inmate tutor and the inmate student. The outstanding support, encouragement and coordination of the inmate tutors by IDOC staff.
The exceptional inmate tutor training by the local Kaskaskia College and Rend Lake College adult educators. The program is based not only on the tutor aiding a student with his assignments and grading tests, but the tutor also inspires and maintains a student’s will to learn by establishing a tutor/mentor-student relationship.
This brief story of Robert is similar to many stories of those incarcerated who have left home for many reason as a result of addiction, abuse and many other factors. The problem is that their baggage does not go away on its own, but continues to plague them and shuts out the social and spiritual growth that maturity requires. A big part of the picture is anger that continues to fester in their daily lives until it explodes and leads to trouble. Robert led a life where “I can do whatever I want to do” without any concept of how my living was affecting others in the life and community.
The moment of change began when I accepted the process of dealing with drug and alcohol addiction through the Alcoholics Annonymous process. The process required that I would do the work and follow directions. The enlightment was a process and gradually I would see things differently. I just did the work and God changed me. The story of recovery is about persistence and action and the “mystic recovery” is a miracle in my life and the reason that I am here today.