Serving Those Who’ve Served Their Time
Catholic apostolates across the country help ex-offenders make the difficult transition out of prison life and back into society.
When Eric Schultz found out he was getting out of prison early, the 27-year-old remembers being full of anxiety and fear.
“I didn’t know where I was going to go,” said the St. Louis native, who had received a three-year sentence for crimes related to drug and alcohol abuse.
“I just thought I would go to the release center, which is notorious for just being a stopping place before one heads back to prison.”
However, his one sliver of hope was Gino Martinez, a case manager with Criminal Justice Ministry (CJM).
“Gino was a friend to me from the start,” said Schultz. “He visited me regularly and even ‘followed’ me as I transferred a couple of times.”
As Schultz’s release date approached in April 2012, Martinez told him about Release to Rent, a CJM program that aims to reintegrate ex-offenders into society over the long term by finding them affordable housing. Schultz was elated to find out that he had been accepted into the program.
“One morning I woke up in jail, and then I slept in my own bed that night,” Schultz explained. “It was incredible.”
Home Sweet Home
For more than 10 years now, Sister Carlene Reck, a School Sister of Notre Dame, has been the guiding force behind the Release to Rent program. The inspiration came from her observation that short-term programs for ex-offenders that offered those recently released basics like socks and hygiene kits, but not much else, weren’t enough. Most ex-offenders were back in trouble within a week of their release, she found.
“We needed to develop something to help men like Eric stay out of the prison system and thrive,” she told the Register.
To identify what could be done, Sister Carlene worked with a former prisoner who offered her firsthand knowledge about what needed to be in place to increase the likelihood of ex-offenders being successful in the long run.
“One of those things was scattered housing, as opposed to going to these halfway houses. Why put prisoners with prisoners or homeless with other homeless?” Sister Carlene asked. “Instead, we have collaborated with local ‘mom and pop’ landlords in the St. Louis area who are willing to see that these men succeed in society. So our men are then in a neighborhood, where they see people getting up and going to work and living ‘normal’ lives. There is a mentoring element to that.”
A National Effort
CJM is not alone in its work with ex-offenders. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) is another Catholic organization that has been running a similar apostolate for years.
The society’s efforts were recognized in November 2013, when the group received a $500,000 grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the U.S. bishops’ top anti-poverty program. According to Ralph McCloud, director of the CCHD, it’s the first new national grant in nearly 20 years, a result of the CCHD’s grant-review process in 2010.
Mike Syslo, the senior director of governance for the national Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said the grant is not going to initially fund existing ex-offender programs across the United States. Instead, it will help develop and create a more organized and unified approach to this ministry. This new approach is being called the National Ex-Offender Re-Entry Program.
“We are looking to establish some leadership and administrative roles and to look at what is working and how we can expand,” Syslo explained.
Breaking the Cycle
Linda Rae Kilderry agreed that programs that help ex-offenders become productive citizens are vital to ending the prison cycle. She is the director of homeless programs at Michael’s Place, a transitional housing program for ex-convicts who are homeless or suffer from drug and alcohol addiction. The Pittsburgh ministry is overseen and funded by the Society of St. Vincent DePaul.
“Studies show that individuals released from jails and prisons have a high risk of homelessness. Also, those who are homeless have a high risk of incarceration,” noted Kilderry. “By providing safe, drug-free housing, these high-risk individuals have a much better chance of breaking the cycle of recidivism and rebuilding their lives to become happy and productive citizens.”
Deacon Don Battiston, founder of the St. Dismas Prison Ministry in the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., says part of the problem is the dearth of rehabilitation programs inside prisons.
“The prison system isn’t really interested in [rehabilitation]. It is what I call the ‘great prison industrial complex.’ Why should they bother to have a smaller prison population when a larger population means more raises and good jobs?” the deacon explained.
Like similar ministries, a central mission of St. Dismas Prison Ministry is to do everything it can to prevent the recently released from ending up in their old neighborhoods, where it’s likely they’ll fall back into old criminal habits with their old crowd.
“We have a program called ‘Fresh Start.’ We offer them a duffle bag with shirts, pants, shoes two to three weeks before they are going to be released,” said Deacon Don.
He added that, for those prisoners who have followed the rules within the correctional system and have expressed an interest in more of a long-term program to help them integrate back into society, St. Dismas Prison Ministry will help find an apartment for them.
The deacon believes that, with the right support, even the most hardened ex-cons can become good citizens.
To highlight this point, he likes to tell the story of a man who had been in the prison system for 25 years for murder.
“We paid the security deposit and first month’s rent,” the deacon explained of the man’s post-prison experience. “He got a job as a welder, and he said, ‘Can I work a little harder to pay that money back?’ He felt obligated to pay that back. And it was just recently that I saw that he had finished his 10-year parole. It took 35 years; but it can be done.”
Animated by Catholic Faith
Whether it’s in Pittsburgh or St. Louis or Palm Beach, Fla., the Catholic faith animates the work of these ministries. However, personnel make it clear that the faith isn’t pushed on any of the program participants.
“There are no religious requirements to any of our programs,” said Kilderrry. “However, our programs are based on the 12-step program of recovery from addiction that stresses the importance of spirituality. A relationship with a [higher power] is critical in recovery.”
She added that many men enter Michael’s Place with no beliefs or a feeling of being abandoned by God, but, gradually, they move into regular church attendance.
“Others enter with strong religious commitments but need recovery from addiction. All are offered assistance in attending religious services,” she said.
Sister Carlene expressed a similar sentiment.
“The faith element is not imposed,” she said. “Our ministry comes from Catholic social teaching to help those in need. We do pray together at meals and at group meetings, but it is a nondenominational prayer.”
Criminal Justice Ministry’s hope is that, by the staff’s witness and example, those in the program will come to know Christ.
In Eric Schultz’s case, it worked. On Thanksgiving weekend of 2013, he received his first Communion. He knew that he had been baptized Catholic, but his faith life had ended there. Last fall, he went on a recovery retreat and prepared for his first Communion and confirmation at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis.
“While the material things, such as the apartment and clothing, all help,” Schultz said, “those things come and they go. Instead, a strong faith helps to pull all that together.”
His dream when he got out was to have a girlfriend, a car and a job.
“Those were my priorities,” he said with a smile. “Instead, I got Jesus.”
Register correspondent Eddie O’Neill writes from Rolla, Missouri.