Connecting With A New Life

Eye on LSSI, Summer 2007 ( Download PDF of entire publication)

A mother at Lincoln Correctional Center embraces her daughter with her grandmother/caregiver nearby. These visits are made possible by LSSI’s Visits to Mom program. “When the mom leaves prison, you don’t want her returning to her child as a stranger,” says Susana McLennan, who helps coordinate some of the prison visits.When Chicago police arrested Rebecca in October 2006 for possession of heroin, it was déjà vu for the 45-year-old. Her more than two-decade struggle with alcohol and drugs led to her first prison sentence in 2000 and then another incarceration in 2006. Released in February 2007 after spending a combined four months in the correctional system, Cook County Jail and the Illinois Department of Correction’s minimum security unit in Kankakee, Rebecca made her way back to the city to tackle the physical and emotional rebuilding of her life on the “outside.”

“While I’ve made bad choices and went to prison as a consequence of some of those choices,” shares Rebecca, “I am not a bad person.”

The paths that women take to losing their freedom vary widely, with many of them serving time for drugs, forgery and minor crimes. Although it’s important for society to enforce laws and punish those who break them, communities ultimately benefit from helping those affected by incarceration on both sides of the prison walls.

Incarcerated women frequently lack the services that will allow them to successfully re-enter the community, move forward and make positive choices in their lives for themselves and their families, according to Ranjana Bhargava, director of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois’ (LSSI’s) Connections program, part of the agency’s Prisoner and Family Ministry.

“If sustained support, focused referrals and resources are not available to these women,” Bhargava says, “all we are doing is sending them back to prison.”

Connections provides resources that empower women, reunify families, support caregivers and address the challenges that children of incarcerated parents — or as some have dubbed them, “invisible victims” — face. The program offers a wide range of services from transporting families to Illinois prisons to visit moms to presenting workshops that prepare former inmates to find jobs or attend school. Awareness about the program begins behind correctional facility doors, where Connections staff members educate women about the services they can tap into once they leave prison.

“We are the only social service agency meeting the needs of women prisoners and their families in the Chicago area,” remarks Bhargava, a pioneer in addressing domestic violence and founder of the first U.S. shelter for battered Asian women. “Every woman has a story that can bring you to tears. We don’t care why these women were in prison. Our only concern is helping these individuals move onward and upward.”

Over the past two years, some 500 formerly incarcerated women have contacted Connections’ Chicago office, with close to 70 percent becoming clients. In the program, participants must learn to become their very own best advocates to achieve their goals. The program has active links to more than 70 organizations that provide resources ranging from housing and food to eye glasses and mental health counseling. Connections staff members encourage self-sufficiency; they expect women to take responsibility by making appointments and following up on leads they receive.

“I am a guiding force to assist the ladies when they come to us, but it is ultimately up to the women to want to do something about helping themselves,” explains Martina Jackson, Connections case manager and substance abuse counselor. “They should not come to us for their man, their child or even their parole agent. They must learn to care about themselves.”

“As you imprison these women, you have to ‘un-imprison’ them,” remarks Jackson, who notes that lack of control and privacy come with incarceration, as well as feelings of uncertainty, shame and loss. “You have to move people from a mentality of imprisonment. Once you move the mind from being imprisoned, you can go anywhere.”

Skills for life

For recent college graduates or those seeking a career change, landing a new job takes work. Add a criminal record to the job application, and the task becomes even more daunting. Connections recently added resume and interviewing workshops to its menu of life skills programs to give formerly incarcerated women a leg up in the job market. The do’s and don’ts of interviewing, as well as role playing and practice interviews, are discussed.

Yolanda Walker-Johnson, a career transitions consultant, has led several resume development workshops for Connections clients, free of charge. She works with the women to bring forth their skills and strengths as individuals, and translate them into resumes that will lead to employment opportunities.

Another volunteer, Susan Olsen, created an interviewing workshop and recruited a fellow parishioner at St. James Lutheran Church in Lake Forest, Sue Thomas, to help her run it.

“Some of these women have never had a job and have no idea what to expect in an interview,” Olsen explains. “If a prospective employer asks about jail time, how should a person respond? If the woman avoids the question, she will not get the job. We help workshop participants learn how to positively frame some bad times. For example, a woman could talk about earning her GED while in jail or use her time working in the prison kitchen to highlight her ability to multi-task.”

“Even if participants don’t get a job as a result of the workshop, the experience helps raise their self-esteem,” adds Olsen. “They come out of the workshop believing they can do more than they could when they entered the room. That’s almost as good as having a good interview.”

For Olsen, this new venture extends her long-time commitment to volunteering with the Connections program. Some 15 years ago, she and her then-teenage son Todd began driving children and their caregivers to visit moms in prisons. Volunteers like Olsen have made it possible for LSSI’s Visits to Mom program to transport more than 20,000 children to Illinois prisons to see and touch their parents since the Connections program began in 1988 with its first trip to the Dwight Correctional Center. In 2006, 924 children with 450 caregivers visited 361 mothers in prison and 117 volunteers helped to transport families, according to Bhargava.

“Children are confused and hurt by a parent’s incarceration,” says Sr. Pat Davis, assistant director of Connections who’s worked with families affected by incarceration for the last 17 years. “They wonder, ‘Does Mom remember me? Will I get to see her for my birthday?’ Every time LSSI volunteers bring a child to visit his or her mother, some questions are answered.”

Susana McLellan, coordinator of trips to Dwight and Kankakee Correctional Centers, says, “The visits are important to both of them, because it gives them a chance to bond. When the mom leaves prison, you don’t want her returning to her child as a stranger.”

Another component of the Connections program focuses on reunifying families and supporting caregivers with parenting issues or the financial and logistical consequences of an expanded household. The effects of incarcerating one parent can reverberate through generations of family members who, very often, suddenly must care for confused and scared children left in the aftermath of an arrest. Maintaining positive relationships with relatives serves an important function in caring for the welfare of all involved and in helping formerly incarcerated women make the transition back into the community.

“Women who return to the community may feel that they are unwanted or a burden to their families,” says Bhargava. “If there is connection and communication, it makes all the difference.”

Caring for families

Trina, 42, understands the power of family ties. During her 18-month incarceration at Kankakee for residential burglary, this mother of two and grandmother of five relied on her younger sister Rona to care for her son Gerald, who was 12 at the time of Trina’s arrest.

“Rona has been very supportive of me,” says Trina, who has been using Connections’ services and hopes to go to school to become a barber. “My sister has told me [since my release] how proud she is of me. She knows that I am a go-getter. I am not going back to my old ways. It might take me a little more time to get to where I want to go, but I want to do things right this time.”

A bank business manager, ordained minister and motivational speaker, Rona has always taken an interest in her nephew’s life. When caring for Gerald fell to her, she gladly took him into her home in Calumet City.

“The experience affected me tremendously,” admits Rona. “I had just gotten married, and all of a sudden I had to move Gerald into our condo, readjust my schedule and enroll him in school.” Like other caregivers, Rona grappled with the finances of looking after an additional family member, such as finding adequate healthcare coverage for Gerald, as well as dealing with her nephew’s feelings about his mother’s incarceration.

“Gerald was angry with Trina,” acknowledges Rona. “I told him it was important to keep his relationship open with his mom. I tried to keep the situation positive.”

“There is no greater love than a caregiver who cares enough to share her life to help children stay in contact with their mother,” says Marilyn Hammond, coordinator of Connections’ Relatives as Parents Program (RAPP), a support group for caregivers.

“We are not performing miracles yet, but we are providing building blocks,” remarks Bhargava. “Our goal is to encircle these families with volunteers, resources, community partners — every available resource — so that they can remain a part of our world on the outside — a part of us.”

For information on Connections, call 312/567-9224, ext. 13.