Helping Returning Citizens Grow Beyond the Past

Eye on LSSI, Winter 2012 (Download PDF Download PDF of entire publication)

Tim O’Boyle, Reentry Services case manager (left), talks with client Steve Stull, who is celebrating eight months of sobriety. Credit: Steve JahnkeErnest Hale knows something about how things grow, perhaps because he was a late bloomer himself. Now a 49-year-old father of five, Hale leans back thoughtfully in his chair as he recounts his early days on Chicago’s West Side, where he failed to notice the poverty of his youth only because it was all he had ever known. Later, as a young man, he left that life at the first opportunity, accepting a sudden invitation from his sister to move to Carbondale at the opposite end of the state. There, he planned to make a new life.

Things didn’t work out quite that way. Arriving in 1992, Hale quickly found trouble, and he spent the next several years moving in and out of courtrooms, facing charges ranging from drug possession to domestic battery. In 2000, everything fell apart, and Hale was sentenced to 160 months in federal prison for possession of cocaine — this after countless stints on probation. He spent the next several years at the medium security prison in Pekin, where he searched his soul and came to a conclusion.

“While in prison, I took a hard look at my life, and I decided enough is enough,” Hale says. “That’s when I decided I was either going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. It was either one extreme or the other. There are no gray areas. I decided I wanted to be a man trying to make something out of his life.”

Hale left prison in March 2011, determined to grow as a man but unsure of how precisely to do it. Returning to southern Illinois with little more than the clothes on his back, he spent several weeks at a halfway house in Marion, weighing his limited options. One day, the public telephone there rang. Hale picked up, except the call was not for him, but for another resident.

The caller, Tim O’Boyle, a case manager for Reentry Services, a program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), knew a few things about growing beyond the past and struck up a conversation with Hale. O’Boyle had also spent time in prison following assorted problems with drugs and alcohol but had been busy re-establishing his life since his release in 2008. He stayed “clean” and earned a college degree at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, before becoming a case manager at LSSI.

Eventually, the phone conversation with O’Boyle put Hale on a path that fundamentally altered the former convict’s life, connecting him with Reentry Services.

‘We understand they have barriers’

LSSI’s Reentry Services are provided for returning citizens — people returning home from prison — by people who have returned home from prison. Run from a small office suite on Main Street in Marion, the program, headed up by Mike Davis, seeks to provide assistance and resources to prisoners attempting the difficult work of reintegrating with society. From finding food and shelter in the days following release to getting education and employment in the months and years that follow, the program lends assistance coupled with empathy for people who may have nowhere else to go.

Ernest Hale (left), coordinator of Green Reentry Opportunities (GRO), works with Housing Coordinator Denny Donaldson on re-designing the GRO slideshow presentation that Ernest will present to Employment Skills School students. Credit: Steve Jahnke“One of the biggest things we do is provide a helping network,” O’Boyle says. “Clients get out, and they’ve alienated and burned their bridges. They have nobody who really cares for them. We show them unconditional positive regard. Number one, we understand their situation. We understand they have barriers.”

These barriers are both large and small. Mary McGhee, who became a case manager after previously having worked as a corrections officer, sees her work as problem solving — helping people get birth certificates, Social Security credentials, bus passes, decent housing and even prescriptions for eyeglasses. Later, as a former prisoner progresses, opportunities to participate in LSSI’s Employment Skills School or Scholarship Trades Program also open up. The assistance is always free and empathetic, O’Boyle says, but it only extends as far as a client is willing to extend him- or herself.

“If I give somebody an opportunity, and he messes it up, I’m just going to go to the next person,” he says. “They obviously don’t need it that bad. Is it cold and cruel? Yes, but it’s a process that individuals have to go through that will help them transcend their barriers and become law-abiding citizens.”

Funding for Reentry Services is a collaborative effort between the CSAC contract (Community Support Advisory Council) with the Illinois Department of Corrections, philanthropic foundations and an agreement with AmeriCorps. “This mix of revenue is a strength of the program,” says Jane Otte, executive director of LSSI’s Prisoner and Family Ministry.

While a number of opportunities are available to former prisoners, personal responsibility remains a key component, Otte says, and the organization is not yet fully equipped to help with the development of some foundational skills, including literacy.

“We give them food, clothing, shelter, whatever they need, but they have to show initiative,” Otte says. “They have to show they’re willing to do the work. If they fall off the grid, if they mess up, they can come back to us, and we’re always here. They just have to prove themselves.”

A focus on restorative justice

Otte speaks of the difference between retributive justice and restorative justice — of allowing people to make amends for their past through constructive, progressive acts rather than through mere punishment for the past. Ernest Hale heard the call. Out of prison for less than a year, Hale has been through Employment Skills School, worked in the LSSI office on a 90-day scholarship and reconnected with his two youngest children in Carbondale.

Now living in nearby Herrin, he works full-time at LSSI as a coordinator for Green Reentry Opportunities (GRO) — as a VISTA volunteer — a branch of the program that puts former prisoners to work growing and maintaining community gardens. It’s not something that would have interested him at all as a younger man in the concrete jungle of the big city.

Otte says Hale’s personal growth since leaving prison has been incredible. “Ernest truly epitomizes a person who, in my opinion, wanted to change — and not just had the desire, but understood the change necessary,” Otte says. “Ernest understands internally why he wanted to change, but he also understands externally why the community needed him to change. That kind of an internal and external understanding doesn’t always happen.”

Hale admits freely that he used to be nothing more than “a bum.” Now, something is changing in him, and he felt supreme satisfaction at helping with a vegetable harvest earlier last fall, and then seeing that food taken to an area soup kitchen and prepared for hungry people. Learning to work with the dirt, and what he can make come out of it, has been a life-changing experience for him.

“Seeing this stuff come out of the ground by my hands and transported over to the place, actually washed and prepared and served, it was really a good feeling to know I was starting to be this individual who’s making a difference in the lives of others,” he says. “I've kind of caught the bug. I wouldn’t trade this for the world, and I’m so thankful God allowed my feet and my path to be set in this direction.”

Reentry Services

Reentry Services, a program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), springs from principles aimed at helping former prisoners restore their lives and place in society while making meaningful contributions to the world around them.

“People who come to our program give their most, and we give our most,” says Jane Otte, executive director of Prisoner and Family Ministry. “It’s not just us helping someone. We learn from them, and they learn from us. We tell them, ‘You are our family.’”

Reentry Services include:

Green Reentry Opportunities (GRO): Returning citizens, with the assistance of the University of Illinois Extension, work with churches and community organizations to grow and maintain community gardens for the benefit of local food programs.

Employment Skills School (ESS): With a teacher-student ratio of about 1:3, this program, conducted with assistance from Southern Illinois University Work Force Development, provides a 23-day program aimed at building resume and interview skills, among others.

Scholarship Trades Program (STP): Working with groups including the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity, STP provides returning citizens with scholarships.

Building Homes: Rebuilding Lives: Prison inmates assist in creating housing components to be used in the construction of homes for low-income families. Since 1995, more than 6,000 inmates have used the program to develop trade skills for life after incarceration.

Case management: Returning citizens meet with case managers to assess needs and refine goals on a number of fronts, including those dealing with employment, education and family relationships.

For more information about Prisoner and Family Ministry, call 618/997-9076.