Criminal Justice Ministry: Rooted in Gospel message

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Heidi Moore knew that closure was needed. So she did what she had to do, even if it meant spending almost a whole day traveling through rural Missouri.

Moore was bringing one of the men in the Release to Rent program to his mother's gravesite, a place he had not been to before. His mother died several years earlier, while he was in prison. He was not present for her death, funeral or burial. His grieving was incomplete, and he needed to get beyond it in moving into the next stage of his life -- living independently, with the support of the Criminal Justice Ministry of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and determined to become a productive and law-abiding citizen.

They weren't even sure they had the right cemetery or where it was, but after stopping for directions, they found it.

The man visited the grave while the Criminal Justice Ministry staff member stayed in the car. It was his time to pour out his heart and tell his mother he was sorry he hadn't been there for her.

Release to Rent

Moore, a former parole officer who is coordinator of the ministry's Release to Rent program, said the men chosen for the program do not know where they will be living until after they are released from prison. That leads to pleasant surprises when they see their new apartments. "While the apartment is nicer than they thought," she said, "by no means are we putting them at the Ritz or a Downtown loft."

Moore, case manager Geno Martino or another staff member pick up the clients at the bus station or at the prison upon their release. Moore told of one man who will be released in 17 days and was getting nervous. "So I walked through what he more than likely will experience. Even in a grocery store, everything has changed since he went in (to prison). He went from three choices of milk to 10 choices, there's an aisle with two sides of chips ... It's overwhelming for them."

One man, she noted, hadn't been to a baseball game since Stan Musial was playing for the Cardinals. Another, age 68, had never written a check before.

"They get sensory overload. Smells, sounds, ringtones, people moving. In prison, you don't have anyone behind you. All of a sudden there's people pushing behind you. We try to talk through it, telling them, 'These are normal things, it's OK.'"

Safer for society

The program provides housing, assistance with job skills, budgeting, education referrals and 24-hour intensive case management for a year. Case managers are available for advice after that time. Many of the men continue to attend a support group or they volunteer.

Martino noted that people are being released from prison each day as they serve out their sentences or receive parole. The ministry has a history of keeping its clients from returning, about 94 percent of them, in fact -- a rate more than double than for those who do not take part in the program.

"We're helping make their transition easier, which makes society safer," Moore said. "They have someone to call, someone to walk them through getting a birth certificate or Social Security card ... just simple tasks they need to do in getting a job."

Links with other aspects of the ministry and partnerships with landlords, parole officers and others are essential. The men are able to show they are good tenants and renew their leases on their own.

Human connection

The Criminal Justice Ministry, formerly a program of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, recently became a separate nonprofit organization affiliated with the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The ministry starts with the human connection, said Sister Carleen Reck, SSND, director of the ministry. When the Criminal Justice Ministry started in 1979, there were no state prisons in the archdiocese, only city and county jails. The first state prison opened here was in Pacific in 1981.

The aim is for the men and women to come out of prison better prepared for their life ahead because they have met someone who will listen to them. Visits, classes, tutoring, programs and retreat days are offered within four prisons and 10 jails in eastern Missouri, and pen pals write to inmates in all the state's prisons.

The next step is to help meet their basic needs when they are released, working closely with parole officers. Bus tickets, clothing and basic hygiene items are distributed, and dress clothes are made available to them on release day. Help is provided on obtaining a birth certificate or state ID.

Because so many people were committing crimes again and returning to prison, the ministry decided to do more than meet basic needs. "Especially for those locked up a decade or so, the Rip Van Winkle types, they need more. So that's why we have the Release to Rent program, which is scattered housing with up to a year of very intense case management, and very strong support groups of their peers," Sister Carleen noted.

A year's worth of helping inmates get readjusted makes a big difference, Sister Carleen noted. Sometimes it may be simple help such as dealing with home appliances or technology.

A similar two-year program for veterans in partnership with the U.S. Veterans Administration began because many of the veterans' programs don't assist those with a criminal record. "They're dealing with whatever happened to them in the service and their criminal record," Sister Carleen said. "They can't even get somebody to rent to them if they have a felony."

Volunteers help

Sister Rose Rita Huelsmann, SSND, coordinates about 250 ministry volunteers -- in and out of the institutions. The volunteers who visit the prisons refer inmates to the help that is available to them once they leave prison. "One piece links with another piece to form a CJM circle of support," Sister Carleen said.

Another aspect of the ministry is advocacy work. The ministry believes this is important because funding cutbacks can result in obstacles that make transitions tougher for ex-inmates. The ministry helps legislators understand that the programs are important because parolees would be more likely to return to crime if they don't have someone to assist them.

The ministry offers an anger management class that fills a common need for those exiting prison. The class is held at no charge.

Just being known by someone who cares about them is a new experience for many of the ex-inmates, Sister Carleen said. They express their appreciation that someone has given them a chance and a sense of self-worth.

An example of what the ministry does is a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal for those who have no where else to go on that holiday.

"We are a ministry," Martino said. "Each and every one, through what we do, is introduced to God. That's a beautiful thing to do."

Moore said the introduction is accomplished through actions, not preaching. "Our group is a support group. It's not a Bible study. We don't pray unless someone asks us. We have all faiths, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, atheists ... it's done through the example of faith and works."

CJM by the numbers

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