SLU initiative at jail removes barriers to success

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Joseph Jones, a maintenance technician at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, stopped by a McDonald's for lunch Nov. 8 to find one of the graduates of the St. Louis University Transformative Justice Initiative working there. He'd heard about her success in being productive and staying sober since being released from the institution.

"I'm so proud of you," he told Juanata Jones, who was released from the jail about three months ago. Thanks to the SLU initiative and its partners, she has a place to stay, is working on getting an apartment, attends group counseling and meets weekly with her advocate to review the skills she's learned from the initiative.

Juanata spent 10 months in the jail for an offense she said stemmed from substance abuse. She raved about the SLU initiative, saying "I want to stay with the program the rest of my life."

Sometimes Juanata and others who've completed the program need to work on simple skills, "but when you've been incarcerated and disconnected from everyday life, some of those things may be a little scary or your memory may have lapsed," said Brittany Conners, community occupational therapist with the initiative.

Topics Conners covers include communication and conflict-resolution skills and how to get help in removing barriers to success. Juanata already has qualities such as hard work and dedication, Conners said.

St. Louis University partners with the City of St. Louis Division of Corrections in the multipronged initiative to create services and provide support to incarcerated women before and after they're released from the St. Louis jail and the facility known as the workhouse, a medium-security institution on Hall Street. The program soon will begin working with men who are incarcerated there.

The goal is to help incarcerated individuals re-acclimate to the community and be productive, law-abiding citizens, said Karen Barney, a professor emerita in occupational science and occupational therapy at St. Louis University.

The university began offering higher-education classes in a state prison in 2008, and Barney offered her services at that time to help in re-entry. Last year, the pre- and post-release model was approved for the city, which pays for a full-time position inside the jail. SLU volunteers and community partners help, and a part-time occupational therapist from SLU assists in the community.

"People need a lot of support, especially for housing, employment, transportation and social relationships," Barney said. They also need help in adjusting their use of their time. They keep a journal and have other duties in the intensive class in the jail.

At a ceremony held in late October by SLU and the city's corrections division, six women who completed the pre-release portion of the program were honored.

One of the graduates, Ra'Nesha McGee, who aspires to be a registered nurse or midwife, told the gathering that she made her life harder by being kicked out of high school and wants a chance to further her education. The SLU program gave her a new outlook and changed her life, she said.

Reonna Crawford said she regrets being taken away from her son. The SLU program is helping her toward her goal of finishing coursework and receiving a GED, she said.

Having community partners "aids in having citizens return to the community with skills," Medium Security Institution superintendent Jeffrey Carson said.

The Medium Security Institution has inmates who dropped out of school as early as age 13 and have had a variety of distractions in their lives. They have the time (in jail) to focus on improving themselves, and that's where the volunteers can do so much good, he said. "The wonderful thing about this program is they start on the inside (of the jail) and then they catch them when they go on the outside."

Carson has seen that the aftercare, or support program, in the community works, he said. "If you don't give skills to stay out (of jail) then you're doomed to repeat the same mistakes. All the research says you can give them as many programs you want, but if you put them back in the same environment without support programs it doesn't work."

He likes the SLU program because it assists with jobs, housing, banking, conflict resolution and more.

He reminds people that someone who has been arrested or convicted of a crime is a citizen — our neighbors, friends, children, relatives. "We have to understand that the person may have had a substance abuse problem, has low skills ... we have to look at the root causes of the problem."

Programming such as SLU's treats participants with dignity and helps them get their lives together, while showing other inmates they can make change in their lives, too, Carson said. 

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