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Posts Tagged ‘ex-offender’

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Photos: A Ride Home
When you get out of prison, you’re often on your own. That’s where A Ride Home comes in.

The other day, I was reiterating for a couple grandchildren the basics of the Christmas story. When you get down to essentials, the life of the grownup Baby Jesus, as told to us, was all about teaching kindness and going among the poor and outcast to comfort them.

I told the kids that “when Herod the King heard [about a new ‘Governor’], he was troubled” because he didn’t know the baby would not grow up to be the kind of leader that would take Herod’s throne and soldiers and money but instead would teach people about being good to one another.

Although we aren’t regular churchgoers, the kids like the annual Christmas pageant, and I wanted to go over the setting and roles a bit.

That’s a long intro to saying that Christmas is a particularly good time to consider how much the poor and outcast — and those who provide compassion to them — can benefit when we adhere to what is really the essence of all religions.

I recently learned about a great example of compassion for the outcast — a program for ex-offenders called “A Ride Home.” WNYC radio interviewed the people behind it.

“People released from prisons face all kinds of barriers as they transition back into the outside world, whether it’s finding jobs or housing.

“But beyond these large challenges, there are all kinds of small things the formerly incarcerated have to re-learn on the outside world — from opening doors, ordering from a menu, to choosing what kind of shampoo to buy.

“The Ride Home program helps people with those first few hours when they get out of prisons in California. …

“Carlos Cervantes is one of the program’s drivers, who is formerly incarcerated, and now picks people up, takes them for coffee and food, buys them new clothes and is with them in those first moments. He remembers the moments leading up to his own release back in 2011.

” ‘You feel nervous, asking, “What’s on the other side? How does the other side look like.” For me having spent 10 years 8 months, it’s kind of like this picture that like you can only imagine,’ he said.”

You can listen to WNYC’s podcast about the compassionate program via iTunesTuneInStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

What I especially like is that former offenders want to help out by volunteering with the program. A Ride Home can make a person’s first post-prison emotion one of gratitude. And we all know what good things a feeling of gratitude can work in the world.

More at WNYC, here. Check out some really nice photos at the Ride Home website, here.

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Photo: Kirk Crippens/ Insight Garden Program
Today’s post is about an illicit prison garden, but a 2014 story at NPR, here, suggests that approved gardens are finding favor with corrections officials. The photo is from San Quentin.

This story from the Marshall Project on twitter is about a secret garden behind prison walls — and what it meant to the gardeners.

Matthew Hahn, an ex-offender, wrote the article in collaboration with the online magazine Vice.

“I used to be a vegetable smuggler. It’s not how I got to prison, but it’s what I did once I was there.

“I wasn’t alone. The men with whom I worked in the garden on ‘China Hill’ at California’s Folsom Prison were there with me, every day, waiting in line to get back into the prison building and hoping the guards wouldn’t discover the vegetable contraband they had secreted away in their clothing.

“In my left boot, slightly smashed and carefully wrapped in a sandwich bag, was a single jalapeno pepper. In my right, bundled tightly and also wrapped, were a couple dozen shoots of green onions. …

“Officially, we were landscapers. There were about 20 of us, and we had been assigned to the landscaping crew atop the grassy knoll within the prison’s walls known as China Hill, spending our weekdays in what felt to us prisoners like the wilderness. …

“We had a hill, and a job on it, and a single guard, also our supervisor, who expected us to work only a couple of hours per day, after which he permitted us to while away the rest of our time as we saw fit.

“We weren’t actually allowed to garden, but that didn’t stop us from doing it. The unspoken agreement between the guard and us men was that we would keep China Hill from becoming an overgrown jungle, and in return he would pretend he didn’t see any of our vegetables growing there. It was motivation to keep us working.

“The vegetables we grew were the kinds that never would have made their way into the chow hall: We had squash, peas, chili peppers, bell peppers, watermelon, green onions, tomatoes.

“China Hill was divided into sectors, just like the prison yard. Black guys had the land in one spot, the Southsiders (a Mexican gang) in another, the White Boys near the Southsiders and the “Others” near the Blacks. Despite the determined segregation, it was peaceful. If the Southsiders wanted to eat some peppers with their burritos, they could trade a watermelon to the Others. …

“There was another aspect of working on China Hill that wasn’t usually shared with the men on the yard, but which made it one of the best jobs in Folsom: It offered the potential, at least, for solitude. The lack of noise — that was the feeling of belonging to the Earth again, and having a small part of it belong to me, and to us. …

“We were never able to smuggle in enough vegetables for entire meals — just morsels, just momentary freshness in our stale world. But we smuggled in memories when we smuggled in those tastes: memories of freedom.” More here.

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At my former magazine we focused on lower-income issues, which meant we sometimes published research on topics such as prison reform, the criminalization of addiction, and job programs for ex-offenders.

Recently, I saw an article that reminded me of those efforts. It’s about an unusual fine-dining restaurant in Cleveland.

Jenn Hall covers the story at Paste, “Though the numbers vary by state, roughly three-quarters of ex-convicts are rearrested within five years, and more than half of those return behind bars. Ask Brandon Chrostowski about it, and he’ll tell you that it’s more than a problem. It’s a civil-rights issue — and that’s why he decided to do something about it.

“For diners at Edwins Restaurant in Cleveland Shaker Square, fine French cuisine is an initial draw. The setting is nouvelle-chic, befitting a Francophile menu that garners praise. Bar service is sophisticated, with a wine list that runs deep. But the reason to return goes beyond the plate. In almost every position, both front and back of house, ex-offenders are training to launch new careers.

“It’s the only white-tablecloth restaurant of its kind in the U.S.

“The trainees are part of Edwins’ six-month Restaurant and Leadership Training Program, of which Chrostowski is founder and CEO. (Edwins is a portmanteau of ‘education’ and ‘wins.’) Covering everything from mother sauces to white-tablecloth service, the program aims not just to equip ex-offenders with skills, but also to power them with the confidence to apply them.

“It’s a program borne of careful planning. Chrostowski first had the idea in 2004, secured approval to operate as a 501 (c) (3) in 2008, and then spent six years perfecting the pedagogy before opening the restaurant’s doors in 2013. Now, 20,000 diners visit Edwins each year.

“But job prep and a fine French meal is just one part of the story. Ultimately, Edwins is a support network for those determined to challenge statistics. So while participants indeed learn a perfect braise, they also get help with everything from reinstating their driver’s license to securing medical care. It’s a humanizing approach to a sobering problem, and perhaps that’s why it’s working. The Edwins-alumni recidivism rate stands at just 1.2 percent. …

“Asked what drives him, he says it’s about paying forward a break he was given. Growing up in Detroit, Chrostowski had a legal run-in and was lucky to land probation instead of a prison sentence. That ‘aha’ moment primed him to take stock, find a mentor and launch a fine-dining career …

“Though he reads like an optimist (and is when it comes to a belief in transformation), Chrostowski sees himself as a pragmatist. Given the chance, he says, many ex-offenders have the capacity and strength to rebuild. They just need that all-critical chance.”

To read Hall’s interview with Chrostowski, click here.

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When people are serving time for a crime, how much better for society — both during their sentence and after they get out — if they have some useful work while inside.

Patricia Leigh Brown writes at Atlas Obscura, “Justin King spends most of his hours in a cinderblock dormitory room for minimum-security prisoners, sleeping on a metal bunk bed and being constantly monitored by surveillance cameras.

“But on a crisp California morning with coastal fog hanging on the hillsides, King, who is serving time for selling methamphetamines, and three of his fellow inmates at the Mendocino County jail huddle together in a 175-acre vineyard to pick plump sangiovese grapes. The only visible difference between the prisoners and the other field workers are the GPS tracking devices wrapped around their ankles.

” ‘Hey dude!’ King, 32, called out to his fellow inmate, Meliton Rangel, as King eyed a promising group of clusters wet with dew. ‘I hit clump city here!’

“The men’s enthusiasm for grapes with just the right sugar levels and tannins is a variation on the concept of work release, in which inmates deemed low security risks are employed by private companies. …

” ‘They’re hard workers,’ [Vineyard owner Martha] Barra says of her new employees, who wear “civilian” clothes in her magazine-esque vineyard. ‘They have to meet the same punctuality and performance requirements as everybody else.’ …

“The work is notoriously grueling: At first, Rangel, a stiff-legged 37, said he was going to quit. That changed when he received his first paycheck—his first one ever. ‘This has really helped me out,’ he says. ‘It feels very good to work.’ …

“In the Mendocino program last year, four of the six inmates who worked on the grape crew at Redwood Valley Vineyards have indeed stayed out of jail. Three now have full-time jobs. One now works at the vineyard full-time, rebounding from tough years of drug addiction and homelessness. …

” ‘There’s peace of mind out here,’ King says.”

More here.

Photo: Olivier Vanpé /Wikimedia Commons
Clusters of ripe and unripe Pinot noir grapes.

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I liked an op-ed Stan Stojkovic wrote for the NY Times about a positive sort of prison program founded by a warden.

“It’s the singular guest at a prison who receives a standing ovation from inmates,” writes Stojkovic. “I’ve heard of only two: Johnny Cash and Percy Pitzer, a retired warden who in 2012 started a nonprofit corporation to award college scholarships to children of inmates.

“I sit on the board of Mr. Pitzer’s group, called the Creative Corrections Education Foundation. I recently went with him to visit some of the inmates at the Milwaukee County House of Correction. …

“He started in H6, a 60-bed women’s dorm. ‘Good morning, ladies. I’m Percy Pitzer, from Beaumont, Texas,’ he began. He told them that he had made a living for his family by working for the Bureau of Prisons, and that he and his wife wanted to give back. So he’d kick-started a scholarship fund with $150,000 of his own money. But he wanted it to become an inmate-funded venture, and said it would not work without their help.

“ ‘Will you help me with the price of a candy bar a month?’ he asked.

“His audience probably had a sense of the odds working against their children. Close to seven million children in the United States have a parent involved in some form of correctional intervention — jail, prison, probation or parole. …

“ ‘I will,’ one inmate said.

“ ‘I will,’ said another.

“ ‘I will.’ …

“In all, 13 women in H6 donated $41; one signed up to donate $5 per month. …

“At some correctional facilities, inmates earn $10 a day. Either way, this is money that would otherwise go to small luxuries, like snacks and deodorant. And yet about 300 inmates in Texas, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin have donated. Thanks to that money, in addition to private contributions, by the end of this year Creative Corrections will have awarded 40 $1,000 college scholarships.”

More on the program here.

Photo: Creative Corrections Education Foundation

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My daughter-in-law passed this along. Her colleague, who is related to the founder, told her about it.

Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest on Vanderbilt University’s campus in Tennessee, founded the Magdalene in 1997 to provide practical and emotional help to women often regarded as outcasts — ex-offenders, addicts, street people.

According to the website: “For two years, we offer housing, food, medical and dental needs, therapy, education and job training without charging the residents or receiving government funding.

  • Our six homes function without 24-hour live-in staff, relying on residents to create a supportive community, maintain recovery, and share household tasks.
  • Women come to Magdalene from prison, the streets and from across the Southeast and the country. …

“After four months, the women find work, return to school and/or enter Magdalene’s job training program at Thistle Farms, a social enterprise. …

“Magdalene’s programs are grounded in its 24 spiritual principles that advocate living gracefully in community with one another.”

The website also describes the Thistle Farms products: “By hand, the women create natural bath and body products that are as good for the earth as they are for the body. Purchases of Thistle Farms products directly benefit the women by whom they were made.

“Thistle Farms employs over 40 Magdalene residents or graduates. While working at Thistle Farms, women learn skills in manufacturing, packaging, marketing and sales, and administration. It is a supportive workplace where women acquire the skills they need to earn a living wage. Employees have the opportunity to put a percentage of their earnings in a matched savings account provided by Magdalene.” Read more.

Thistle Farms provides lots of ideas for holidays when you especially want to give gifts that help people. (This year I gave a few gifts from SERRV, for example, and my sister-in-law gave care packages from nonprofit San Francisco food incubator La Cocina, and people who bought charm necklaces at Luna & Stella, gave part of the cost to FreeArtsNYC.)

The products are all of such a quality as to make you want them at other times of year, too.

Photo: http://www.thistlefarms.org/
Women who work in the Thistle Farms Cafe head off for vacation Dec. 24.

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On Sunday my husband and I took in the painful stories of several formerly incarcerated women who work on getting their lives back on track with Mary Driscoll at OWLL. The occasion was the performance of a collaborative theater piece called Hidden Faces of Courage.

All the women had the cards stacked against them from childhood on and had little hope of a better future after serving time. A recurring theme was the near impossibility of finding work with a criminal record.

So it was with particular interest that I read an article in UU World today about a café in North Carolina that is giving such women a second chance at life, starting with helping them earn an income.

Michelle Bates Deakin writes, “There’s a classic Catch-22 for women who have served jail time. It’s nearly impossible to get a job with a criminal record, and without a job and an income, it’s hard to keep from reoffending.

“The Rev. Melissa Mummert, a community minister in Charlotte, N.C., has dedicated the past decade to helping solve this conundrum, providing career and life coaching to female prisoners …

“In August, she helped open a new takeout restaurant in downtown Charlotte run by women released from jail. Second Helping gives formerly incarcerated women valuable job skills, income, and new starts at life.

“ ‘I kept hearing the same theme from so many women: “When I hit the jail door, I can’t get a job, because there is so much employment discrimination against people with criminal records,” ‘ said Mummert. Second Helping helps women leaving jail or prison land that all-important first job.”

Monique Maddox is one of the beneficiaries of the effort. “Maddox has worked at Second Helping since November 2011, when it opened its first coffee cart. She credits Second Helping with giving her opportunity. ‘Each and every one of us value our freedom today,’ she said. ‘I would never give it up.’ ”

More.

Photo: UU World
Rev. Mummert helped open the Second Helping café in Charlotte. It employs and trains formerly incarcerated women.

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