Life is an obstacle course that forces us to constantly make decisions. Sometimes we make great choices that culminate in positive results; other times we choose wrongly and face embarrassing or painful consequences in response. Some of us make bad decisions that land us in jail. Whether it’s from desperation or ignorance committing a crime and doing the time is the law in our society. This gives us some semblance of justice in an often confounding world. However, making a bad decision even if it is illegal shouldn’t necessarily follow us around for life. People have the capability to change and this is a marvelous gift, but the in the world of an ex-offender, change is very often blocked by barriers and at times hurdles too big to overcome.
Upon release from incarceration there is no guarantee that anybody will help them, guide them, or be willing to give a second chance. Some former offenders do not have forms of ID, a place to live, a job, a family, friends or even a community to return to. What would you do if you couldn’t find a job because you didn’t have an ID, a mailing address, or transportation? How would you react to a world that you had been gone from for months or years? What if you had nobody to turn to for help?
If you couldn’t meet your basic needs to survive would you be willing to do anything even if it felt wrong, even if last time it landed you in jail? Bonnie O’Brien of Transition Professionals wants to give ex-offenders a second chance by providing access to the tools, resources, and guidance to start over the right way. Helping people adjust to society after being locked away for years is a very challenging task. It requires actions that those of us who are free take for granted. It can be thankless and feel overwhelming, but as this organization proves there are people willing to take the time to help strangers. As Bonnie says in this interview, even though she can’t help everyone, she remains undaunted. When you start your project you will meet failures and maybe feel like you aren’t helping enough people. That’s just part of being human. We must accept our limitations and focus on what we can accomplish as opposed to what we don’t have the energy for, resources, or time to do. Below is Bonnie’s story of creating a process to help those that we leave behind as second class citizens in our own backyards.
Somewhere in the midst of my career I began to volunteer at our local jail. My work life was comprised of hiring people and placing them in jobs so it was a good fit when I was asked to come into the jail to teach inmates what they needed to know upon release in order to find employment. Over time I realized that teaching them how to put together a resume cover letter and references wasn’t much of a help if they didn’t have their basic needs met first. It was becoming clear that if someone who is incarcerated didn’t have any form of ID or even a place to go when they left jail that finding a job wasn’t their highest priority. Although the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we have the highest incarceration rate.
I discovered what basics needed to be met before they could even begin to look for employment and began to document each and every barrier they might face and provide answers and solutions. My results turned into a book or manual, that I use to this day that outlines how to obtain all forms of ID, how to restore a driver’s license, how to find shelter and housing, how to apply for general assistance, Medicaid, food stamps, transportation, and other much needed services. Of course it also includes how to write a resume and cover letter and how to talk about a felony conviction during an interview and how to expunge a criminal record. Forty percent of inmates have less than a high school degree, so talking to them about obtaining training and skills is one of my missions.
My sessions each week at the jail include all of the diverse topics inmates need to be aware of prior to release into the community, as well as where to go and who to call for assistance. Today in our jails and prisons we are housing 25% of our population and 70% of those incarcerated are addicts.
Over the years it became apparent that there was very little discharge planning done at our local jail level. I had been asked to join the Sheriff’s committee on reducing recidivism, but soon found that although the local municipal agencies had a limited interest in helping ex-cons, few did anything at all to reach out and make the returning citizens’ transition smooth. The barriers faced upon release were often the reason many were propelled quickly back into the criminal justice system.
One day I woke up and decided I needed to do more! I set out to not only help create a system to work with ex-offenders and to help reduce recidivism but also to help people who had no direction, gain a sense that there was a support organization out there they could rely on and depend upon.
Although I realize we are unable to help everyone, I remain undaunted. If we can raise awareness and bring the public into our world then more people will realize there is a chance to help someone. The hardest thing about working with people who were in jail is that many have mental health issues in addition to addiction and those people are not getting the help they need in the community and often spiral out of control without proper meds and then find themselves locked up again.
I formed Transition Professionals, a non-profit organization that is completely volunteer driven. Our group consists of people with specialties in job development, law, veteran’s affairs, temporary housing, ministry and social work.
We are open to any person who either while still incarcerated or upon release, needs clothing, assistance, support, guidance or just a person to speak with about what they are facing on the outside. We hold weekly “chat” sessions entitled “Unlocked”, facilitated by a licensed counselor and ex-offender. We have begun an art therapy program and are in the midst of designing various other programs and training that will help with stress reduction and access to employment. We have created a mentoring program for newly released individuals to work with those who have successfully reintegrated back home and a volunteer internship program for college students to work with us and received credit towards their degrees. We have engaged the skills of interns to develop social media presence, help with grants, and perform research for various outreach activities.
Many churches have started re-entry programs to welcome people back into the community because church folk hear about and preach redemption daily. People go to church and seek a higher power when someone they love falls prey to criminal activities or drugs. Sometimes it is hard to admit and puts them in denial.
The more we can raise awareness and reduce the stigma of ex-offenders in our society the better we will be. If an ex-offender commits a crime they pay the time, but they don’t have to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders for their entire lives because of their mistakes. We have created a speakers bureau with many diverse individuals who are willing to talk to schools, churches, and organizations about their experiences inside and what led them to jail or prison.
Our work has really just begun! We recognize that the current failure rate for released former offenders from local jails is 98%, yet we are striving to work in our community to change that and help those who are rehabilitated and redeemed to live a better life.
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