By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 1, 2004
With the restlessness of repressed grief over her mother’s death, Cynthia Sturm stole $26,000 that she didn’t even need from a restaurateur for whom she handled bookkeeping. She said it was a “cry for help.”
Sturm had been on the run from that grief when she moved to Atlanta from Chicago in her early 20s, a few years after her mother died when she was 17. Living with her boyfriend and his parents, she was depressed, angry and spending money compulsively to win the affection of others.
“When (my mother’s death) happened, my whole life changed. I turned away from God and family. I was angry. I didn’t even realize how many things that can impact you from that that came up later on,” she said. “The crimes I committed, I knew right from wrong, but I didn’t care. This was my cry for help … I was really grateful when I got caught. I was hoping that would do something.”
Incarcerated in Atlanta’s maximum security Metro State Prison for women for two years before being released on Nov. 19, 2003, she regained hope with transitional help through Catholic Social Services’ One Church One Inmate program.
In its fifth year in Atlanta, OCOI partners with the Georgia Department of Corrections and the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to aid in the transition of ex-offenders back into the community. Rev. Bertha Booth, coordinator of the OCOI program for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, noted the importance of OCOI and other prison ministry programs since state budget cuts have reduced the state’s chaplaincy program. “The state of Georgia cut many (chaplains) out and many only work 20 hours per week, so there’s a great need for more community involvement in volunteer services. Now with that aspect it’s more needed than ever.”
In the CSS program, aid is provided by faith-based teams of at least three people who are matched with an inmate who has gone through a needs assessment and has not committed a violent or sexual abuse crime. The team begins working with the inmate three months to a year before his or her release. Once the person is released, they provide mentoring support and resources as well as referrals to assist with finding housing and a job.
Rev. Booth said that since 2000, OCOI has aided over 100 prisoners, none of whom have committed a violent crime or are sex offenders. Yet of the 30 active teams, only four Catholic churches are participating, the number having once been significantly higher. Having worked in prison ministry for 10 years, she also commented on the need for this support, in that the incarcerated are often abandoned by family and friends because of their crime and often “the faith community is all they have.”
She is also looking into working with youth and prevention and developing stronger relationships with parole officers so that the volunteers can work alongside them.
But her job is harder now as for budgetary reasons her hours have been reduced this year to four days a week and her program coordinator assistant position has been eliminated.
“Being in a hostile (prison) environment that doesn’t breed love or hope, they see there is hope and someone who cares and how somebody will take time out for them and that alone makes them think about what they’ve done” and want to make positive changes. As they endure a sense of isolation and rejection upon release “it makes a difference in their world when they have somebody who commits to work with them because it can be lonely when they come out. So much has changed.”
This program is one effort to reduce the recidivism rate in Georgia, which currently has 48,761 persons in prison, 139,343 on probation and 24,121 on parole. According to Chaplain Gayle Jordan, state aftercare coordinator for reentry aftercare partnerships with the Georgia Department of Corrections, since 2001, about 1,100 inmates are released in Georgia per month and within three years a third of them will become incarcerated again. Georgia, she added, has the sixth largest prison system in the nation.
“It’s one of Gov. Perdue’s initiatives to see faith-based communities collaborate with the Georgia Department of Corrections to provide services or to assist the ex-offender into successful reentry into society,” said Jordan. Churches practice forgiveness and know that “Paul did horrible things, but after Damascus he changed. Moses killed a person, but he changed, and the rest is history.”
OCOI was initiated by social activist priest Father George Clements, founder of the One Church One Family nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., who came in 1999 to Atlanta to kick off the prison ministry. Jordan said his initiative revitalized and gave “new momentum” to state programming in inmate aftercare outreach, introducing the team concept instead of one-on-one matching. When OCOI decided to only deal with non-violent offenders in the metro area, the Department of Corrections expanded its aftercare outreach to match church teams with inmates including violent ones who have had excellent behavior and recommendations from a broader geographic area. The Department of Corrections program, which has grown to include around 60 churches, works with teams of five to seven people and also assists with services like getting access for those newly released to medical and mental health care, job placement, housing, initial transportation and mentoring in terms of counseling and prayer support—which is key.
“Praying with the person allows God to become active in the transition experience,” Jordan said.
Jordan coordinates with Rev. Booth and said that while she’d like to see the formal mentoring period after release be longer than three to six months, “I see it as a very good program that needs more support, more funding … I wish there was a way to expand it. I think people don’t have a clear idea of how much it takes to mentor.”
An estimated 640,000 people will be released from prison this year. In a June 2003 National Public Radio interview with Professor Joan Petersilia, author of “When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prison Reentry,” she said that the number of people going to prison in the last 20 years has quadrupled, and that “today about 30 percent of males in the United States will have served a jail or prison term during their lifetime.”
She also stated that “we know that about two-thirds of all people released from prison will be rearrested within three years, and about half of them will be sent back to prison.”
Sturm, in her early 30s, first overheard the Gospel message while trying to ignore a chaplain talking to others as she sat in her cell in the Cherokee County Jail. She began talking to the chaplain. She then was transferred to Metro State Prison, where she quickly began attending Catholic services on Monday night, another Christian group on Tuesday, and a women’s faith group on Friday. She sang in the choir and began participating in a program to train dogs for the blind during the daytime. She lived on a top bunk by a little window in room with five other women and only had one visitor, her sister, besides the OCOI team while in prison. She met with the chaplain weekly, who also referred her for psychological counseling after her father died. The Christian ministries helped “immensely” and “it actually probably saved my life,” she said. Prison “is like life—amplified.”
So when her initial release date in October began approaching, she signed up for OCOI, knowing that she wanted Christian support to aid in her transition into society, having no family in the region.
“I knew I couldn’t do this by myself.”
As her release date approached, she exchanged letters with members of the team from St. Ann’s Church, Marietta, and met with Jo Simón and Jean Wollam, sponsoring team captains. They discussed her plans and goals for reentry. And after her original housing plan in Kennesaw fell through, they gave her the application for and helped her secure a place in Glory House of New Beginnings Ministry in Smyrna, a place for post-incarcerated women with substance abuse and other issues.
“I was really panicking at that point. It was just very helpful to have some connection out here, especially since my sister was far away.”
Simón picked her up and accompanied her to her parole officer visit, Sturm having in hand only a $25 check and wearing an unattractive tan pants suit, a jacket that didn’t match and shoes that didn’t fit. Wollam then drove Sturm to her new home.
Finding housing is a major first step, as inmates must find suitable housing on their own before being released, even if it means staying years longer. Wollam later took her shopping at the local St. Vincent de Paul Society thrift store.
“This has actually been the best place for me. My first plan when it fell through was a blessing,” said Sturm, sitting by a chatty cockateel bird in the tidy office area of the clean and homey Glory House. Pear trees bloom in the yard by a wooded area.
Simón, a former parole officer, feels good about the structured schedule and supportive environment at Glory House.
“When people come from a prison setting it’s been so structured, and if they’re put in an area without a lot of structure it is so overwhelming. It’s almost too much to deal with,” she said.
Sturm, who will have to pay restitution for the money she stole, is friendly and frank, with only a slight edginess tinging her words as she speaks openly about her painful past. She points out the irony that she didn’t realize she had mental problems to deal with even after she was first locked up and refers to her obsessive-compulsive issues. She said she’s happily keeping very busy now, which helps her to find a sense of self worth and purpose, volunteering with tutoring children, making sandwiches for the homeless and handling the bookkeeping and medication records for Glory House—the same type of work she did before being imprisoned. As she works through her own issues, Sturm, who keeps by her bedside a Catholic study Bible given to her in prison and a reflection written from a dog to his owner asking to “treat me kindly, my beloved friend, for no heart in all the world is more grateful for kindness than the loving heart of me,” is also working with the house dog Cocoa who has “some issues” of her own. Furthermore, she’s very excited to have just gotten another job as a puppy raiser for the blind with Southeastern Guide Dogs, whom she worked for doing the same work while in prison.
She enjoys going out to lunch with Simón and Wollam and having them call “right when I need them to.”
“Just getting out has been a blessing and knowing they’re there too,” she said. “You really prioritize when you’re in there. Life is precious.”
She will stay at Glory House at least a year, and Simón and Wollam will be there to assist her, drawing upon their contacts and resources at St. Ann’s and from elsewhere, when she has to find independent housing and if she needs another job in the future. While the volunteer commitment is a year, volunteers see it as an ongoing relationship. Wollam and Simón are also involved with Dismas, a federal program founded by a Catholic priest to transition ex-offenders back into the community. Volunteers from St. Ann’s go there weekly to teach GED, life skills and job readiness classes.
Glory House “is empowering (Sturm) to start on her own. This is a wonderful situation but there’s going to come a time … ,” said Wollam, who works as a registered nurse in a substance abuse clinic at Cobb/Douglas Mental Health.
Prison minister Simón, who works with those who have been laid off and seek employment for the Atlanta Regional Commission, added, “The goal is to move her out (and) for her to be independent, but that’s going to take time for her to get funding … As she transitions into the next phase of her life, we’ll be there to help her too … We look at it as a beginning and an ongoing relationship. I told her she’s stuck with us.”
As she moves on with her life, Sturm remains mindful of those she left behind and is deeply concerned about the effect on prisoners of the reduction in the state’s chaplaincy program. The number of chaplains at Metro was cut from three to one during her stay. Jordan said that last summer 44 chaplain positions were eliminated, leaving vacancies in prisons’ second chaplain positions and in transitional, detention and diversion centers. The hours of those chaplains who remained were reduced from full-time to 20 hours a week, and concerned citizens and volunteers are advocating to have their hours restored. As some of the women are incarcerated for many years and it takes them a long time to find God or some type of support and a reason to live, Sturm feels that the steady presence of a chaplain is very important.
“I enjoyed the volunteers that ended up coming but … these (volunteers) are part-time people that will more than likely change frequently throughout the year, and that relationship will be gone. And I have a feeling they are going to lose a lot. It’s going to be bad,” she said. “There’s going to be no hint of rehabilitation, and it’s going to end up being a machine even more so than what it is now where people just get out and go back in and get out.”
Added Simón, “(The chaplain) is kind of the glue. They could coordinate the volunteers. She could give us information about when things went wrong for Cynthia, and she took it upon herself to get somebody else in there to talk to Cynthia because we knew this was a really troubling thing for her. She needed help and got help.”
Not everybody gets needed transitional help through OCOI, Simón and Wollam acknowledge, as they worked with one person with a drug problem who lied to them about how he was doing before getting thrown back in jail. Fortunately he then went through drug rehabilitation, and working with them again is now out and doing well, living with his grandmother. They had another women, a heroin addict, who had HIV and was living without support in the area. After one call and visit they never heard from her again.
Simón knows firsthand why prisoners need support in getting out. She tells them not to worry about getting hired, as their interviewer may well know someone who has been incarcerated.
“I was a parole officer, and I used to see people who didn’t make it because they didn’t have a support system. You can’t make anybody believe, if they’re not ready to, or change their ways, but if this support system is there, is there when they are ready, the chances of their going on and leading a productive life for them and for society is really enhanced. OCOI and Dismas are just making that support available. Some aren’t going to take it,” she said.
She hopes others will consider this ministry. “There are a lot of people in our society who have been incarcerated and so I think there are more people we can help if we can get more (OCOI) groups going and so it’s just a matter of getting the word out.”
Simón also noted how OCOI volunteers are taught not to try to convert but to provide their witness by caring.
“Our goal is to support them and let them grow, whatever that growth may be, but not to impose our (beliefs) on them.”
Furthermore, they can’t give money to those they help and aren’t matched one-on-one but in teams to prevent a dependency relationship.
Torian Weldon, coordinator of the Risk Reduction Services Unit of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, said that OCOI is “very, very, very valuable” in complementing secular strategies as 90 percent of all inmates are released in the community and need the help and friendship of volunteers, as parole officers with whom they work on issues like housing and jobs can have as many as 50-100 cases. As the volunteers meet with the inmates in the prison “these guys have a captive audience. You start the mentoring process there and giving the guys something to look forward to, a helping hand to lead them on their pathway,” he said. “You can’t believe how much that ride to a GED will help that gentleman. These types of services to help that person on their journey are very, very important … Having someone to talk to means a whole lot. A lot of these guys never had it. Having someone on your side is very, very important. When they get that from a volunteer, they realize this guy is doing this because he’s genuinely interested in his success.”
He said the Board of Pardons and Paroles also introduced last year its own Faith-Based Initiative still in the development process around the state, as with “the transition between prison and community many of the guys who don’t have that assistance will be destined to fail because they will return to the lifestyle they’re used to. But if you show some alternatives they have opportunities to take and this provides these gentlemen with support.”
Chaplain Jordan said the possibility of the Department of Corrections partnering with the parole board is under discussion as “the need is so great” for faith-based services.
Wollam in working at the substance abuse clinic has found it’s a “revolving door” in terms of recidivism, so she’s especially excited by Sturm’s commitment to succeed and take advantage of support services. And she’s mindful that anyone can fall on hard times, which can lead to reckless decision-making.
“When you look across the table, that could be me, that could be all of us. None of us knows what could be in our path. If you approach it that way, it makes a big difference in your life.”
She and Simón see the relationship as a blessing.
“One of the things that makes it joyful to us is to watch her give back,” Simón said. “Our job is to make sure she has the support so that she doesn’t step back into her old ways.”
For information on OCOI and volunteer training, call Rev. Booth at (404) 885-7453.