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A circle of support

Prison Ministries provides volunteers who serve as individual mentors

JOHNSON COUNTY– Tammy has been in and out of prison five times.
Raised in an impoverished household with three younger siblings and a mother who would disappear for weeks at a time, stealing food, diapers and formula at the neighborhood grocery store became a regular necessity. When Tammy’s mother was around, she was frequently accompanied by men, each more violently abusive than the last. By the time Tammy was removed from the home, after she and her older sister had been sexually assaulted, using drugs to ease the pain and smooth the scars had become a matter of survival.
“’Normal’ is what you see every day,” Tammy said. “My normal was living in a dirty house, stealing, getting what you needed however you could get it, drugs, whatever.”
When Tammy was taken away from her family, anger became her normal state of mind.
“I was so angry,” she said. “For so long.”
It was this anger Tammy carried with her to the juvenile detention facilities, halfway houses and treatment centers, where well-intentioned adults and the juvenile justice system imposed punishments and restrictions meant to deter the offender.
“There was no way anybody was going to tell me to do anything. I may not have had a normal family, but they were my family, and I wanted them back,” she said. Her voice dropped. “I never did get to go back.”
Whereas most drug users progress through more gradual stages of addiction, Tammy said she “pretty much went straight to the intravenous meth world. I started in the spring, and by that fall I was in prison for the first time.”
Though Tammy was assigned a parole officer who– she now understands– fought hard to keep her motivated and out of jail, Tammy’s addictions and anger continually won out in her battles to live a clean and sober life. After a lifetime of mistreatment and neglect, violence and punishment and regret, there wasn’t much positive self-esteem to draw upon, even as she became an adult with children of her own. Eventually, her sons were taken away from her care and she continued a cycle of drug use, incarceration and restrictive rehabilitation programs.
“I knew I wasn’t done using. I didn’t care. I didn’t have my boys, so nothing mattered to me. It was easier to get high and not have to deal with it… feel it… think about it,” Tammy said.
It wasn’t long before she was revocated again to prison.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t love them,” Tammy said. “I didn’t love me.”
The fifth time she got out of prison, she was sent back to the Hinzman House, where she had become a repeat resident.
“I’m sure the staff just groaned when they saw me again,” she said. She had behaved badly toward them during her previous stays; this time, she apologized.
“I know you don’t think a lot of me and I deserve that,” Tammy told them, “but I’m going to do it this time.”
The response was a half-hearted, “Well, we’ll see.”
That’s when she was introduced into her Circle of Support and Accountability; three Solon residents who agreed to meet with Tammy weekly to provide friendship, a listening ear and caring hearts.
It has been two and a half years since Tammy, now 51, has used drugs. She has a home, a driver’s license, two good jobs, and has reconnected with her two sons.
For Tammy, the friendship of these three ordinary people was the difference that literally changed her life.
“I had three people that believed I could do anything, even when I said I couldn’t. They would push, pull and prod until I did. They would take me to get job applications, take me to job interviews; there was nothing these three told me I couldn’t do, except lie down and lick my wounds,” Tammy said. “I know that they will always be there for me. I want them to be proud of me. It’s important to me that I not disappoint them, that I not disappoint my boys… that I don’t disappoint myself again.”

On Saturday, Jan. 18, Tammy told her story to a group of about 16 individuals at St. Mary Catholic Church in Solon. She was asked to share her experience as part of a call to the Johnson County community to learn more about opportunities to help people just like Tammy.
The Iowa Department of Corrections has been continually developing its Victim and Restorative Justice program since 1982. It has evolved from collecting restitution payments from inmates to offering opportunities for victims to explain to their perpetrators, face-to-face, how their crimes impacted their lives. In 2006, the department began to redesign its offender re-entry process to fit a growing body of research that indicates a decreased rate of recidivism when offenders are prepared for their return to society with skills training, an individual transition plan and systems of support.
With this evidence-based research and the faith-based philosophy that effecting true justice requires restoration and healing– for offenders, their victims, and their communities– the Archdiocese of Dubuque and the Diocese of Davenport have worked to recruit volunteers to their Prison Ministries program. These trained volunteers serve as mentors who provide one-on-one or group support to ex-offenders as part of their plans to re-enter society. Introduced by Bruce Kittle, former chaplain of the Sixth Judicial District Department of Corrections (which includes Johnson County), Circles of Support and Accountability (CSAs) are made up of four to six people who meet regularly with the offender to offer support and assistance while also holding the person accountable for his actions. One-on-one mentoring offers similar support by pairing just one mentor with an offender. The Prison Ministries program works closely with the Department of Corrections and AmeriCorps to coordinate volunteers who serve as circle members and individual mentors.
“With the justice system we live under, the first question is, ‘what law was broken?’ and the second question is, ‘what’s the punishment?’” said Dennis Ternes, deacon and coordinator for the Cedar Rapids area Prison Ministries. “Under restorative justice, the questions are, ‘who has been harmed?’ and ‘how can we repair that harm?’”
Restorative justice is a philosophy and practice designed to offer healing and hope; when wrong has been done, it is a violation of personal relationships, and the central objective is to put right those wrongs, while recognizing the dignity of both the victim and the offender.
As in Tammy’s case, the model has repeatedly proven more successful than simply setting an inmate free and hoping detention and punishment has had the desired impact.
Kim McIrvin, Executive Officer of the Department of Corrections, noted the recidivism data collected on drug offenders who accepted differing levels of support after release. Of those who only obtained employment but had no other support, 37 percent were successful in staying out of prison. Of those who received one-to-one mentoring, the success rate increased to 50 percent. Individuals who underwent training for cognitive behavior skills, 82 percent were successful. Remarkably, inmates who participated in CSAs were 97 percent successful in staying out of jail.
It’s a pretty powerful circle.

“When you bring a group together like that, you bring people with different expertise,” said Ternes. When inmates are released, often they are without a driver’s license or transportation, have no job or money, frequently have no place to stay, and sometimes lack the skills to gain these necessities.
More significantly, they can lack personal relationships that are so important to recovery.
“We try to help them mend broken relationships, maybe with family members, and that can really help them look toward the future. We provide friendship. If they have friendships that are hurting them, we try to steer them away from that. We try to model pro-social behavior. We show them the dignity they do have; we hold it up in front of them and let them see it.”
McIrvin said that kind of focus on the positive can be key to a person’s rehabilitation.
“As you hold up the good in people and they feel stronger about themselves as a person, they are more willing to accept responsibility for what they’ve done,” she said. “The more whole they feel as a person, the easier it is to take accountability for their behavior.”
In addition to acknowledging their accountability, mentees must also set goals for their reintegration to society, and mentors consistently check on their progress. Mentors, therefore, are there to be mirrors and models, accountability coaches and cheerleaders when necessary. Sometimes, mentors assist mentees in filling out job applications, finding housing, or keeping appointments. Other times, a mentor is simply a friend who cares.
“Above all, you are there to listen,” added Ternes. “That’s the number one thing you bring.”
Though the Prison Ministries program is faith-based and an outreach of the Catholic Charities, it is an ecumenical program. Anyone of any religious background can serve as a mentor, after completing the application, providing references and undergoing the required training. Every attempt is made to create good matches between mentors and mentees through the application process, said McIrvin. As safety of the mentors is a top priority, mentees are screened to determine their suitability to the program, and the initial meeting between mentor and mentee is mediated by Department of Corrections staff and an AmeriCorps volunteer. A mentor has regular contact with the AmeriCorps supervising volunteer and can receive additional training on various topics that can provide more information and skills in helping the mentee. The typical commitment is one year.
Tammy’s relationship with her circle of friends, which includes volunteer Diane Wurzer of Solon, has grown beyond that one-year commitment.
“We will always be bonded,” said Wurzer. “We will always be friends.”
Wurzer shares the story of Tammy’s success often, hoping to inspire others to become mentors as well.
“You always hear that (the former inmates) have good intentions, but they end up going back to the same playground with the same playmates, and they get sucked back into that world,” Wurzer said. “If we have more mentors to help guide them in another direction, they can be successful. We need people to become mentors and walk beside these people and guide them and support them, and let them be contributing members of society. This is a passion for me, and I hope it becomes a passion for other people too.”
And Tammy hopes so too.
“It’s so worth it. If a group of people that have their own lives and better things to do can get together and try to help somebody like me, and care about me, then there is another inmate out there, somebody just like me who needs the same thing,” said Tammy. “There are a lot of ‘just like me’s out there.”
Often, like Tammy, they are people who never knew what it’s like to be able to trust “I have never in my life had anybody that wanted nothing from me except to see me do well and succeed. Now I know what a family is supposed to be, and I know what I want to be for my boys and my granddaughters. As long as I model myself after these guys, I know that I can do it,” she said, and through grateful tears, she continued. “If something goes wrong and I fall, I know I don’t have to get high. All I have to do is make a phone call and somebody is going to be right there to pick me up, dust me off, and help me find a way through it.
“I can’t imagine my life without them.”