Monday, September 23, 2013

It's time to give back. Introducing the non-profit.

The C.H.R.I.S. Coalition
“Communities Helping Reintroduce Inmates to Society”

After my mother died in April of a prescription drug overdose, I felt the urge to start a non-profit organization to educate and provide resources to those trying to get help. In the midst of severe emotional pain however, it’s hard to be creative, or to find the drive to figure out all the details as well as the big picture ideas involved in starting a true, game-changing, community enhancing program. Also, I had a lot of things to deal with in cleaning out my mother’s apartment, the final disposition of her body and her estate. Conversations with the funeral home and even checking my own mailbox (where her mail was forwarded) became a chore.

Fast forward to August.

Lying in my bed one night while everyone else was asleep, I decided to surf Netflix for something to occupy my time. I ran across the new Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black.” Within a week I’d watched all 13 episodes, told everyone I knew about the show, and had bought the memoir by Piper Kerman that started the whole thing.

It’s hard to watch the show without having sympathy for people who have to live in prison. I’ve always been able to find deep empathy for people who are walking a hard road in life, and I am probably one of the most non-judgmental people you’ll ever meet, so I spent hours that week and the next worrying about and ruminating on the plight of people in prison. Especially those non-violent offenders whose crimes all go back to a drug addiction. Maybe they stole to support their habit? Maybe they never had anyone to care enough for them to teach them how to act as a responsible member of society who contributes in a meaningful and positive way.

Then I remembered “Chris.”

I’d heard at a funeral a few years back that a childhood friend of mine was “locked up.” A quick search on the department of corrections website confirmed his incarceration and there staring back at me was his mug shot – a stark contrast to the adorable, fun-loving, helpful kid I knew more than 20 years ago. It was staring into the seemingly hurt gaze on that computer screen that threw the urge for action into the pit of my stomach. You know what I’m talking about…the “knowing” feeling that you have when your life is about to change or take on some new meaning, at least for the foreseeable future.

So I scrawled down his inmate id number and the prison address and wrote him a letter right then, that night.

Five days later I finally got the courage to put it in the mailbox and raise the flag.

Three days after that I realized I’d invested in my old friend emotionally when the sight of the mail truck sent me into hopes that I might actually receive a real, handwritten letter from a guy whom I wondered if he even remembered me! Within a few days more I had my letter. “Chris” was delighted to hear from me, and said he very rarely got mail at all. He also said he was getting out the following month. When he was able to call me on a contraband cell phone floating around the prison shortly after midnight one night, my rapid fire questions about how he was going to arrange all the details of assimilating back into society (i.e. where to live, finding a job, getting back his driver’s license, buying a vehicle, even down to what he’d eat and how he’d clothe himself) he said he’d been working on this planning for the last year. He wanted a job first so he could earn enough money to get his license, then a car, then a place to stay. He told me unequivocally that ten years ago when he lost his mother that he’d lost himself in the process and gotten into things and people that were bad for him. He’d done things he regretted and he knew he had to make some amends. He assured me that he felt changed, wanted to better himself and his life, and never wanted to be locked up again, let alone commit a crime.

When they open the prison doors and let him go, he’ll have all of $35 to his name – the $10 he had to pay when he went in and $25 the state gives a person upon parole. He’ll have a parole officer checking on him periodically to make sure he’s not in trouble, but I can find no other resources readily available for someone who committed a crime, did his or her time, and is now ready and willing and wanting to make a fresh start.

Viola. This was the missing link in my earlier thoughts about a non-profit. “Chris” had a drug problem, which led him to steal in a non-violent way. Millions of people incarcerated today never tried to hurt anyone, but were simply trying to support their own habit. My own mother was never incarcerated, but she did struggle with a drug addiction (illegal and prescription drugs) for nearly 40 years.

Now I can completely envision my non-profit organization designed to provide support and reintegration skills for parolees during their first 3-6 months on the “outside.” Many people fail to think about or realize that if we do not properly equip a person to succeed then we can pretty much expect them to fail. The other thing to remember is not to judge a person before first trying to understand how they got to this point. Most of the time, once you’ve heard their story, the actual crimes they committed don’t become less of a crime, but they do become less relevant in the “big picture” of that person’s life. I’m not talking about big violent crimes here. I’m talking about stealing metal or shoplifting or selling drugs to support a habit. These are all things our society can do without, but how do we expect newly released offenders to become good law abiding citizens when our society gives them virtually no support upon being set free?

I am starting small right now. I want to raise some funds to help “Chris” upon his release, even though he’s not asked for a dime. These are all new concepts for me, but there is a clear and definite need in the here and now. To start, I’ll manage the funds myself and gladly will report back to all who donate on “Chris’s” progress and how the funds are used (in the near future I’ll set up this organization as an official non-profit). If he truly wants to change, and I believe wholeheartedly that he does, then I’d like to be a witness that this can be done. There is a need to fill right here in our community and in our state. As I’ve begun talking to more and more people about my ideas for this non-profit and about simply helping “Chris” I find that most folks know someone who has been in trouble with the law, arrested, locked up, and forgotten about by the penal system. Living conditions in prison are bad. Getting out drives their hopes high, only to feel the most likely fall when there’s no place to go, no job, no car, no health insurance, no food, and no money.

If you have ideas, please share them.
If you have money, please donate a little.
If you have a story, please tell me all about it.
Together we can make a difference.