'You have to have a reason to stay free': Malone hosts reentry workshop
- U.S. has highest number of incarcerated people in the world
- Mental health, trauma huge factors in recidivism
- Incarcerated Blacks a disproportionately large part of population
CANTON − People who have been in prison say that if society wants ex-felons to be successful, the communities to which they return must offer a multifaceted support system.
In partnership with South Street Ministries of Akron, Malone University recently hosted a workshop for students, ministries, social workers and people who work in the criminal justice system. The event was cosponsored by Leadership Stark County, Crossroads United Methodist Church, Young Christian Professionals, and Malone University's Criminal and Restorative Justice program.
Serena Draper Hendershot, Community Health Equity Coordinator for the Canton City of Public Health Department, and a member of the Young Christian Professionals board of directors, said she hoped the workshop would spur ideas on how the community deals with reentry.
"We truly want this experience to be eye-opening, so that we as organizations can begin to change our systems, how they're set up so that we can normalize those who have a different life experience than us," she said.
Bryson Davis, an associate professor of sociology and criminal and restorative justice at Malone, hosted a panel with LaMarr Atchison, reentry director at South Street; Shauntae D. Metcalf, director of reentry for women and a member of Young Christian Professionals; and Donovan Harris, founder of South Street Ministries' reentry services.
"We're so grateful for this," Davis said. "I get the privilege of coming alongside the students who are here ... We're hopefully raising up future law enforcement agents and future community workers, and future people who care."
Harris, 50, told the audience he entered the juvenile justice system at 15 and served 13 years in adult prison as a two-time offender, but has been free for 20 years.
"I'm very proud of that," he said. "My last time going into the system, I was going on 30 years old but when I went into the system that time, I realized I was tired," he recalled. "And so I just took that opportunity to change my life. Coming home, I didn't know what I was going to do, but most likely a factory because that's what they have for us, or McDonald's, but sometimes they won't hire you according to your crime. I was just trying to figure out how was I going to take care of my kids, but God had another plan."
A life-changing moment
Instead of a factory job, Harris started his own cleaning service and began attending reentry meetings at South Street Ministries.
It became a life-changing moment, leading to a job with the mission.
A single dad who's raising two sons, Harris said anyone reentering society must have a life's purpose.
"You have to have a reason to stay free," he said. "Something that keeps you from becoming part of the whole recidivism statistical category. I never wanted to see myself a statistic. The main thing that can send me back, is me. I do the work necessary to keep Donovan free."
After 10 years on the outside, Harris said he acquired a vision.
"My vision was that we could have a place for people like me," he said. "I was an aggravated robber, and society saw me as just that. I felt that the only people that could really appreciate my journey, my steps, was people who had walked the same walk."
But Harris said he couldn't make headway with large charities and nonprofits. .
"Nobody would give a space for restorative healing," he said. "They wouldn't trust us. They wouldn't give us the opportunity."
That changed after he met with South Street Ministries co-founder Duane Crabbs, who had been ministering in the South Akron/Summit Lake neighborhood since 1997, offering after-school and community gardening programs, a bike shop, and the Front Porch Cafe.
In 2012, the ministry launched the Summit County Reentry Network, which began weekly peer-to-peer reentry meetings and added reentry housing for men.
"For a long time, it was just me," Harris said. "I was at the point of burning out because you se so many people fail. You put so much of yourself into a person, trying to help them. I was pretty much done with it, and then God sent LaMarr, fresh out of the joint. He was loud and aggressive; the perfect person to take over that part of it, and then we recognized that we're both males and weren't in a position to facilitate or to be that bridge for women, and then God sent us Shauntae."
'I never said I need help'
Metcalf said she should have spent 28 years in prison, but served just three, thanks to God's mercy. In 2016, she and another woman were charged with kidnapping a couple in Tuscarawas County. Upon her release, she went to South Street for help.
"It changed my perspective," she said. "The reentry team began pouring into me and I began pouring into myself. I know the Bible says 'To whom much is given much is required,' and so as I grew in my faith and I knew they were pouring into my purpose, I had no choice but to give to women coming behind me."
Metcalf said the death of her mother sent her on a mental-illness spiral that ended in her imprisonment.
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"To be honest, it was a lack of knowledge about what mental health really is," she said. "I think that, at any given time, anybody can end up in our position. There's a stigma that only criminals go to prison. My mom died in 2012 and I didn't know how to ask for help. I went into survivor mode, ' I have to plan the funeral and take care of my family.' I never said 'I need help, something's wrong.'"
She stressed that her upbringing didn't lend itself to criminal activity.
"I didn't grow up with a rough past," she said. "I grew up in a nice family, a nice home, and I didn't know how to ask for help. So, my mission now is to make. Not just making people coming home from incarceration aware of mental health, but because everybody needs someone to talk to. We've got to be authentic with one another and support one another, whatever background you may come from."
Atchison agrees, adding that past trauma often is ignored as a factor behind some people's misbehavior, and that acquiring a job and a place to stay is not always enough.
"So when you go out here scatterbrained, and it looks like you're trying not to do anything in life and you land on the couch and you may be depressed, and sometimes your family doesn't understand," he said. "Sometimes when you're sick and your mind ain't working and you don't know how to get help and there's nothing in place to help you, there's nobody pulling us aside and saying 'Hey, man,' except us."
Atchison noted that after he was released from prison, he stayed in his house for two weeks.
"Trying to understand who I was supposed to be when I was out here because all I knew was (being) incarcerated," he recalled. "I had been on the streets since I was a teenager and came out of prison as an adult, but I was emotionally suspended as a teenager so, when I came home, I had no other choice but to do what I'd been doing. I had to figure out how to survive, and that led me back to prison. So, a lot of times, it's not about the choices we're making that we want to be in there because that's not a place that nobody wants to be."
Harris said many people enter prison with PTSD from witnessing or experiencing prior violence and abuse.
"And then while you're in prison, you get all this other stuff piled on top of you," he said "You see stabbings or rapes while you're in there, then on your release date, you're released back into society and they say 'We'll give you a job.' ... You can give me a job in the White House. You can give me a Rolls Royce to drive, and a mansion to live in, but if I don't deal with Donovan..."
The workshop also included a reentry simulation, demonstrating some of the barriers ex-felons often encounter when trying to reintegrate into society; a crucial factor in recidivism.
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To learn more, visit https://southstreetministries.org/ ; call 330-761-1992; or contact the Young Christian Professionals on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
On Twitter : @cgoshayREP