A Re-Entry Program That Works

What if college students and ex-offenders could live together, support and help each other find their place in society? A priest by the name of Father Jack Hickey and a group of Vanderbilt college students formed that radical idea in 1974 and named their mission after the penitent thief that Jesus forgave at the crucifixion. Shortly thereafter, the first Dismas house opened in concert with the Vanderbilt Prison Project and later a second Dismas house, spearheaded by the United Religious Community of St. Joseph County, opened in South Bend, Indiana.

For more than 40 years, Dismas has thrived as a national and international model for the re-entry of ex-offenders back into society. By providing a home where students and former offenders can live in community, Dismas offers a better chance of lowering the rate of recidivism, or the return back to crime and prison. While the National Institute of Justice reports an approximate recidivism rate of 72%, the Dismas House tracks its own recidivism rate to less than 25%. This accomplishment comes from the way in which each resident is welcomed, treated, mentored and counseled, while offering the necessary time it takes to break free of the cycle of crime and punishment, which can take many years.

The powerful combination of poverty and inequality, a weak family unit perhaps including childhood trauma or sexual abuse, substance abuse, addiction and even mental illness, creates the perfect path to prison and a cycle of crime. Very few prisons can boast of programs that address and heal these complex issues successfully, while prison re-entry programs barely scratch the surface in preparing inmates for the world outside. When ex-offenders find their way to Dismas -- either directed by the Courts or through making a direct application -- they are welcomed home and their transition back into the community begins.

The Dismas House in South Bend, Indiana
At the South Bend, Indiana, Dismas house, male and female residents live in a century-old home adjacent to downtown. Residents are ex-offenders, as well as college students from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University at South Bend, or other local colleges. Executive Director, Maria Kaczmarek, has led the program for almost 20 years and oversees a small staff charged with managing the house and the programs residents attend. Only 16 residents can live in the house at one time, allowing more personal one-on-one interaction and mentoring. It is in this mentoring that the task of empowering former offenders to find the strength within themselves to be productive members of society begins.

Residents are linked to physical/dental/mental health services and are provided case management, substance-abuse education and life-skills services. This requires constant networking among social-service agencies that provide them. Continuous erosion of the funding of these agencies makes the path even more treacherous for ex-offenders. Not only do most have no income to pay private rates for these necessary services, they have also been cut off from access to public ones, such as Section 8 vouchers for low-income housing or food stamps. The staff at Dismas works tirelessly to secure not only these types of services, but basic human needs, such as food, clothing, housing and medicine. In return for these services, residents have daily chores and responsibilities, as well as follow house rules of behavior and conduct.

Overseeing the operations of Dismas is a Board of Directors from many backgrounds, faiths, industries and agencies who work together to ensure the mission of Dismas thrives. One key Board Member is a Sister of the Holy Cross, Sister Sue Kintzele, who has built up a fund of private donations to assist offenders with bail. With her name etched into the county jail's walls as well as word-of-mouth reputation, her personal ministry of compassion shows offenders immediately that someone cares and will help. Other board members hold key positions in the legal community, social-service agencies and other private enterprises that believe all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and, most importantly, offered a second chance.

As long as there is a willingness to change and lead a positive life in the community, ex-offenders are extended opportunities through Dismas that they would not find anywhere else.

To rise above the obstacles, such as negative stereotypes, job discrimination, low-wage pay, lack of access to transportation and other barriers to meaningful employment, substance abuse and/or mental illness, the programs and support at Dismas can permanently alter an ex-offender's life. It is in these individual success stories that Dismas House endures. Yet in order to perpetuate its low rate of recidivism, Dismas, like many organizations of non-profit status, must appeal to the community to support it.

Unfortunately, ex-offenders are one of the least likely groups of people to get embraced in any society. As a result, the operating budget of Dismas survives on fundraisers, dwindling grants and private donations. In order to raise money, Dismas provides opportunities to educate the community-at-large by bringing in renowned speakers to dispel myths, discuss the need for prison reform and to reduce barriers to employment, to name a few.

This year, Dismas of South Bend invited a former offender to speak on his own transformation. Even after spending two decades in prison for a senseless crime, Shaka Senghor found the courage to atone for his actions through the power of words. He discovered a love of writing and wrote a book entitled "Writing My Wrongs" and emerged from prison five years ago to dedicate his life to youth mentorship and reforming the prison system. As a result of his efforts, he is an author of multiple books, three-time TED speaker, an M.I.T. Media Lab Fellow and a Black Male Engagement Leadership Award winner, among other honors. Shaka's 2014 TED talk "Why Your Worst Deeds Don't Define You" explains how he believed in himself enough to not be held hostage to his past. No longer mired in shame or casting blame, Shaka recognized how to take the reins of responsibility and live a life worthy of regard.

Shaka's powerful and personal story was shared with more than 200 local Dismas supporters and shined a bright light on the prison system in the United States, where more than 25% of the world's prison population is currently held. That statistic alone is sobering due to the fact that the United States has only 5% of the global population. And yet even though Shaka's story of transformation began on his own while in prison and is an anomaly, it is important to note that the majority of offenders, like Shaka, will eventually be released into society. If there is no path of personal transformation in prison for this explosive population of American prisoners, at least there is a model of transformation on the outside. At least there are organizations like Dismas and people like Shaka, that are working together and working diligently to bring restorative justice into communities across these great United States.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.