Posts tagged ‘prisons’

February 11, 2013

WOOF! (by Patricia N. Wernert)

“How would you like a puppy?” I was asked. Sounds like a pretty straightforward question that is posed everywhere. I would like to share why that very question was anything but ordinary when I was asked it in the early 1990s.

In 1993, I had been incarcerated 18 years and certainly had not experienced the touch of silky ears or big brown eyes looking at me during this time. I was being offered the unique opportunity of helping to start a prison program of raising puppies for “Pilot Dog.” As puppy raisers, we receive eight-week-old to raise as potential service dogs for visually impaired individuals. In my mind, gosh, what a great opportunity to give back to others.

Puppies require care, love, and gentle direction in learning basic commands. Prison rules put a good deal of added structure into what is usually easy. My puppy may need to “go potty,” but if it is “count time” the puppy has to wait. Try explaining that to an eight-week-old puppy in the middle of the night.

The upside of doing something like this is watching and guiding the tiny puppy as it grows into a beautiful dog. Your time and hard work develop before your eyes. No matter how bad a day you may have, you have to smile at the antics of a puppy. You start smiling, your mood improves, and you respond in a positive manner with other inmates or staff.

One of the few things a person in prison has any control over is how she or he reacts to any situation. Inmates are told when to go to bed, to get up, to perform bodily functions, to go eat, what to eat, what to wear, and what to do in about all aspects of life. I have found that keeping a positive mindset, even when adversity abounds makes a situation easier to get through. Having that puppy trip over its feet or run up to you makes you smile and it defuses whatever negative event that may have transpired earlier.

I am still training dogs in 2012 and 2013, and no one could have told me that I would still be doing it in prison. The incarceration sentence of 20-years-to-life is now approaching 38-to-life. Yeah, that is pretty depressing if I dwell on the negative aspect of this time. I look down on the nine-week-old black Lab I named “Cricket” curled up at my feet and see the positive. I am privileged to raise this puppy and she will eventually give a person freedom.

When a dog is partnered, we see the letter that Pilot Dog sends to the institution, and I feel a ssense of helping another person. We never know the actual name of the person, only if it is a man or woman.

I have worked with training other service disciplines in another prison-based program. This is very worthwhile, too.

Dogs are so much more than pets and capable of doing a wide variety of tasts to help humans live a fuller and safer life. If you happen to see a service dog guiding its person along, it just might be a dog that began its service in a prison. People in prison can begin to their future, too. We just need a chance.

 

 

Editor’s Note:  Patricia N. Wernert is incarcerated at Dayton Correctional Institution. She is one of the leaders in a special program that helps raise dogs that provide future assistance to visually impaired individuals.

 

 

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February 11, 2013

ENCOUNTERING THE OTHER (story by Jessica Baltzersen)

“In our society, we don’t know what to do with people that become other,” says Dr. Kate Lassiter, assistant professor of Religious and Pastoral Studies at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The “other” she is referring to are the men and women incarcerated whose voices go unheard and who, as some people perceive, become permanently identified as a delinquent or criminal. When she was 21-years old, Lassiter found herself working with inmates inside a correctional institution. She did not commit a crime, nor was she incarcerated. Instead, she spent her time inside prison walls dedicating her summer to prison ministry work.

It was the summer of 2000, in Hagerstown, Maryland. Lassiter divided her time working at Roxbury Correctional Institution, Maryland Correctional Institution, and Maryland Correctional Training Center. She entered the facilities not knowing what experiences she would encounter.

Lassiter never expected to be working in prison ministry. “It was just something I stumbled into,” she said.

She worked with a Catholic nun in a male correctional facility where she was known as “Sister Kate,” and for three days a week she performed counseling sessions, organized prayer and worship groups, and led church services. The other two days a week she spent in after-prison ministry at a social service agency that helped those individuals who were no longer incarcerated. This service provided basic needs, food, and also housing referrals.

“Prisons were originally religious institutions intended for solitude and reflection,” says Lassiter. Through counseling inmates, she was able to witness the metanoia or spiritual transformation of men who wanted to turn their lives around for the better.

“It was hard, though, because I was never there 24/7,” she says. “There’s no way I could fully grasp or understand what it would be like to be in solitude all of the time.” She came to this realization on July 4, 2000. As she was walking out of the prison she glanced back at the barbed wire surrounding the facility and then looked up at the dark night sky being lit up with fireworks. Seeing the two elements, one symbolizing freedom and the other oppression, she realized how contrary the two were and how she was simply an outsider trying to understand what the people inside the walls were going through.

“Religion sets up guidelines for our lives,” says Lassiter, “and religion has an ability to empower one person.”

She remembered one man in particular, who at the time weighed over 400 pounds. After he began to accept Jesus into his life, he was inspired to not only turn his life around spiritually, but mentally and physically as well. He taught himself to run and lost nearly 200 pounds. He also went back and pursued his GED. After he allowed God into his life it inspired him to change his entire self.

The justice system uses incarceration to keep people oppressed. But to some of those who are incarcerated it is a “community to call home, where they encourage each other,” says Lassiter. In experiencing incarceration, an inmate can view it as a punishment or it can be viewed as a second chance to look within oneself and realize that through spirituality one has the ability to change his or her life.

Twelve years ago, Lassiter worked with what she describes as “people on the edge.” Now, as an assistant professor in the Department of Religious and Pastoral Studies, she still keeps in touch with her mentor and continues research around social justice issues to “support, guide and  nourish those who find themselves incarcerated.

Lassiter believes that she positively influenced men’s lives through her ministry work and counseling.

Humbly, she says, “I don’t want to claim that I changed anyone’s life. It is just something I was called to do.”

August 19, 2011

Amanda’s Tapestry: The Art of Achieving – by Deb Scott

I met Amanda when she was incarcerated in 2007 at Franklin Pre-Release Center, and she entered and completed the Vineyard Columbus mentoring program. In her words, “If I wouldn’t have had the mentoring program, I wouldn’t have had such a strong belief system.”

Amanda says that this strong belief system helped her be the strong-minded person she needed to be to re-enter the community after being incarcerated. She was released after serving five years in February 2011.

Amanda completed over 50 re-entry and rehabilitative programs while incarcerated. For example, she completed her GED and worked for four years with two off-site work programs at Ohio Penal Industries and the Ohio State Fairgrounds. Amanda also completed two years in Tapestry, a segregated therapeutic community for addicts in prison. Even though she used hertime wisely, taking advantage of every opportunity inside, as she stepped outside the walls of prison with fresh hope and in anticipation of a new start, she was not prepared for the overwhelming discouragement and frustration. She submitted 60-80 job applications with only four job interviews. Because of her felony record, Amanda said there are too few resources for jobs and housing. She found out that “…no one wants to hire a felon or rent to one because, they think you’re trouble, it’s very discouraging and frustrating. It’s hard, really hard.”

Recently, Amanda was a resident in transitional housing and she valued this post-release living environment. She believes this enabled her to make a better transition back into the community because, Amanda said, “They offered a schedule, direction and the ability to totally re-locate yourself.”

Transitional housing facilities are a great place to live, but it’s still hard. The residents are expected to get a job, but a job search requires bus fare which is expensive and most women don’t have the money necessary. Amanda was able to secure bus fare with the help of her family and church community. She acquired a job and rode the bus 1-3/4 hour with four transfers each way.  As she noticed, “A lot of women don’t have this option and they return to old places, people and things…what they know… because old ‘friends’ will give them a place to stay and a meal, but they end up back in the same lifestyle that sent them to prison in the first place.”

While in prison, Amanda finished 2-1/2 years of college but on the outside, when she applied to three different colleges, she experienced discrimination because of her felony conviction. She found college admission offices difficult to work with and very rude once they knew her past. Amanda recognized that in order to get a better job she needed more education, but if she didn’t persevere that wouldn’t happen.

Again, she saw how discouraging it was to try and better oneself after being incarcerated and understood why so many women didn’t make it on the outside. The paperwork alone is overwhelming and, she says, “You have to explain yourself 50 milliontimes as to why you did what you did.” It was her faith in and her relationship with God that reminded her of who she is now.  She says, “Good thing I know the Lord ‘cause He had plans for me that nobody else could stop.”

 

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Editor’s Note: Amanda Marks is doing very well in her new living environment. She is making positive contributions to society and re-connecting to family. RED! also acknowledges the superior work that Deb Scott does as a mentor to women incarcerated in prison in Ohio, particularly in Ohio Reformatory for Women and in Franklin Pre-Release Center.