Chicago, IL (PressExposure) September 28, 2006 -- An innovative program called Community Support Advisory Council (CSAC), an initiative of the Illinois Department of Corrections, is helping hundreds of ex-offenders learn how to become productive citizens while providing loving support to their families.
The work begins at the Sheridan Correctional Center, dedicated solely to drug treatment in the state of Illinois. Through CSAC, the formerly incarcerated meet with community and block leaders on a weekly basis right in their community, to find ways to re-enter society without returning to crime.
James Coleman, Project Director for CSAC's Prisoner Re-Entry Services program, is an African-American minister, former chef and a formerly incarcerated individual himself. He helps former prisoners see the possibilities of a new life, from both inside and outside the Sheridan prison. Through his work with CSAC, Coleman serves as a liaison between the corrections system and the community, visiting men while they are in prison, and helping them with support when they return home. He also makes policy recommendations to the Department of Corrections and helps develop best practices which can be duplicated throughout Illinois prisons.
Block leaders and other interested community residents can attend a monthly meeting, where they meet with parole officers, police, social service providers and formerly incarcerated individuals, to discuss ways to help the returning inmate keep from returning to a life of crime. At these meetings, formerly incarcerated men are often given awards and citations for staying clean and "doing the right thing."
CSAC also assists ex-offenders with housing, job leads and other immediate needs. Weekly Overcomers Group Meetings offer ex-offenders and their families an opportunity to share their troubles and find support from each other and the broader community.
"It's really about relationship building," explains Coleman, with a ready smile. "Sixty percent of the population in the Sheridan prison is from the Chicago area. Some are ready for change, and some aren't. About 80% of ex-offenders from Sheridan come to our offices." Most are African-American, like himself.
"I work by teaching the job preparedness and training classes," says Coleman. "I talk with every individual. I inform them of changes in their community during their incarceration and what services are available to them upon their release. They're invited to our office after their release for whatever they need."
Sheridan Prison uses the Gateway Foundation and the Safer Foundation to assist inmates with developing social, life and job skills while they are incarcerated, but the role of the community in providing an infrastructure for the returning inmates cannot be minimized. Coleman has witnessed miracles happen through CSAC's Overcomers group meetings. "The meetings are faith-based; and all are welcome," says Coleman. "When I started the meetings in 2004, I wanted to teach from the Bible, but that's not what God wanted. People needed to talk...to understand that the power to change was within themselves. It's just awesome to see how people are beginning to understand their own capacity through their own faith."
Coleman reflects on the progress of CSAC over the past two years with satisfaction. "We've made a great difference. About 60% of the Austin's residents are directly impacted by someone in their family who has been incarcerated." Yet the impact of the change is difficult to measure. He relates a story of a young girl, who considered suicide while her father was incarcerated. Through the support from the CSAC's Overcomers meetings, she gained hope and strength to overcome her suicidal thoughts, and now attends meetings with her father at her side.
Walter Terry, 34, an ex-offender, who now is drug-free and holds a full-time job at Streetwise says, "You have to be active, positive. My job is my foundation. In my spare time, I make meetings. It all plays a part. It's good to talk about your feelings. If you don't deal with your feelings, your feelings will deal with you."
"It's inspirational," says Sedrick Waller, 45, an ex-offender whose life has totally turned around. "The meetings feed the body, mind and spirit. People come from all walks of life... looking for a way out. It helped me to keep my commitment to a new way of life, and made me feel like I belonged to someplace. People embrace you for who are you. It's my family outside of my family... they let you know you're not alone." Waller, now employed as an ambulance driver, got married and pays rent. "God makes a way out of no way. Now, I'm giving back to others." Waller was in and out of the penitentiary eight times, and encourages others to have hope. He has also connected six ex-offenders to employment opportunities.
Stanley Owens, 27, a student in the last stage of getting his truck-driving license, looks forward to the weekly meetings. "Anytime I have questions, I can go to the CSAC meetings for support. You can get good advice; you can't go wrong."
Reginald Banks, 39, one of the original members of the Overcomers meetings, now serves as an Outreach Workers at CSAC. "It gave me a whole lot of different outlets. I learned how to stay out of prison, and not go back to the old routines, like using and selling drugs. If you have the mindset to do it, anything's possible."
For more information, contact James Coleman, CSAC Director at 773-786-0226.