Program helps ex-offenders learn how to smile
by Chaya Harris
Jun 04, 2008
St. Leonard's House
In 1995, 18-year-old Christopher Roach was looking for cash. No stranger to auto theft, he decided to try an armed robbery; the first one brought in $1,700.
The easy money became addictive; a few robberies later he was arrested.
He spent the next nine years in prison, away from a newborn son he never met, dealing with extreme anger problems. When he was released in 2004 – on his 27th birthday – without work experience or a high school diploma, his anger and frustration intensified. All paths seemed to point back to prison.
Luckily, Roach’s sister referred him to St. Leonard’s House.
“I had to make a choice: either go back to the penitentiary because of conditions I couldn’t deal with or go to an alternative program,” Roach said. “I don’t know where I’d be without St. Leonard’s. Before I came here, I didn’t have help.”
St. Leonard’s House near South Hoyne and West Madison on the West Side has been helping formerly incarcerated men and women since 1954, making it the oldest residential program of its kind in Chicago.
“The numbers of individuals wanting and needing help upon their exit from prison has risen dramatically in the past 20 years,” said executive director Bob Dougherty, “and we have tried to respond to that as best we could. When I came here 20 years ago, we were just one building.”
Now the program provides temporary housing for 40 men at St. Leonard’s and semi-permanent housing for aanother 40 men at St. Andrew’s Court. Clients are expected to participate in educational and skills classes and various counseling between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., but nothing is mandatory.
“We’re a very structured program,” said program director Chris Vaughn, “but we’re not a halfway house.”
Meets a need
According to Vaughn, who is both a former police and corrections officer, their program is an essential part of the community and makes up for what the criminal justice system fails to do.
“What we do here, it’s not rocket science,” he said. “We’re here just basically helping people help themselves.”
Residents are St. Leonard’s are free to make their own decisions and are there voluntarily.
“A lot of halfway houses are just like penitentiaries, but not here,” Roach said. “We have a beautiful courtyard, which always relaxes me. There’s been times I’ve sat there and just dozed off to la-la land.”
James Jones, an Episcopalian priest, originally founded the house for men, but Grace House, which currently serves 18 women, demonstrates how the program has adapted as returning to life after prison became a more prevalent problem.
“Father Jones had a simple vision for men coming out of Cook County jail,” Vaughn said, adding that Jones wanted to provide a “place where they could catch their breath and find their destination.”
In the’50s, the average stay was two weeks. Now it is about six months. “But even six months is not a long time to help people deal with lifelong behavior,” he said.
Roach, in just four months at St. Leonard’s, earned his diploma, received employment and housing assistance and, most important to him, got a new outlook on life. He said the anger management help St. Leonard’s offers is unique among programs helping ex-offenders.
“I had a big problem with my attitude and self esteem; I always felt like nobody couldn’t do nothing for me,” he said. “But here, they taught me patience and tolerance.”
That patience helped Roach develop a relationship with his 8-year-old son, De’ Onte, whom he saw for the first time when he was released from jail.
“My biggest fear was whether or not he would accept me,” Roach said. He thought having a steady job and reliable income would impress his son, and he brought him anything he wanted.
“That turned out to be a bad thing.”
Roach said he turned to family values he learned at St. Leonard’s and began to understand that some things take time. “Now, I got a relationship with my son that I wouldn’t give away for anything, but that was one of my biggest challenges,” he said. “I wanted to try so hard to get back some of the time I lost.”
Each ex-offender is assigned a case manager when entering St. Leonard’s. Together, they explore anger, regret and other strong emotions that accompany imprisonment. Although case managers coordinate basic needs and legal services, they ensure the emotional and mental well being along with group counseling.
Dougherty said it’s one of the distinctive services at St. Leonard’s. “We provide intensive and comprehensive case management services that help individuals move to the deeper level of investigating what it was in their lives that was so problematic that they ended up in prison,” he said. “For nine out of 10, sometimes 10 out 10, it was some kind of substance addiction.”
Case management was an indispensable service for Roach. Not only did it help his psychological health, it also gave him a career.
“I’m a case manager. I assist with employment services, substance abuse counseling, day-to-day activities, even help with clothing – just things to get everything going back in their life.” He decided to work for St. Leonard’s about three years ago and try to give back all the support he once received.
“It’s a lot, but I’m the first person to contact if the guys need help,” Roach said. Serving about 20 clients, he learned to multitask very quickly. “Thank god for post-it pads,” he said.
For one of his clients, Cyrus Turner, Roach’s hard work is inspiring.
Turner said he has changed since he came to St. Leonard’s about three months ago, after serving two years for burglary. “Thanks to Chris [Roach], I learned how to be patient and how to listen. I’m learning how to be a better father.”
Turner, who heard about the program through friends, was grateful to be accepted and looks forward to completing St. Leonard’s.
He dreams of running a barber shop and owning a home for his children, but no matter what his future brings, he does not ever see himself back in jail.
“My favorite part of the program is the meetings,” Turner said.
“You get to talk and open up about yourself,” he said, “and, I like hearing about other people’s experiences so I can learn. Everything they got to offer here is good; it’s you that has to be willing to use it.”
A good track record
Not all of St. Leonard’s participants are successful. Their recidivism rate is about 20 percent, which means that one out of every five clients will go back to prison.
For all formerly incarcerated men and women in Illinois, the recidivism rate is about 54 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.
St. Leonard’s estimates its operating costs to be about $19,000 per client; they say it costs at least $25,000 per inmate at a correctional facility.
Dougherty said his biggest challenge is generating the money to pay for their services, which are offered free to clients.
“We’re never too sure of where the budget is going to come from, but each year our services and number of individuals continue to grow. The hardest part of my job is making sure we keep the lights on, keep the heat on and are able to pay our staff.”
One of the ways St. Leonard’s plans to expand and simultaneously be more self-sufficient is by opening a coffee shop across from the Mabel Manning Public Library on Madison.
Above the shop, there will be second-stage housing for women leaving Grace House.
“It will be an employment opportunity for many participants in our food service program to put their skills to use in the community and get practical experience for their resumes,” Vaughn said.
Roach plans to grow with the program and take on more and more responsibilities. “In the future, I’d like to be executive director. I want to learn every level of the program.”
Advocates for prison reform, including Dougherty, would like to see more programs like the one at St. Leonard’s and believe a supportive approach to addressing root problems, often substance abuse, is the answer to reducing prison populations and crime.
Roach says he is no longer angry at the system and has learned about himself, which he says will keep him from making bad decisions. “It’s done a lot for me and has given me a sense of security about myself and my life,” he said. “It’s like guaranteed confidence.”
“They taught me how to smile.”http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=92771
St. Leonard House Ministires: http://www.slministries.org/index.htm