By CHRISTOPHER ORLET
“If it weren’t for the re-entry program I’d be back in jail,” Ivan Carmona says.
Carmona spent seven years behind bars at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling. After his release he prayed he wouldn’t have to return to the streets of south Chicago. “I knew if I went back to Chicago I’d be right back in the same chaos,” he says.
Carmona’s prayers were answered. A social worker hooked him up with a re-entry program in Marion called the Green Reentry Program. “It sounded too good to be true,” he says.
The result has been life changing.
During those seven years of incarceration, Carmona studied botany and grew vegetables on the prison grounds. Now he grows food for local public schools and food pantries in the food deserts around Cairo as part of a green reentry opportunities program.
Carmona was one of those in attendance May 11 at the opening of a cooperative program that provides reentry services for ex-offenders. The new criminal justice ministry, sponsored by Our Brothers’ Keepers, which organizes re-entry services for the Diocese of Belleville; Lutheran Social Services, and New Life Community Church in East St. Louis, where the program is housed, is an example of three local religious groups coming together to make a difference.
“How fitting that these services are offered at a place called New Life,” says Father Christian Reuter, OFM, who along with Bishop Stanley G. Schlarman, started Our Brothers Keepers.
According to Lou Slapshak, OBK secretary, the new ministry connects ex-offenders with vital services that promote successful reintegration back into their community. Ideally, the services will give ex-offenders jobs skills and experience, a support system and a stable life.
“Without these things nearly all who are incarcerated will return to their communities without the necessary help and about half will be locked up within three to five years,” Slapshack says.
According to organizers, ex-offenders meet regularly with an outreach worker to create a plan for their future. All of their life needs are addressed, including employment, education, housing, personal needs and family relations. Services include a 23-day, computer-based program that covers all aspects of employment training, from resume writing to interview skills.
Father Reuter calls prisoner reentry — from death in confinement to freedom in society — one of the pathways to new life. “Reentry ministry makes us midwives for rebirth,” he says.
Meanwhile, Slapshak says Our Brothers’ Keepers is moving forward with plans to build a re-entry home in East St. Louis that will house six ex-offenders who will live as a family. “We’re providing the services first, but we will continue the search for the home,” he says.
Carmona, who is the father of two young daughters, says the program “gave me an outlet to put my energies to something good.”
For more information about the reentry programs contact Marie Franklin, program coordinator, at 618-900-1918.