“I know in my heart that if it wasn’t for Amicus I would still be in prison.”
Released in fall of 2012, James is tasting freedom for the first time in 28 years. He’s out and determined to stay out because he believes that’s the best way to thank those who helped him.
The world looked bleak for James as he grew up in Louisiana with a family struggling with alcoholism, mental illness, abuse and more. He belonged to a sharecropper family in which education was something that was possible only after the harvest came in. As a result, James was functionally illiterate for much of his life.
His first taste of incarceration came 45 years ago at age 13 when he was caught breaking into a home, looking for food. He recalls spending a year in county jail and upon his release being placed on a bus to Chicago. A family in Chicago tried to be supportive but James rebelled and found his way back to the street, stealing what he could. He eventually followed the promise of work to Minnesota.
He had started using cocaine and was high, looking for cash and more drugs, when he and some cohorts broke into a local home. James didn’t know there was an elderly woman in the house and he came across her in the bedroom. The woman started screaming and James panicked, squeezing her throat to stop the noise. He crushed her windpipe and the woman died.
He was caught, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Part of James froze on that day, nearly 29 years ago, and he stayed that way for 16 years.
“I’d been doing time, for a long time and never really thought I’d be doing something else.”
The thaw came about 13 years ago. James described meeting with Susan, an Amicus staffer who took the time to talk with James and convince him that he could try to make positive changes and improve his chances for release. He agreed to be matched with a One to One volunteer. He was matched with Pete, and that was the start of a friendship of 13 years and counting.
“Pete saw something in me that I didn’t see myself,” James said.
With Pete’s encouragement James threw himself into his efforts to reclaim hope, attending dozens of classes and seminars, learning to read and getting his GED. He got involved with an Amicus monthly support group called Connections and participated in an Amicus program customized for African American inmates preparing to reenter society. James attracted the attention of Department of Corrections personnel and he had a surprise waiting for him the next time he was called before a parole board.
“Nobody understands what it feels like to try to convince eight people that I’ve made changes, but you know what happened? They convinced me!”
James was told that if he could stay on the right track and incident free for one more year, he would be placed on supervised release, and one year later he walked into the Amicus offices. Amicus helped him in a variety of ways, connecting him with transportation and providing basics such as hygiene items, signing him up for “Heads Up Strategies” to help him practice his job seeking skills and maintain employment.
James has a tough road ahead but he’s making progress. He found a low-paying but steady job and has kept it for several months and is looking forward to moving from a halfway house into his own place. He attends the Amicus Ex-Offender Support Group and has spoken at volunteer information sessions in support of Amicus One to One. And through it all, his One to One friend, Pete has been a constant.
James recently ran across an early mugshot of himself as a younger man and he believes the image bears little resemblance to who he is now.
“It was a dead person on that card. It took a lot of time but I’m alive again.”
“I can never bring that lady back that I killed, but I learned. I’m telling you this day that I am an entirely changed man.”
“Amicus was the first place ever that stood up for me and showed me a different world. I know I don’t want to let anybody down, because they stood up for me.”
Editor’s Note- This post came to Amicus from Barry, an inmate currently serving a life sentence at Minnesota Correctional Facility – Stillwater. Determined to show he has changed from the young man who committed his crimes, Barry has worked during his incarceration to earn two Associate degrees, his Bachelors, and is nearing his Masters degree in Business. He has also become an experienced group leader, mentor and teacher. Barry is a regular participant in the Amicus Connections group at Stillwater and was matched with Kevin through the One to One program in 2010.
“Blessed are they who have the gift of making friends, for it is one of God’s best gifts. It involves many things, but above all, the power of going out of one’s self and appreciating whatever is noble and loving in another” - THOMAS HUGHES (1822-1896).
I’ve been involved with Amicus for the past 14 years.
It is by far one of the most enriching experiences of my life. The dedication and commitment of the staff and volunteers has helped to bring hope to my life in ways I never thought possible. Hope is such a valued commodity, especially while incarcerated. When you find it, it is such a precious gift. The Amicus One to One Program has been a tremendous blessing in my life. The program matches a volunteer from the community with an individual who is incarcerated. It brings people together and looks to build community friendships that are lasting. What I like so much about the program is that it’s based on who you are as a person, not the mistakes you’ve made. It gives opportunities to find meaningful friendships and helps to build a sense of belonging.
My Amicus friend is Kevin. Our friendship is one of the most rewarding experiences I have. God has truly blessed me with this friendship. The quote from Thomas Hughes says it all, “the power of going out of one’s self and appreciating whatever is noble and loving in another.” This is the embodiment of what Kevin has done for me. Our relationship has grown in many ways.
I consider Kevin one of my closest friends and enjoy our visits and conversations immensely. This friendship has helped bring purpose to my life. It has encouraged me to continue to strive for excellence in all that I do and to build healthy and lasting relationships with all those around me.
A special thank you goes to every person who has invested in the lives of those behind the walls – I am truly grateful!
For Immediate Release
Amicus Radius Honored as 2012 Program of the Year by Minnesota Women’s Consortium
Program works with teenage girls involved in the juvenile justice system
The Minnesota Women’s Consortium has chosen the Amicus Radius Program to receive their Program of the Year Award. Amicus Radius works with girls and young women ages 12 to 18 who are involved in the juvenile justice system.
The program’s efforts are currently focused on girls in Hennepin County and works with about 90 girls and young women a year.
The Minnesota Women’s Consortium is an association of 150+ organizations and thousands of individuals committed to achieving full equality for women and girls. Their mission is to achieve full equality for women and girls by connecting organizations that share this goal. Each year, the Women’s Consortium selects organizations and individuals who exemplify leadership in improving the status of women and girls through role modeling, leadership development, and advocacy. In honoring the Amicus Radius Program, the consortium’s board of directors cited the program’s work to empower girls in the juvenile justice system, among other reasons.
Radius offers girls a 14-week in-depth relationship-based program that addresses their main issues and helps them discover strengths from within, despite the messiness of life. It seeks to restore family, peer and community connections, engage the girls as active architects of their own success and to provide content which is relevant to the real world of each girl.
Amicus Radius Program Director Marjorie D. Grevious said her team was surprised and is grateful for this recognition.
“It’s rare for a direct service youth worker to get any recognition at all. We just expect to do our work, and our sense of fulfillment comes more from the successes we see in the young people we work with. So for our team to get this type of honor is very meaningful,” Grevious said.
The award will be presented at the Minnesota Women’s Consortium annual gala on Thursday, Jan. 24, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel St. Paul-Riverfront. Other honorees include the St. Cloud Chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and Kim Nelson, VP of External Relations at General Mills. A Lifetime Achievement Award will be awarded to Lonna Sczczesny of Employment Action Center. Information on purchasing tickets is available by calling 651-228-0338.
by Steve Nelson, Amicus Communications Director
Sometimes one of the hidden blessings of a loss is that we see more clearly the gifts we had been given.
It is in that bittersweet intersection between gratitude and loss that we at Amicus find ourselves at the passing of a true friend.
John Blackstone passed away yesterday. John had volunteered at our agency for over two decades, and we had grown to rely on him as a voice of reason, a mentor, a spokesperson and an advocate for those the system would not listen to.
Amicus President Louise Wolfgramm remembers how John first came to volunteer, around the time of the first Gulf War. She said John approached her at church and told her how frustrated he was by the killing and violence of the Gulf War. He decided his response was to volunteer for Amicus. When she asked why, John said he couldn’t do much about the violence in the Middle East but he COULD help in a small way by responding restoratively to the violence he saw here in his own community.
John volunteered for the Amicus One to One program and he stayed in that role from 1990 to his passing yesterday. He was matched over periods of many years each with four different inmates. Amicus’ Russel Balenger recalls that John’s matches were with inmates who often had significant challenges to overcome, and John saw a couple of his One to One friends return to prison because of mistakes made after release. One of his One to One friends died of injuries in a car crash while evading police. John felt those losses like anyone would if they had happened to a close friend, but he stayed with the program.
“He was easy to match because he could handle whatever you put in front of him,” Russel recalls. “He knew how to get beyond all the BS and get to the real issues. He could bring clarity to situations that seemed hopeless.”
Chris Doege, Amicus Director of Reentry Services, remembers John as one of Amicus’ four “Beatles.” There were four volunteers, John, Paul, George and Ray who formed the backbone of the first volunteer groups who worked with MnCOSA. MnCOSA, Minnesota Circles of Support and Accountability, was a new pilot program Amicus established with the Department of Correction in order to reach out to inmates with sex offenses on their records who were reentering society. Chris recalls that “The Beatles” didn’t get that nickname solely for the fact that the names nearly matched up with the Liverpool version. It was because these four were among the best volunteers Amicus had ever worked with. They were rock stars.
Chris said John stood out because he understood that it wasn’t about him as a volunteer. It was about the match.
“He REALLY understood what the program is about,” Chris said. “It’s about making a connection with someone and letting that connection take you where it will.”
At Amicus this Thanksgiving, our connection with John has taken us down a byway with only one sign along the side of a long and winding road. The sign is not flashy or oversized or particularly colorful. Still, it comes from the hearts of people in prison, people who are staying out of prison, fellow volunteers and staff. As we pass these words, we will nod, remember John, and continue traveling that road to a more just society.
“Thank You, Friend.”
In a few short hours it’s going to be Thursday, November 15. That’s important because it is “Give to the Max Day.” This is the time when Minnesota nonprofits, including Amicus, often ask engaged people like you to make an online donation to support their cause.
Much of this blog has been devoted toward stories from those we work with and those who volunteer or intern with Amicus. Our agency is effective in large part because we know those stories. To us they’re more than stories. They’re how we spend our lives. We’re proud that for us it’s usually more about relationships we’ve built than the numbers served. We’re not MacDonalds and don’t intend to be. We’re more like “Louise’s Neighborhood Cafe.” We take the time to know people. That said, we do have numbers and they’re important ones for us. As you consider a donation to Amicus on “Give to the Max Day”, check out these digits…
- 2,000 - For many people leaving prison, Amicus Reconnect is the place they go when they don’t know where to go next. Last year, over 2,000 people seeking help on searches for jobs and housing, bus passes to get around town, hats and gloves to ward off the cold, found Reconnect.
- 7 percent – That’s the percentage of participants in the Amicus One to One program who go back to prison for a new felony after being released. Compare that to the Minnesota Department of Corrections number – 23 percent. We believe that those we work with are highly motivated and their success in the community belongs to them, but we also know that Amicus must be doing something right too.
- 703,000 – That’s the estimated number of US Armed Forces Veterans who have been involved in the justice system. Many are struggling with mental health issues and chemical dependency issues related to their time in service. In response to that need, Amicus joined with other agencies in the region to start the Amicus Veterans Justice Program.
- 187 – That’s the number of donors to Amicus last year. It’s not that many compared to a lot of nonprofits in the area. We believe it takes a special person to understand that people who have committed crimes and paid the price for them usually need support for starting a better chapter in their lives and not more punishment.
- 12-18 – That’s the age of the participants in the Amicus Radius program. About 90 girls a year are referred to our program for counseling, support, resources and the space to help them recover from trauma and decide how they want to walk the life paths before them.
- 40 – That’s the number of years our President, Louise Wolfgramm, has dedicated to leading Amicus. It’s not easy keeping a small nonprofit vital and successful these days, and thanks in great part to Louise, Amicus has not only survived, it has become one of the region’s most stalwart leaders in helping people find second chances. Louise is retiring in 2013 and we dedicate every penny we receive in 2012 Give to the Max Day to the “Louise Wolfgramm Transition Fund.” This fund will help keep Amicus services going strong as we journey through one of the most important transitions in the agency’s history.
Thanks for your consideration and please Give to the Max!
Susan Mwarabu has been a volunteer social media contributor for Amicus since 2011. Susan relocated to North Carolina and is currently in graduate school, attaining her Masters in Public Administration. Her experiences with the justice system have prompted her series of letters to Amicus which will highlight her first meeting with Amicus, her probation experiences, as well as how she has dealt with job hunting challenges.
By Susan Mwarabu
I have often wondered what other people feel when they have to go through a process of incarceration, probation or parole, like I did. How do they feel when they can’t find work, and even more so, how do they interact with people who don’t know them?
When I walk down the street, I often wonder whether just by looking at me, people know how much more I have to overcome. Not only do I have to overcome employment barriers, I also have to overcome housing barriers, then I have to overcome barriers to participating fully in the social life of my neighborhood. More often than not, I feel like I am a spectator to something that I am not truly a part off… the world.
It takes lots of compartmentalizing, a healthy dose of creativity and the ability of being able to laugh at the sheer absurdity of life. That’s how you get through the invisible sentence you have to live with after committing your mistake. It follows you everywhere and like an invisible hand with a vice like grip, forces you to live on the margins of life. Looking in, I often wonder whether I can ever truly be part of the world again. Have I forever been changed by this experience?
To get through my first two years of probation, I compartmentalized. Just like eating and sleeping, seeing my probation officer was an important “to-do” on my list. And with the new Justice Reinvestment Act going into effect, a probation officer wields more power than ever before. They have the power to arrest you for violations and therefore I expressed a healthy amount of respect in both how I spoke to them, as well as in my body language.
Outside of my probation duties, I conducted a semi-normal life. I worked (eventually, after two years of unemployment) and interacted with my coworkers but never too closely. After all, I didn’t want them visiting me and chancing the probation officer doing a home visit. It just wasn’t a scenario I wanted to experience. So I have a compartment for everyone. My coworkers stay in their compartment; at work.
Then there is my school compartment. I decided to go back to school. It was a little jarring when one of my classmates turned out to be a police officer. But even that became normal after a while. ‘I wonder if she understands why I am reluctant to share my personal life.’ As a student I work extra hard because I know I have to do my best to be a cut above the rest. ‘I have barriers to overcome.’ I remind myself every time exhaustion threatens to take over.
Family and home are my last compartments. I often find myself looking forward to being around those who really know me. Like my family and even Amicus. I don’t have to worry they will judge me. I don’t have to worry what they will think if they really knew everything about me. This is truly what has kept me going the last couple of years.
I hope everyone who has ever felt the loneliness of trying to find their footing finds this helpful. It takes time to find a place in the world after a mistake, whatever it might be. Living out the invisible sentence of trying to get back into the community can be difficult. There may even be restrictions on where you can be and what you can do and with whom you can interact with. There are even times when things don’t go back to what they were before. Finding a new way to live life with the terms presented to you is the key and being kind to yourself in understanding that there are those things that may never be the same again.
But most importantly find time to laugh.