COLUMBIA — Allen McCarter is an ex-offender, so he can relate to the trouble people have starting over after prison. He recalls the struggle of one man who had been fortunate enough to find a job at a restaurant but couldn’t afford the uniform.
The man told McCarter: “I won’t be able to take the job. I don’t have the money to buy the clothes to get the job. I need the money in order to buy the clothes. I need the job to get the money to buy the clothes. What do I do?”
McCarter told the man to be honest with his employer and try to work out a solution. He has answers to questions like these as leader of Victory Circle, a peer support group for ex-offenders led by ex-offenders. The program got its start in Columbia in April 2007.
“My brother will tell me what I need to hear and not what I want to hear,” McCarter said. “A true friend and a true brother, he’ll tell you what you need to hear because he care(s) about you, and those are the principles that we practice in Victory Circle.”
Victory Circle is only open to men, and only those who have experienced jail, prison or addiction. It operates by three core principles: responsibility, accountability and productivity. McCarter said participants hold each other to these values by remaining in close contact and critiquing each other’s behavior.
Overcoming the public’s misconceptions about past offenders is one of the biggest challenges ex-offenders face.
“I think people in society think that when someone goes to prison, that’s it,” McCarter said. The reality is 97 percent of people in prison are released back into the community. Because of their limited resources and the stigma associated with committing crimes, ex-offenders often can’t adjust to society on their own.
“When these people return to our communities, they need an opportunity to live life differently. And that’s what we hope to do in Victory Circle, is to help these men make the transition from one way of living into another way of living, a responsible way of living,” McCarter said. “To learn how to get up and go to work every day, to be a good family member, to be a good neighbor, to be considerate of the rights of other people, to pay taxes.”
Steve Tatlow, community involvement coordinator for the Boone County Community Partnership organization, said leaving prison behind does not always mean an offender is free.
“When they re-enter our community they come back with a life sentence of a felony in the community ... If the community doesn’t change its perception of offenders being successful, we’re going to continue to have the level of crime that we have until we as a society and as a community change.”
Tatlow said communities could encourage past offenders to be successful by offering jobs, housing and an attitude of acceptance.
“We as society have to give them a chance,” Tatlow said. “If we don’t, we’re not a part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.”
In an effort to strengthen relationships within the community, Victory Circle is planning a series of volunteer projects this summer.
“We just need to identify where do we actually want to go and help,” McCarter said. “So the community will know that you do have men who have made bad choices and mistakes in their past who are doing it different today, and we want to help our community.”
WALK A MILE
One of the biggest obstacles ex-offenders face is finding a steady job. To educate business owners, Tatlow organizes simulations of re-entry process. Some past offenders affiliated with Victory Circle play the roles of police officers and family members. Others represent gang members who try to entice the participants back into their old lifestyle.
Ordinary citizens, who have never been in prison, act out obstacles an offender faces when trying to start over. They may struggle to find housing and employment or getting to their mandatory parole meetings without a car. Participants are often shocked to find how easily they resort to gang life or crime when they run out of options.
Dolores Wilson, a participant in a recent simulation put on by Tatlow, was arrested during her simulation for getting a ride from a “gang member” to her parole officer.
Wilson said the experience of turning to a gang member for help “when you’re hitting walls every place you turn” was painfully realistic. “And that kind of made an impression on me that yeah, they would be right there, very easy to go to when you get into a bind or need a ride.”
Wilson said the key was being able to interact with real offenders.
“I thought having the actual ex-offenders there added tremendously to the quality of the workshop and, for me, it reinforced things I already knew about the barriers, and it also taught me some things I didn’t know that these guys were dealing with.”
Wilson said she was surprised by the attitudes of the ex-offenders present at the simulation. “Another thing I was impressed with was that they weren’t coming in with any sort of feeling sorry for themselves or asking other people to have sympathy. And they took full accountability for what they had done wrong,” she said. “They weren’t trying to make any excuses.”
Wilson recounted the most moving experience for her.
“One guy I heard thanking his parole officer, who happened to be in the audience, for sending him to jail because he said that’s what finally made a difference for him.”
As a result of one re-entry simulation in March in Jefferson City, Tatlow and his group have received more than 30 invitations to do simulations across the state.
Wilson’s non-profit employment agency, Learning Opportunities Quality Works, specializes in individuals who are disabled. She notes many of the people they assist have criminal records. This organization is hosting a simulation in Hannibal on June 24 as well as one in Kirksville on July 7.
“The bottom line,” Wilson said , “is these folks need jobs. I think at some point, it’s all great information but employers are the ones that can really make a difference here.”
THE FINISH LINE
McCarter agrees wholeheartedly. He believes businesses that choose to hire offenders provide one of the first steps in breaking the revolving door of prisons. “If no one will give that criminal a job, what do you think he’s going to do? He’ll resort to old, bad criminal tactics.”
Despite the organization’s efforts, not everyone can be reached.
Bill Thomas, a member of Victory Circle for more than three months, said he and his fellow participants have been successful so far, but it requires motivation not everyone has.
“I’m interested in seeing the guy who was in prison next to me make it, if he’s making an effort,” Thomas said. “If he’s not making an effort at it, he’s on his own.”
The benefits of an ex-offender’s success ripple beyond the Victory Circle. McCarter said the group’s work is improving Columbia for everyone.
“They become added members, productive members in our communities as opposed to parasites, predators and criminals,” he said. “So our environment becomes safer. We need people in society to see that these individuals need an opportunity at employment and at housing.”
Encouraging reformed offenders to make choices that are beneficial to the community creates a positive environment for Columbia children to grow up in, Tatlow said.
“I’d sure rather have offenders employed — meaningfully engaged in our community — who are parents of kids who my kids go to school with, because I want my kids exposed to healthy experiences,” Tatlow said.
“What we’re actually doing is public safety,” McCarter said. “We’re helping the community because we’re seeing people transform their lives.”