JEFFERSON CITY — Inside a sparsely furnished room, 30-odd plastic chairs are lined up facing a small stage. Outside the window, two fences topped with barbed wire run parallel, a guard tower emerging from the tangle of steel. Ten inmates in pristine suits mingle with each other and prison staff.
Algoa Correctional Center, located on No More Victims Road outside Jefferson City, is a minimum-security prison and the home to a new program attempting to curb rampant prison recidivism and felon unemployment.
Friday morning, the 10 participants, all awaiting release in the coming months, graduated from the Save Our Sons prison program. Save Our Sons is run by the Urban League, a national civil rights organization. The program seeks to help men from underserved communities find employment and livable wages. Jamie Dennis runs the program for the St. Louis chapter of the organization and was bringing the program to job fairs in corrections facilities when he met Meryl Miller.
Miller, the Missouri Department of Corrections' institutional activity coordinator, began to realize he shared a number of goals with Dennis. They thought it made no sense to wait until inmates were released to teach them the skills offered by the Save Our Sons program. They got to work creating a version of the program that would be introduced to inmates facing release and continue to work with them as they reentered society. In August, with 12 volunteers, the program kicked off under Dennis and Miller's leadership.
Two months later, the fruits of their labor are evident. Gathered in the chapel of the prison, the co-founders of the program spoke briefly before handing the stage over to the participants, who were preparing to graduate from the program.
Many of them mentioned being taught skills such as creating a resume, understanding capitalism and offering a short professional introduction, or as Dennis put it, “how to remain marketable.” But they seemed to feel the personal development involved was far more important. One theme emerged from everyone involved: the desire to change and move on to a better chapter in their lives.
“Change is about growth,” said Emory Hayes, choking up as he expressed just what the program has meant to him. He talked excitedly about the opportunity to reenter the lives of his daughters and move on with his life.
Jason Parker, going home in just 22 days, hopes to open a custom car and bike shop. He notes that the co-founders are at the heart of the program.
“They’re like the odd couple, but they’re passionate about what they do,” he said. The inmates affectionately refer to Jaime as “Brother” Dennis, and their affection is clearly returned.
“I’m surrounded by a lot of talent and a lot of wisdom,” said Dennis. His excitement about the potential for the program is palpable, and he’ll maintain an active role in the lives of the participants upon their release. Miller shares his hopes, saying he envisions a statewide program.
In Missouri, 47% of inmates will return to prison within five years, per the Department of Corrections. Recidivism rates and mass incarceration are a national problem. The United States has roughly 4.4% of the world’s population but 22% of the world's prisoners.
A number of the program participants reflect on how challenging it can be to change their lifestyles and the people around them — in and out of prison. But there is hope that the Save Our Sons prison program can be a step in the right direction. Miller expects to begin a new class in a month or so.
Meanwhile, the 10 men on stage (one man dropped out of the program, while another was transferred after completing it but prior to graduation) look forward to the next step in their lives.
“I feel like I can help others with my story,” said Hayes. Dennis offers his support.
“This is just one chapter in your book … the book is going to continue.”
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