Contributors: Janelle Prueter, Linda Gatson-Rowe, and Sandy Kiehna, TASC, Inc.
(Chicago and Marion, IL) — Across Illinois, about 40,000 men and women each year try to find their way again in society after being released from in prison. About half will return to prison within three years.[i]
In a state where unemployment rates hover near 10 percent, people who have been incarcerated find it especially challenging to secure a steady job. (See In These Times article on employment challenges for people with criminal records.) Without work or a legal source of income, without housing or a stable place to live, without community support or positive peer and family relationships, the chances for successful reentry are diminished.
And that’s just the beginning. Attempts at successful reentry can be further obstructed by a host of health issues, ranging from dental pain to drug addiction to depression. Untreated trauma, stigma, discrimination, and insufficient problem-solving skills may factor in as well.
Local communities play a key role when it comes to reducing recidivism. They are natural allies and beneficiaries in recidivism reduction efforts because these efforts translate to less crime.
This is where “Summits of Hope” come in.
Summits of Hope are day-long resource fairs where formerly incarcerated men and women can find information and services that will help them reconnect to their communities and become responsible members of society. Introduced in Mt. Vernon in 2009 through a partnership between the Parole Division of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), the Jackson County Health Department HIV Services, and other local agencies, there are now a number of such summits held throughout the year in community settings across Illinois.
The purpose of the Summits of Hope is to enhance public safety through reduced recidivism. Each summit is an invitation-only event for people on parole and/or probation in the community where the summit is held. Organized by local agencies and volunteers, in partnership with community service vendors and several divisions of Illinois government, the summits offer a one-stop environment where participants can obtain the necessary assistance to begin to move past common barriers to success. Each local area forms a committee that spearheads the event, and the IDOC parole unit ensures that all events are consistent throughout the state. TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities) has helped plan and participate in each summit since they began.
Upon arriving at a local summit, each participant is assisted by a counselor or volunteer who guides the parolee through the maze of services and exhibits, focusing on those resources that are most pertinent to that individual. Resources include free HIV testing and service linkage, social services, shelters, food, clothing, mental health, substance abuse treatment, recovery support, education, job training, free or low cost medical, child care, college and adult education, assistance programs for utilities, transportation, and more. On-site services include the Secretary of State Mobile Unit to issue state identification cards (usually $20, but often underwritten by local organizations at each summit), medical screenings, H1N1 and other vaccinations, haircuts, mobile food pantries with clothing and other items, and demonstrations on how to dress for success.
People released from prison usually leave with no more than their private possessions and about $10. Most don’t have driver’s licenses or state identification cards, which are essential when it comes to applying for jobs or renting a place to live. By contrast, men and women leaving a Summit of Hope are likely to have a new state ID card, health screening results, appointment reminders, and a bag filled with information on agencies and community groups that offer help.
Between February 2010 and March 2012, more than a dozen Illinois communities hosted a total of 31 summits, reaching 5,871 men and women on parole or probation. Of these, more than 1,000 have received a state identification card and even more have received free HIV testing. In addition, the summits have offered hundreds of medical check-ups, blood pressure checks, H1N1 shots, and other vital services.
“Events like this give hope to clients who felt like they were all alone in their struggle,” says Tommie Johnson, recovery support services coordinator for TASC. Johnson helps set up peer-supported Winners Circles across Illinois for people who deal with the dual stigma of being in recovery from addiction and having a criminal record. For his ongoing work in establishing peer support groups for long-term recovery and success, he received the 2011 Unsung Hero Award from the Winners’ Circle Peer Support Network of Texas.
The Summits of Hope have received recognition for their innovative and generous efforts to support successful reentry. These awards include the 2009 Illinois Department of Public Health Takin’ it to the Streets’ Award for Innovative Outreach Programs; the 2010 Illinois Senate Recognition Award for Re-Entry; the 2010 Illinois Governor’s Gold Star Award for Re-Entry; the 2010 Federal Probation Award of Recognition; and the 2011 Model Practice Award from National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).
Even more than the awards, participants’ comments convey the need for and value of these summits. “Everything” was a common answer when attendees were asked what they liked most about their summit experience. Many expressed appreciation for the volunteers who walked them through the exhibits and resources. “My volunteer made sure I got all the information I needed,” wrote one participant. Another wrote, “Getting information on school and the diapers they gave me helped a lot, passing [the] drug test, everything, I am now more confident in getting a job.”
For most, the operative words were “thank you,” as in this reflection from a participant: ”Everybody treated me nice! Keep things going for the good of all, KEEP DOING THIS!!! WELL DONE!!”
Upcoming Summits of Hope will take place in Chicago, Rock Island, and Marion, Illinois. Please visit the Summit of Hope website to learn more about the summits, read participant feedback, and find out how you can volunteer or contribute to upcoming events.
Janelle Prueter is the director of statewide corrections and reentry services for TASC. Linda Gatson-Rowe is administrator over several of TASC’s corrections reentry programs in northern Illinois, and Sandy Kiehna administers reentry programs in southern Illinois.
[i] Pew Center on the States. (2011, April). State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, p. 10.