O God, each and every day we are surrounded with temptations to wander from Your word, and the enticements to falter are very appealing. Strengthen our resolve in this prayer so that the good You call us to do outweighs the distractions that pull us away from Your mission. We ask for the power of Your life and mission today and forever.
A criminal is branded a criminal for life. Obtaining basic necessities like a job, housing, or education is difficult because the label of “criminal” creates constant barriers. Our society has systems to prosecute the guilty and punish them for their crimes, but it lacks a reconciliatory system to aide men and women as they transfer out of prison and return to society. The stigma of their past crimes shadows them as they attempt to rebuild a new life in their community. Though they have served their time, a felony conviction is a lifelong sentence.The HELP Program seeks to change the way Cincinnati and the world treat its Returning Citizens (the men and women who are reentering society after being convicted of a felony or misdemeanor as well as possible incarceration). Marianist Brother Mike Murphy established The HELP Program in 2007 with a desire to support Returning Citizens by offering mentoring, social justice advocacy, job training and other resources to men who fit the programs criteria:
- Felony or misdemeanor conviction
- Undereducated: lacking high school diploma or GED
- Driver’s License issues such as suspension
Most men in The HELP Program are 16-40 years of age, high school drop outs with felony convictions, homeless, and have come to HELP with little hope for their future.
One of the challenges to reentry is finding relevant employment. According to Hamilton County Director of Reentry DeAnna Hoskins, 4,821 residents of Hamilton County are currently housed by the Department of Corrections. Every year, Hamilton County sends approximately 2,500 citizens to prison and receives back into the community another 2,500 Returning Citizens. Upon reentry, Returning Citizens are blocked from employment by Ohio’s legal statues that prevent Returning Citizens from working in schools and barber shops and as health care providers, realtors, bartenders, septic tank cleaners and in countless other jobs.
HELP’s Director Dominic Duren, a Returning Citizen himself, describes the economic injustices that Returning Citizens face: “Economic justice? They let them (Returning Citizens) work…, but they can never be a manager or supervisor or move up. That’s a hard pill to swallow knowing that you have to come in here and work as hard as everybody else…Economic justice, for me, is when the pay matches the work. The pay should match the commitment to the work, because it is hard enough to get in the door. The only doors that are open are the doors that deny Returning Citizens quality living conditions, health care, and nutrition.”
There are systemic socioeconomic inequalities present in our system, that create obstacles for Returning Citizens even before they commit the first crime: single parent households, the foster care system, our urban communities inundated with drugs and crime, racism, and, of course, a lack of quality education. There is an argument to be made that the children of Cincinnati’s urban crime-blighted neighborhoods are on a collision course with a criminal destiny.
“Inner city children are not taught the importance of saving and growing money. This is a strong issue for inner city children. Children from wealth are taught from an early age what wealth is. And “Life insurance” – that is a foreign word. You barely have car insurance. You don’t grow up knowing the importance of that…” says Duren. “In fact you are being set up to be blocked out of society. That is what a bad credit score is. You will have higher interest rates, but you don’t know that. That’s never been taught to children of the inner city.”
“It’s a bleak picture to think that economic injustices are woven throughout the very fabric of some communities,” Duren admits, “ but HELP hasn’t given up yet.” Instead the Director is focused on “empowering individuals to change the course of their lives through counseling, training, mentoring, legal assistance, and job placement and advocating for policy changes that positively affect systemic issues of chronic poverty and low educational achievements, while simultaneously addressing cycles of criminal activities and non-employment.”
It would be miraculous to achieve all that. But HELP believes in miracles. March 25 is the feast day of St. Dismas, the name that tradition has given the Penitent Thief of Luke’s Gospel. This year, HELP will celebrate the saint of penitent thieves at yet another round of advocacy meetings. “Maybe the poor will always be among us, but don’t let that stop you from trying. One thing is for certain,” according to Duren, “I am certain that Returning Citizens will consistently hit a glass ceiling unless there are people in the community willing to invest in these men and women and give them an opportunity.” Let’s hope that he’s right. Let’s hope all our “Penitent Thieves” get a second chance this Lenten season.
 Luke 23:40-41
Sydney M. Prochazka works with Bro. Mike Murphy, S.M. and the men of the HELP Program. She is a Xavier alumna (PPP) and the occasional teacher of America Government & Politics for the Political Science department. When work gets challenging, she thinks of the parable of the starfish that get chucked back into the ocean; “you can’t save them all, but it matters to that one.”