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Citizens Circle helps ex-offenders back on their feet

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In a small conference room in the back of The Plains Public Library, a group of volunteers, program directors and “ex-offenders” gather to eat boiled hot dogs, exchange stories and discuss programs and opportunities to help a very particular transition. This conference room holds a few citizens of Athens County, and this is their Citizens Circle Reunion. 

The Citizens Circle started in 2007 when Kevin Bryan, Unit Management Chief at Southeastern Correctional Complex, heard about the program popping up in Cleveland and Columbus. 

The program is made up mostly of local agencies, concerned citizens and businesses that are working to help formerly incarcerated men and women make the transition back, from prison, out into the community. 

“No one holds any rank over anybody else. We work with the clients as part of The Circle so they realize the goals that they need to achieve in order for them to be successful,” Bryan said. “Some people don’t have a good structure of family, so we have that artificial support system.” 

The volunteers work with the clients to set up two to three goals, and at the beginning of the process, these goals are often very basic needs including food, shelter and income, Bryan said.

“I mean, I didn’t even have underwear [when I got home],” said Mindy, an ex-offender who wishes to remain anonymous. Mindy, 51 years old, was in prison for one year for two drug trafficking violations and complicity to theft of the elderly.

“The hardest thing was embarrassment, just people knowing that you were in prison. And at my age it was horrible,” Mindy said. “…to go into a place of employment and have to fill out the application, and they always have ‘Are you a felon or aren’t you a felon?’ I have to put yes because you can’t lie. They are going to find out anyway. And then for them to say sorry we don’t need you…It’s the hardest thing in the world to get back and find a job.”

The Citizens Circle has received 166 referrals from Athens, Hocking, Meigs, Vinton, Perry and Morgan Counties, according to an email from SCC Unit Secretary Corrina Dicken.

Potential clients are usually referred by caseworkers or agencies that know of someone who needs help making the transition. In order to become a client, an ex-offender must fill out an application answering a number of short answer questions such as, “Describe one or two times when you felt really proud of something you accomplished,” and “Describe your personal goals.”

“I look up what their criminal history was so I can kind of get a better understanding of their needs. I look up what programs they already took and stuff like that. And then I try to talk to them a little bit about their life goals so I know,” Dicken said. 

There tend to be different goals for different ex-offenders. Younger men and women tend to stay in touch with their families so they have a support system when they get out, while older, habitual offenders often burn bridges with their families and are left to fend for themselves, according to Bryan.

“There is no cookie cutter set of needs or how one person is going to come out compared to another person,” Bryan said. 

However, not everyone that seeks out the program necessarily succeeds. 

“If a client comes in and the client doesn’t want to make changes, then the Citizens Circle is not for them. They aren’t ready. They have to be willing to make those changes. They have to be law-abiding citizens,” Bryan said. 

Dicken estimates that since 2007 approximately 200 different people have attempted the program and only about a fourth have stuck with it.

“They have been so good to me, they even bought me a bed. They are helping me get my GED,” Mindy said. “I know I am a felon, but they made me feel like I wasn’t that bad of a felon.”

Mindy is now working as a part-time cook at a restaurant in Albany. 

Bryan said the success stories are what make the program and the work worth it. 

“We can’t ostracize someone from the community forever and expect that we are really helping the crime rate. We really need to focus on what causes crime and fundamentals.”

 

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