Program helps prisoners re-enter communities
BEAVER, Pa. (AP) — James Hammerly, 36, called himself a “frequent flyer,” cycling in and out of jail most of his adult life for various crimes: assault, burglary, theft — “everything. I was out of my mind. I didn’t know who I was,” he said.
Last Monday, he was released from the Beaver County Jail after a six-month incarceration for violating parole.
Hammerly fully expected to end up back behind bars having no place to call home and nothing but the clothes on his back.
“I thought if I commit another crime I’d have someplace to go,” he said.
Once in the system, it’s hard to get out, said Hammerly.
While in jail, he heard of a new program just launched June 17 to support formerly incarcerated residents as they re-enter their communities.
It’s a collaborative effort of Beaver County United that meets at Uncommon Grounds in Aliquippa and Deliverance Temple Ministries ROOTS Inc., also based in Aliquippa, to re-integrate former prisoners into society by providing help with housing, jobs, and drug and alcohol recovery, along with a duffel bag full of personal-care items and informational resources.
Dean Williams, community organizer with Beaver County United, calls the union with ROOTS (Reaching Over Obstacles to Succeed) a “perfect marriage” as both entities commit to “give people better opportunities” to realize their full potential as productive and responsible citizens.
After months of groundwork, organizers from both organizations approached Warden William Schouppe who fully embraces the program simply dubbed the “duffel bag program,” said Jackie Royal, a member of both Beaver County United and ROOTS.
“He was all in,” Royal said, allowing them to speak with inmates on each pod and distribute pamphlets on the program.
“We got a very favorable response from the people, almost a response of relief that people had somewhere to go and opportunities to get resources,” Williams said.
“As soon as we got to the parking lot, we got calls,” he said.
Without such intervention, recidivism is inevitable, Royal said.
“They walk into town and get caught back up in the same cycle of madness,” he said. “We wanted to catch them down there (jail). ROOTS is the perfect place to bring them to do intake and help with the situation.”
ROOTS helps the homeless and those battling addictions by offering peer support, housing, literacy, advocacy, education and recovery plans.
“Once they get here, we let them know we have resources available so they don’t go back to the same thing, which is the crime that got them in jail in the first place,” Royal said.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t know all the resources we have,” he said, plus networks with other local assistance agencies such as the Franklin Center in Aliquippa, and Cornerstone and Trails Ministries in Beaver Falls.
The day of release, a prisoner is asked to call a Beaver County United or ROOTS staff member who schedules transportation to ROOTS headquarters on Franklin Avenue where intake specialists Connie Mathews and the Rev. Marvin C. Moreland, pastor of Deliverance Temple Ministries Church of God in Christ, assess support services that are needed.
“My personal philosophy is if we can get them before they come here, we have a better chance of them getting a good start,” Moreland said. “Once they reach familiar territory and hook up with old friends, we’ve missed the window of opportunity to allow them to get a nice, fresh start.”
Each newly released prisoner receives a duffel bag with toiletries like toothbrush and toothpaste, dental floss, shaving cream, razors, deodorant, brush and comb, shampoo, soap, nail clippers, socks and sanitary supplies for women. The bag also contains voter registration cards. Those incarcerated for a felony conviction are ineligible to vote, but voting rights are restored upon release from prison.
Williams said duffel bags and contents are donated by area churches, Beaver County United and ROOTS members, and Beaver County Voice for Change, a grassroots organization.
‘It’s a miracle’
Moreland predicts Hammerly, who lived in Ambridge and Aliquippa, will be the “poster child” for the nascent program. “So far, he’s at the top of the list.”
Initially, Moreland said he wasn’t so sure.
Hammerly, one of five recently released prisoners who went through intake, accepted a duffel bag and documents, but “like so many other times they say ‘I’ll be back,’” Moreland said. “James left and I didn’t know if he’d come back.”
But Hammerly returned, “just like he said he would,” Moreland said.
“Before he left — and these were his exact words: ‘I’m at the point now I’ll do whatever it takes.’ Those are the words of a man that has hit bottom and is desperate to work his way back up,” Moreland said.
When Hammerly went to ROOTS, “there was hope,” he said.
“Somebody actually cared. They gave me everything. They even put food in my stomach. Strangers actually cared. They gave me every resource I could even ask for,” he said.
“I’ll be honest,” Hammerly said. “I heard it all before. People say they’re going to do something and they don’t do it. I came here and didn’t have to ask for nothing ... It was a godsend. There is hope, a fresh start. I’m a prime example.”
Hammerly is an Army veteran, and Mathews and Royal are working to get him military benefits. He’s temporarily staying at a three-quarter house for those in recovery and attending recovery meetings.
Eventually, he’d like to get a construction job.
“I don’t worry about where I put my head. I don’t have to worry about what I’m putting in my stomach. I have everything,” said Hammerly. “It’s a miracle. I never would have believed it.”
Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/