The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 30, 2014

Area group reaches out to former prisoners

Star Beacon

ASHTABULA — A consortium of area agencies and individuals have created a group to help prisoners find a way back in to society.

“We were seeing a lot of our citizens in this community with felonies and they were facing barriers,” said Alice Harden, director of the Ashtabula Salvation Army who was one of the founders of Second Chance Citizen Circle.

A group of area agencies and professionals gathered in 2010 to see how they could help people from returning to prison and find needed jobs and housing.

Presently a wide variety of community agencies, and individuals, are involved in the program that meets 11:30 a.m. the third Tuesday of every month at the Salvation Army on Lake Avenue in Ashtabula.

Representatives of a variety of organizations including Signature Health, Community Counseling, Catholic Charities, Ashtabula Metropolitan Housing Authority and Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services participate in the program.

“We have 31 trained members in the community,” Harden said. She said each new member must take an eight-hour training course before joining the group.

Harden said an average of three to four people attend the monthly sessions. She said some people find what they need and don’t return while others are involved over a long period of time.

“In the last 12 months we have seen 26 (different) people,” Harden said.

Jill Valentic, assistant director of Catholic Services of Ashtabula County, said it is important that people leaving prison know that somebody cares about them.

“They are pleasantly surprised that someone’s listening,” Valentic said. She said the group is looking for more employers to give prisoners a second chance.

Diedre Fleming said the group made a huge difference in her life after she left prison after serving time for theft offenses that occurred because of a drug addiction.

Fleming said the group has helped her become a productive part of society and take leadership to help others overcome significant issues in their life.

“The thing with Citizen Circle is it doesn’t end when you leave the meeting. They continue to help me,” she said.

When Fleming completed the program and moved on with her life she didn’t forget those who helped her.

“I went back and got the training as a member. It’s awesome to be able to give back,” she said.

Fleming said the program makes the transition better for the individual and the community. “We are all a part of the community. People from prison are going to come here (from prison) whether we want them or not,” she said.

Steve Sargent, director of the Samaritan House and a member of the Circle, said he talks to prisoners at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution when they are about to be released. He said anyone that is coming back to Ashtabula County is made aware of the Circle.

Sargent said the state of Ohio’s re-entry program is considered one of the best in the country and is being used as an example for other states.