Posted August 2, 202112:57 pm
Angela Regan is a miracle disguised by time. It took decades for her to overcome addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine, then metamorphosize into a scholar and leader of women looking for a second chance after prison.
A spiritual experience was the catalyst. Regan, born in Byesville, about 60 miles east of Columbus, but raised in North Carolina, became a Christian in the early 2000s. It was an act of despondency, but it changed her life.
“I had been asking God to let me die but he never did,” says Regan, 47. “Finally, I asked him to save me instead.”
Regan was then inspired to seek an education. In 2016, she earned an associate degree in science at Ohio University. She found that college kept her out of trouble, so she kept studying. While working toward a four-year psychology degree at OU, she gained an interest in wrongful convictions and former prison inmates reentering society, so she picked up a second major. In 2017, she graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, one in psychology, the other in sociology-criminology. A master’s degree in law, justice and culture followed in summer 2020, and she’s about to earn a second master’s, in sociology, this year.
For a time, Regan didn’t know where all this education was leading her. Then she learned that the number of women incarcerated in Ohio had been growing at twice the rate of men, largely due to drug addiction and stiff state drug laws. In turn, that meant women, after serving their sentences, were leaving prison in relatively large numbers. In 2014 alone, the number of women completing their time increased by 1.4 percent, while the number of men leaving prison decreased by 1.2 percent.
Regan also discovered that these women were in desperate need of safehouses to help them transition back to society. She learned how safehouses operate during a three-day trip to Los Angeles, where she met with officials at A New Way of Life, a provider of housing and support for formerly incarcerated women. A New Way of Life runs nine safehouses in the Los Angeles area and has been looking to expand nationwide.
Regan – today a trained crisis counselor, certified peer recovery supporter and licensed chemical dependency counselor assistant – decided to bring the New Way of Life network to Ohio. In 2019, she established Welcome Home SIS, a nonprofit, Christ-centered safehouse for women in Byesville, her town of birth. A grant from New Way of Life initially covered the cost of leasing the house, which can fit six women comfortably.
“This opportunity came and God just threw it at me,” Regan says.
Regan is eager to open a second Ohio safehouse for women because the need is great. She’s searching for funds.
“If we don’t catch these women out the door of the prison, we run the risk of losing them,” Regan says. “Some end up in halfway houses, but there are so many drugs in a lot of them. It’s easy to fall right back into the same situations. Here (at Welcome Home SIS), it’s the first time they’ve felt safe in a long time.”
Reentry services & COVID-19
Reentry services for both women and men exist throughout Ohio, and although some were interrupted or limited last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many have been restored. The services are sometimes interwoven with other institutions or agencies.
For example, the Hamilton County Justice Center in Cincinnati includes a reentry pod, operated by the county’s Office of Reentry. Women in the pod are taught behavior modification, conflict resolution, moral reasoning and parenting skills, all of which can help them on the outside. In the pod they receive help finding housing, food, clothes and jobs, and addicts are directed to sober living houses.
Meanwhile, the Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry partners with and gives funding to other agencies and nonprofits that provide services to men and women returning from jails or prisons.
“We are a smaller department so what we do takes a community-wide effort, bringing all the partners together,” says Simeon Best, director of the Cuyahoga County reentry office.
Best’s office works with Towards Employment, a Cleveland nonprofit that assists anyone, including returning inmates and prisoners, facing barriers to employment. Clients are eligible for career planning, life coaching and skill building, and Towards Employment can also arrange for transportation and supply tools and uniforms. Its legal department stops evictions and foreclosures and clears away debt.
Another Cuyahoga County reentry office partner is Oriana House, where those reentering society can receive mental-health or substance-abuse treatment. Oriana’s North Star Neighborhood Reentry Resource Center in Cleveland lifts clients back to their feet.
At the start of 2020, the Cuyahoga County reentry office and the Case Western Reserve University School of Law launched the Second Chance Reentry Legal Clinic, which provides free legal services to men and women just released from prison or jail. Students in their final year of law school, for example, help nonviolent offenders, like women who were human-trafficked and forced into prostitution, seal their criminal records so they can more easily find employment.
“The clinic gets our students out into the community and helps them understand the criminal justice system,” says Hannah Christ, fellow at the reentry legal clinic. “Usually they’re doing in-depth analyses of law in an ivory tower, but this lets them see how run-ins with the law can affect people and families.”
Continuing these types of services turned complicated and more difficult when COVID-19 hit. Offices shut down, while prisons and jails were releasing people early, increasing the reentry population. Also, rising unemployment made it tougher for everyone, let alone returning inmates and prisoners, to find work.
The reentry clinic at Case Western adapted by communicating with clients on the phone and through Zoom. Then, in June, the clinic, Cuyahoga County reentry office, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office created a new-and-improved virtual legal clinic, open to anyone who lives or had a case adjudicated in the county.
Those needing assistance from the virtual clinic fill out online applications to learn from the public defender’s office if they qualify for record-sealing. If not, Legal Aid or Case Western students determine if they can obtain a Certificate of Qualification for Employment, which, among other things, protects an employer who hires someone with a criminal record from claims of negligent hiring.
COVID-19 stalls & adjustments
In other cases, the pandemic has stalled services. For example, the Cuyahoga County reentry office had referred clients to Aspire Greater Cleveland, which involved Cuyahoga County Public Library educators going into jails to help prisoners prepare for their high-school equivalency exams. When the jails closed last year, the program was suspended. “We’re still just waiting to see if we can go back in,” Best says.
Trina Jackson, director of the Hamilton County Office of Reentry, says her office turned to the telephone during the pandemic, conversing with clients 1,700 times in 2020. It wasn’t ideal, she says, because it’s easier and faster getting to know someone, and determining their needs, in person.
River City Correctional Center – a Cincinnati alternative for nonviolent offenders, where clients are taught problem-solving, addiction relapse prevention and job readiness – continued to set aside one pod for incarcerated people transitioning back to society.
However, Lisa Titus, River City’s executive director, says one program for women called Moving On, which aims to reduce criminal behavior in women while improving their thinking, health and well-being, was temporarily halted, partly due to COVID-19, partly due to staff changes.
Meanwhile, Welcome Home SIS was challenged during the pandemic because a significant part of its program is to integrate women with the community around them – through Bible studies, for example – and inviting community members to dinner. All of that stopped because of COVID-19.
The good news was that the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio awarded Welcome Home SIS a grant for new computers. The safehouse was able to offer its residents virtual Narcotics Anonymous meetings and counseling sessions, and women applied for jobs online, although few jobs were out there.
Regan said Welcome Home SIS has begun opening itself up to the outside world again. Earlier this year, residents started a Get Fresh garden project, in which they grow vegetables to eat, market and sell.
“A lot of these women never had the opportunity to start their own business,” Regan says. “It helps with independence and critical thinking.”
From prison to radio
Mary Evans didn’t hide away during the pandemic. The Dayton radio journalist, with three partners in media, started a business called Journalism Lab. They teach writing, social media, audio journalism, videography and media marketing to underserved communities, including immigrants and refugees from The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Evans is another one of those miracles, like Regan. She hosts a weekly radio show/podcast, ReEntry Stories, on National Public Radio station WYSO-FM in Yellow Springs, near Dayton. The show features conversations with people who were once in prison, and they talk about how they re-entered society and the challenges they overcame.
Evans herself was incarcerated from 2010-2017 for drug trafficking, spending time in both Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville and Dayton Correctional Institution. Like Regan, she climbed her way up through education. Her first taste of school came in 2015 when Antioch College sent students to her prison to teach an anthropology class on gender and race.
“It was impactful for me,” says Evans, 39. “Growing up in a rural area, I didn’t know about the amazing Black people who were pivotal in history until Antioch came in. I knew education would save me. I became the model inmate. And every Friday, when Antioch came in, I knew I would be treated like a human being, not just a number.”
While in prison, Evans obtained two associate degrees, one in computer user support systems, the other in supply chain management, from Sinclair Community College in Dayton. Unsure of her career ambitions, she also obtained a certificate for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning work.
“I just wanted to be in the workplace,” Evans says. “I came from a small town, and it was hard to get a job there, especially someone coming from prison.”
Evans finished her education at Sinclair with a perfect grade point average, which coupled with her financial need, won her a free-ride scholarship at Antioch. She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree with a self-designed major – business of interdisciplinary media arts – in which she studied journalism, video, radio, history, anthropology and computer coding.
While still in college, Evans landed a co-op with WYSO, where she learned about radio and the NPR way. Her drive and enthusiasm so impressed station managers that in 2018 they granted her wish for her own radio show/podcast. Funding for the program comes from Sinclair and the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices.
“It was important for others to have others tell their stories,” Evans says. “It’s not about me but the community I represent, allowing them to shine, saying how they have been successful. The power is in the stories.”
Christ said the Cuyahoga County-Case Western virtual legal clinic would like to expand into housing and eviction services, and help those denied housing and rental assistance through the Housing Choice Voucher Program – commonly known as Section 8 housing – which is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We have a lot of Section 8 denial, and while people don’t need a lawyer for that, it can be a difficult process to navigate,” Christ says. “A lot of people don’t know they can appeal a Section 8 denial. Having access to an attorney is an added benefit that can get landlords to abide by the legal requirements of the (federal) Fair Housing Act.”
Meanwhile, Evans wants to join the Antioch College alumni board and convince the school to have more classes in prison.
“Everyone is deserving of an education, no matter who you are,” Evans says. “It brought me back to reality.”