Circle of Support program helps ensure success of those in reentry

Photo courtesy of Madison Area Urban Ministry.

Photo courtesy of Madison Area Urban Ministry.

Few programs can claim the success rate of the JustDane (formerlyMadison Area Urban Ministry’s) Circle of Support, but then there aren’t too many other programs like it.

Sponsored by the Madison (Wis.) Area Urban Ministry – an interfaith social justice organization that deals with a wide range of social issues – Circle of Support is an innovative program that offers a circle of volunteers who meet on a weekly basis with a person in reentry. These volunteers welcome people home from prison and provide a support network to make sure that they successfully readjust to life on the outside and get the help they need.

During its decade of existence, the program has shown remarkable results. The recidivism rate of those who go through it is only 7 percent.

What’s the secret of its success?

According to John Givens, who has run the program for the past four years, it’s commitment – on both the part of the people getting out of prison and the people who volunteer to support them.

The program actually begins pre-release, when Givens goes into the two facilities he works with, the Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, Wis., and the Oregon Farm, and makes a presentation to people who are within six to nine months of going back to Dane County (where Madison is located).

“We work with them to look at the way they will be living when they get out,” Givens says. “We use RESTTE, or resident, employment, support, transportation, and treatment and added education in there as well. Those are areas we feel a person needs assistance with.”

At the same time that he’s recruiting inmates, Givens is also going out into the community to churches, faith-based groups and the University of Wisconsin to recruit volunteers, of which he needs quite a few. MUM has 13 groups going now and each has four to six volunteers, as well as what is referred to as the core circle member, or the person recently released from prison.

Both the volunteers and the core member must make a six-month commitment, and those volunteers who haven’t participated in the program before must go through a six-hour volunteer training that teaches them about the criminal justice system and how to deal with any problems that may come up.

Support not fixing

“We’re not trying to fix people,” Givens says. “We’re not in the fixing business. We’re supporting them physically and emotionally.” And that support begins the day the person walks out of prison. Givens helps them get temporary housing, clothing and medication, if they need it.

Then the circle gets involved, meeting with the core member every week for an hour and a half. At each meeting, the core member establishes reachable goals to achieve during the coming week and discusses what they’ve done to achieve the goals they set the previous week. These goals could be writing a resume or finding housing. By the end of the evening, the core member may have five or six goals to work on for the next week.

According to Givens, many of the volunteers do the circles over and over again. “We have one group of men from a church that have had 11 circles, “ he says. “Many people are in it for the long haul, and if they’ve had success they become committed. Most of them say, ‘Our six months are up, what do you have now?’”

And the commitment displayed by the core team members? The 7 percent recidivism rate speaks for itself.

Givens is happy to talk to anyone who might be thinking about starting a Circle of Support-type program of their own. He can be reached at the Madison Area Urban Ministry by calling 608-256-0906.


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