April 22, 2012
By DAN SPALDING THE GOSHEN NEWS
ELKHART — Working with former inmates to help them obtain work and immerse themselves successfully back into society is tough enough.
But trying to establish such a program locally is proving just as challenging for Bill Anderson and Phil Keller.
Anderson is the executive director of It’s Possible Inc., a fledgling non-profit group that is trying to establish itself in Elkhart County. Keller is program director.
As of right now, the two men have a temporary office provided by the Elkhart County Sheriff’s department, but otherwise, are unpaid, self-funded and seeking donations.
The program was established last year and Anderson and Keller have sent out nearly 50 letters appealing to various groups, churches and community leaders seeking support. But other than a temporary office through the sheriff and a good conversation with the county prosecutor, their attempt to generate feedback has been met with silence, Anderson said.
“Not to respond at all to letters or phone calls kind of makes you wonder if the community really wants to embrace it,” Anderson said. “There’s definitely a problem and we all know that a large number of people are coming back to Elkhart County from (Indiana Department of Corrections).”
Future success of the program, he said, depends on how much the community believes in what they are doing.
Striving for normalcy
Despite the lack of feedback, the two men will soon begin meeting with inmates at the county jail who are scheduled for release within the next year to begin working with them to find work and housing.
In doing so, Anderson and Keller hope to put a dent in the age-old problem of inmates who transition from being locked up in prison to locked out of any chance to live a normal, stable life outside of prison.
“By helping these people help themselves,” Keller explained, “we improve the quality of life and safety for everyone.”
It’s Possible Inc., is part of the Elkhart County Reentry Initiative program, which pulls together numerous government leaders, agencies and groups in hopes of successfully reintegrating offenders into the community.
Sheriff Brad Rogers is a supporter of the program.
Reentry programs such as It’s Possible Inc., are sorely needed in the community, Rogers said, because they help set the stage for ex-offenders to be empowered and “come back to our community where they are not re-victimizing us all over again.”
Anderson, a native of Niles, Mich., worked for several years as a consultant for prison reentry services at Rikers Island, the prison that serves New York City. He studied criminal justice and has a master’s degree in social work.
Keller served 18 years for murder and earned a master’s degree in ministry with a concentration in counseling from Grace College after being released from prison eight years ago.
Keller has worked as a counselor in Indiana prisons and was volunteering at the Elkhart County jail when the sheriff encouraged him to get involved in Elkhart County Reentry Initiative, which began about a year ago.
“We’re kind of a unique team here,” Keller said. “We can cover things from two different angles. We can cover a lot of bases.”
Aside from setting up the program, Anderson and Keller are working on two fund raising efforts. They need money to operate and are also seeking donations to purchase an office on Benham Avenue in downtown Elkhart.
They have a web site, Elkhartpossible.org, and are seeking donations for the purchase of the building.
The two men have an office at the Elkhart County Criminal Justice Complex on C.R. 26. They said they prefer the Benham location because it’s accessible to many of the people who could benefit from the program.
“That’s where a lot of the crime is and that’s where a lot of the ex-offenders are,” Anderson said. “We believe being there, we will be more of a positive than a negative.”
Often a struggle
They hope to work with both inmates and ex-offenders in the county who are struggling with adjusting to life beyond prison.
Some inmates have never held down a real job and lack the understanding of how to successfully seek a job.
Upon release, inmates often struggle to find housing and employment, which quickly creates a sense of frustration and anxiety, especially if they have family who is eager for them to begin providing support, Anderson said.
“All they want is a livable wage,” Keller said.
The public also stands to benefit through less crime and reduced cost of incarceration, Anderson said.
Elkhart County sees about 700 former inmates return to the county every year, Anderson said
Helping former inmates find a stable life after prison helps reduce the chances they end up committing future crimes and returning to prison.
According to a study by the Center for Criminal Justice Research at Indiana University, Indianapolis, if the county reduced the recidivism rate by one percent — roughly seven offenders — the savings in incarceration would be $318,000.
Working with the ex-offenders is a better choice than ignoring them, Anderson and Keller said.
“It’s not like the citizens of Elkhart can meet these people at the Toll Road exit and say. ‘We’re not ready for you — take ’em some place else,’” Keller said. “They’re coming. This is where they were sentenced from. This is where they have to return to.”