A faith-based program in Charlotte, N.C., uses trained mentors to help keep African Americans out of prison.
Bondel Cook has spent more than half of his 49 years incarcerated, serving time in five states on a variety of drug- and robbery-related charges. His last stint was at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., where he served 16 years for assault with a deadly weapon. Since his release on parole in 2008, he has marked his longest stretch as a free man since age 16.
For the first time in his adult life, he truly believes he has seen the inside of a jail cell for the last time. He credits Exodus Foundation.org, a faith-based organization dedicated to stopping the flow of African Americans into prison, for making the difference.
“I needed help and support, and Exodus gave me assurance that they were more than a job-readiness program and wanted to help a brother out with the issues of life,” Cook said. “All my life, I’ve been somebody’s number or statistic. The approach of Exodus is not to judge me but to make me accountable.”
Exodus Foundation.org is the brainchild of the Rev. Dr. Madeline McClenney-Sadler, an ordained Baptist minister. She views the mass incarceration of African-Americans as a crisis; according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total prison and jail population in 2009, while making up just 12 percent of the U.S. population in the 2010 census. She has made changing those numbers her life’s work.
During her childhood in Richmond, Va., McClenney-Sadler’s parents impressed upon her and her siblings their responsibility for making a difference in their community. While earning a degree in finance and then a master of divinity at Howard University, she volunteered at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the homeless shelter run by nationally known homeless activist Mitch Snyder. This experience was formative.
The desire to minister to ex-convicts in a meaningful way stayed with her when she moved to Durham, N.C., to pursue her Ph.D. at Duke University. She became involved in the prison ministry at a women’s correctional facility through her church and worked as a sentencing specialist with Reentry Inc. in Raleigh to learn the intricacies of the criminal justice system.
Her involvement with prison ministries made her aware of their shortcomings.
“The predominant model of going in to pray and sing hymns is not enough,” she said. “It reflects our own standoffishness and fear [of this population] that causes us to limit our ministry to the safety of the prison. True ministry requires a greater level of comfort with the risk involved. For many, there is a need to be reconciled with family members and their communities. We help people find their way back into the community.”
Without help, returning citizens, as McClenney-Sadler calls them, will more likely than not end up behind bars again.
“We know that 70 percent will return to prison within five years without community support, and roughly 50 percent will return within three years,” she said. She points to a study from the Department of Labor that found that having a mentor after release is a better predictor of whether a person will return to prison than anything else, including housing or employment.
Exodus’ Red Sea Crossings mentoring program seeks to provide this support. It’s this program, McClenney-Sadler said, that sets Exodus apart from other social service programs designed to help the formerly incarcerated.
“Our focus is on being a new set of friends for those coming out of prison,” she said.
Red Sea Crossings is based on the therapeutic friendship model Stephen Ministries, which was developed by the Rev. Kenneth C. Haugk in 1975 to train laypeople to care for the congregants he could not. McClenney-Sadler, the Exodus board and others in the organization are trained as Stephen Ministers, and some have received the more advanced Stephen Leader training. She used the Stephen Ministry approach when she created her own program of training mentors in a specific curriculum to work one-on-one with clients.
Exodus mentors are required to participate in monthly peer supervision -- a key component of the model. Joel Bretscher, communications director for Stephen Ministries, believes this mentoring model works for programs like Exodus because the close supervision helps mentors maintain boundaries with the mentees.
“Ongoing supervision for the lay ministers is key to make sure they don’t become a lone ranger or get into something over their heads,” he said.
Exodus mentors are recruited through churches and other community organizations. The courses in their training curriculum include “An Introduction to Mass Incarceration in the U.S.,” “Guiding Biblical Principles for Our Mission,” “Program Policies and Protocols,” “Mentors Do’s and Don’ts” and “Effective Communication.”
Newly released prisoners learn of Exodus in a variety of ways. Some have received fliers listing the program, along with other social services, before leaving prison. Others are referred by their church or parole/probation officer. Still others hear about the program through the media.
In order to participate, mentees must be at least 16 years old, have stable housing, not be facing active prison time and be willing to adhere to the program policy. Both mentor and mentee must make a one-year commitment, speak twice weekly and meet monthly.
Working one-on-one, mentors help mentees address and find new solutions to the old problems that might otherwise land them back behind bars. Exodus seeks to offer a vision of a different kind of life and practical advice on how to live it.
“My mentor didn’t make me feel like I was under him or anything,” Cook said. “He connected with me in a father-son way, and when things got tough, he was there to help me see that I could get through it and everything would be all right.”
Myra Byarm, 46, was one of the first people through the program when it opened in late 2004. She had been out of jail since 1999 after a decade of going in and out six times.
“It’s easy for returning citizens to take the path they’ve always taken. Unless there’s somebody there to steer you in the right direction, you’re going to do what you’ve always done,” Byarm said. “Exodus was a positive, intelligent environment that provided me the opportunities to do something different.
“Madeline never treated me as ‘less than.’ Knowing that somebody actually had empathy -- not sympathy -- for me, without being judgmental, meant a lot.”
Success is measured by two criteria: whether the mentor and mentee achieve their goals and the mentee recidivism rate. Exodus Foundation.org has served more than 250 people since 2004, and the recidivism rate is just 25 percent.
Exodus also awards need-based scholarships from $300 to $1000. The funds can be used for educational or training expenses including tests, transportation, living expenses, books and tuition. Of the six scholarship recipients to date, none have returned to prison.
Byarm, the first scholarship recipient, earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and an MBA from Montreat College, and she hopes to get a Ph.D. in management and organizational behavior. She works as a sales analyst for a global manufacturer and has served as treasurer on the Exodus board for five years.
Cook -- who is currently a scholarship recipient -- intends to keep that winning streak going. He is in his first year as a full-time student at a community college in Charlotte and plans to pursue a master’s degree in clinical psychology. This may seem like pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but Cook knows it is possible. Whenever he has doubts, his faith is renewed by remembering people like Myra Byarm.