For former inmates, the first days of freedom are full of challenges, among the biggest is finding a job. That’s where Catholic Charities’ Cornerstone Builders Program comes in, but they need the help of local business.
In 1993, Danielle Metz received three life sentences plus an additional 20 years for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. For 23 years, she fought for clemency and on August 30, 2016, Metz was granted her freedom and joyously reunited with her three children.
Instead of becoming one of the 34% of former inmates in Louisiana that return to prison within three years, within the same year of her release, Metz received the Joseph Massenburg Memorial Award for Excellence in National Service for her exemplary commitment to service in the New Orleans community as a Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO) Americorps member.
Metz was able to successfully transition from prison life to a life of service with the help of CCANO’s Cornerstone Builders program — a reentry program for formerly incarcerated men and women based on rehabilitation through service. The program acts as the foundation of a transformative experience designed to benefit not only the individual, but the families and victims of crimes, as well as society.
“It was a starting point for my new life,” says Metz. “The program gave my life new meaning coming back into society. It was like a launching pad to become successful in everyday living.”
The first program of its kind when it was created 12 years ago, Cornerstone Builders uses the AmeriCorps model.
“Instead of tapping college students, however, we take on formerly incarcerated people,” says Program Director Ronnie Moore.
“We focus on leadership training,” he says. “More than just helping folks get off drugs or helping them to get a job, we challenge them to do more than just pay back but to become a part of the leadership structure. They become the service leadership in the community working side by side with the operators of the systems, such as the churches and universities that provide services to the community.”
When it comes to lowering prison recidivism, the first few days after release are crucial, which is why, in conjunction with the Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections, Cornerstone Builders provides help connecting people with job resources, emergency housing and immediate employment to persons within the first 72 hours of release from local correctional facilities, including the option of serving in Catholic Charities’ Food for Families/Food for Seniors program, which delivers monthly food boxes to low-income elderly individuals. While performing this service, participants receive a modest living allowance, an educational award and workforce development services to help them find permanent employment.
“Participants are able to earn an income and receive intensive case management while looking for a job,” Moore says.
Studies have shown that immediate employment and shelter assistance within this crucial period of time greatly reduces the likelihood of recidivism. In Louisiana, 43 percent of ex-offenders are likely to be back in jail within five years. However, if released prisoners are able to find and hold a job for three years, that rate drops by more than 50 percent.
Moore says Cornerstone relies on local businesses to help by being open to hiring formerly incarcerated individuals.
“We hope that business owners can look at these people as assets rather than liabilities,” says Moore. “Too often we make the assumption that because they engaged in crime or that they were poor and they lack talent and that is not always the case.”
Other Cornerstone Builders Programs Include:
Connecting Families — Bus Project
Cornerstone Builders’ Bus Project travels to all 13 state correctional facilities and connects hundreds of family members with incarcerated loved ones each year.
Since 2007, Cornerstone has been coordinating free bus service for New Orleans families who have loved ones in Louisiana detention facilities. The organization offer 17 trips: one each month and the remaining on major holidays.
“It provides a means of regular visits for many family members who cannot drive or who can’t afford to make the journey,” says Moore.
The goal is to promote healthy relationships, encourage a network for family support, provide an incentive for good behavior by inmates and inspire better cooperation between inmates and prison officials.
Supporting Children — Cornerstone Kids
A mentoring program for children ages 5 to 18 who have at least one incarcerated parent, Cornerstone Kids relies on community volunteers to provide support and encouragement to children. Mentors develop a positive relationship with the mentee through one-on-one activities and group meetings.
“Youth with an incarcerated parent experience trauma and stigma that negatively affect their mental health and wellbeing,” says Moore. “And it increases the likelihood of their living in poverty.”
Advocating for Systemic Change
Every year, Cornerstone Builders hosts a symposium that concentrates on systemic change in the criminal justice system. Government officials, nonprofit leaders, religious clergy, local business owners and formerly incarcerated individuals come together to discuss strategies to end mass incarceration. Another goal is to abolish the death penalty in Louisiana.
“A major emphasis of ours is on the revision of sentencing laws and re-entry bills,” Moore says. “Louisiana has the most legal restrictions on employment for ex-prisoners of any state in the nation. We are seeking to heal the damage that widespread incarceration has inflicted on our community.”
Syrita Steib-Martin is the executive director of Operation Restoration, a nonprofit that supports women and girls impacted by incarceration. Cornerstone and Moore often refer women to her organization.
“He is so knowledgeable and nonjudgemental and he helped navigate me through the system,” she says. “You know, they don’t tell you in prison about the barriers you’ll find when you’re released.”
Metz believes Cornerstone’s focus on giving back to the community was essential to her success.
“It makes others in the community know that they aren’t forgotten and that others care about their lives and existence.”
Major Fundraising Event:
NOLA to Angola
Every October, more than 50 cyclists participate in a three-day ride that spans 170 miles — from the corner of Tulane Avenue and Broad Street to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The event raises between $50,000 to $60,000 each year from sponsorships and pledges to support the Cornerstone Builders’ Bus Project.
Cornerstone receives money through private donations, grants and foundations, and from CCANO, St. Vincent DePaul and The Sisters of the Holy Family.
Annual Budget: $250,000
How Businesses Can Help Outside of Writing a Check:
Be open to hiring a formerly incarcerated individual.
Allow Moore and/or participants in the program to speak at a staff meeting.
Encourage employees to become tutors to the formerly incarcerated or go behind walls to help inmates receive their GEDs.
Attend the Annual Symposium for Systemic Change.
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