“(The inmates) are all born to be great, born to be leaders. They just need to soak in a little light,” said Claire Sullivan, Lynn director for Straight Ahead Ministries. Sullivan works closely with most, if not all, of the program’s participants and has known some of them for years.
The Essex County Sheriff’s office received a $653,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to go toward aiding inmates at the jail in Middleton, Sheriff’s Spokesman Paul Fleming said. As part of the grant’s stipulations, the jail has collaborated with outside organizations, including Straight Ahead Ministries, to provide guidance and instruction to the inmates.
Straight Ahead Ministries is a national organization founded by Larson and based in Worcester, with outreach programs set up in 16 states. It specifically helps the 50 or so inmates from Lynn who are between the ages of 17 and 25.
The Lynn program is a pilot program, testing to see if providing these services to soon-to-be-released inmates makes a definitive difference in their lives and those of the community. If it goes well, plans are in the works for the Lynn-based program to receive additional funding and for a sister program to be created in the crime-ridden city of Lawrence.
The program’s success is measured by how well the participants avoid drug and alcohol abuse and build their lives around jobs, education and their families after they leave jail. The Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts is collecting data for the program to ensure it is indeed making headway.
When the inmates are released, re-entry workers are waiting to shuttle them back to Lynn and hopefully to a new life. The organization aids them in getting re-acquainted with life on the outside without going back to their old ways.
Sullivan explained that Straight Ahead Ministries takes the young men out for food and provides clothing and a haircut if necessary. They take care of the big things, too, like helping them enroll and register for higher education, showing them how to obtain food stamps from the Department of Transitional Assistance, getting them checked out at the Lynn Community Health Center and can even providing temporary housing, all thanks to various organizations and businesses throughout Lynn.
“We have incredible collaboration back in Lynn,” Sullivan said. “It doesn’t take a village, it takes a city, and (the inmates) are valued.”
Part of the program’s demonstration of its success may also be a cause of it. Several of the re-entry workers associated with Straight Ahead Ministries are former inmates or gang members themselves. They’re the ones waiting at an inmate’s release date to shepherd them into a crime-free life.
Former inmate Jason Ludwig grew up in a dysfunctional Lynn family and began a life of crime at age 12. Ludwig spent a combined six years inside the Massachussets House of Correction before turning his life around and joining up with Straight Ahead. He is now an ordained minister, a certified barber and Straight Ahead’s lead re-entry worker. He said he truly believes the program’s work is making a difference, especially when inmates see that he has been where they are.
“Any time you see success coming from someone that’s been there, done that, it brings people hope,” Ludwig said.
Another re-entry worker, 22-year-old Sokhan Prak, has known Sullivan for eight years, when she visited his juvenile detention facility to hold worship. He was reluctant at first.
“I thought it was whack,” Prak said. “I stayed in my room, but I heard the music and was sort of drawn to it, and decided to go the next week.”
Prak continued to associate with gangs until a turning point two years ago when he got shot and decided he had finished with his life of violence. Now he’s working to get his incarcerated friends on the right track.
“I think seeing me gives my friends a sign of hope,” Prak said. “It might seem like it’s far, but I’ve only been doing this for two years. I have friends in here that are so proud and they tell me, ‘I only want to hang with you when I get out.’”
Ludwig, having entered and left jail many times, has a firm grasp on just how important a re-entry program like the one at the House of Corrections is.
“You can have the most positive mindset in the world, but you’re going against the grain, and it’s easier when you have a place to go and support each other. But you’re not going to reach everybody. The participants want to be there, but I tell the ones who don’t, ‘I’m still gonna be here if you change your mind.’ ”
During the seminar, three former enemies from different gangs sat together in the front row. Sullivan said the men were sending a message to the staff of Straight Ahead Ministries and to their fellow inmates: Thanks to the program and the support of the House of Corrections, they’re enemies no longer.